Trump officials can testify in inquiries into efforts to subvert election outcome and Jan. 6 riot, Justice Dept. says.
The Justice Department notified former officials this week that they could testify to the various committees investigating the Trump administration’s efforts to subvert the results of the presidential election and the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, according to a letter obtained by The New York Times.
Witnesses can give “unrestricted testimony” to the House Oversight and Reform Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, the department said. Both panels are scrutinizing the bid by officials in the Trump White House to force the Justice Department to undermine President Biden’s victory, as well as the events leading up to the Capitol riot, as Congress convened to formally tally the electoral results.
The officials learned in May that they could provide information about how the department planned for and responded to the vote certification on Jan. 6, according to the letter.
The decision runs counter to the views of former President Donald J. Trump, who has argued that his decisions and deliberations are protected by executive privilege. It also sets up a potential court battle if Mr. Trump sues to block any testimony, which would force the courts to determine the extent to which a former president can be protected by privilege.
Mr. Trump’s supporters have argued that a president cannot function if privilege can be taken away by a successor, exposing sensitive decision-making and opening up the previous administration to scrutiny. But others say that the matter is settled law, and that privilege does not apply to extraordinary circumstances.
In his last weeks in office, Mr. Trump pressured Justice Department officials to overturn the results of the election, asking them to examine claims of vote tampering that investigators said they had already determined to be false.
“Department lawyers, including those who have left the department, are obligated to protect nonpublic information they learned in the course of their work,” the department said in its letter, which was signed by Bradley Weinsheimer, a top career official in the deputy attorney general’s office.
“The extraordinary events in this matter constitute exceptional circumstances warranting an accommodation to Congress,” he wrote, noting that the information sought by Congress was directly related to the question of whether Mr. Trump tried to use the Justice Department to advance his “personal political interests.”
The department told former officials that they could provide unrestricted testimony “so long as the testimony is confined to the scope of the interviews set forth by the committees” and does not reveal grand-jury information, classified information or pending criminal cases.
The Senate Judiciary and the House Oversight and Reform Committees have asked a few Trump-era Justice Department officials to disclose the pressures they faced to undermine faith in the election outcome or seek to overturn it in the courts, as well as how the department responded to the Jan. 6 attack.
Those negotiations were effectively stalled as the Justice Department decided how much former officials were allowed to reveal. Many of their conversations and actions were potentially covered by privileges that the department has long protected to keep executive branch deliberations confidential.
The Justice Department decided to let former officials testify after consulting with the White House Counsel’s Office, given that such an authorization could force current and future administrations to publicly reveal deliberative information, according to its letter.
In an unusual move, the White House Counsel’s Office said that it would not be appropriate to assert executive privilege because of the topics that the committees wished to explore, the department told the former officials.
While Mr. Trump’s lawyers invoked executive privilege to keep the officials from testifying, the White House Counsel's Office noted that precedent indicated that such privilege was meant to be a benefit to the country, rather than the president as an individual.
The Justice Department said in its letter that the decision was “unique to the facts and circumstances of this particular matter.”
Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, the chairwoman of the House oversight committee, said she was pleased with the Justice Department’s move and that she expected “prompt cooperation from these witnesses.”
“I am committed to getting to the bottom of the previous administration’s attempts to subvert the Justice Department and reverse a free and fair election,” she said in a statement.
Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who leads the Judiciary Committee, said on Twitter that he was working to schedule interviews with the officials.
The Justice Department is still sending the committee documents related to its inquiry, according to a committee aide. Documents sent to the congressional panels this summer revealed that Mr. Trump and his chief of staff, Mark Meadows, were pressuring Jeffrey A. Rosen, the acting attorney general, to investigate claims of election fraud that investigators had found to be baseless.
In January, Mr. Durbin opened an investigation into involvement by Justice Department officials in efforts to reverse Mr. Trump’s election loss. This spring, he asked the National Archives for communications and records related to meetings between the White House and the Justice Department concerning those efforts.
In parallel with the congressional inquiries, the Justice Department’s inspector general is examining how Mr. Trump and the White House pressured former department officials during their final days in office. Mr. Trump has argued that executive privilege prevents former officials from cooperating with the inspector general, but those officials are likely to consider the Justice Department’s contrary view in deciding whether to provide information.