Select committee effort to obtain RNC files faces appeals court test

Three federal appeals court judges are all that stand between the Jan. 6 select committee and a batch of Republican Party records that could shed light on how the party capitalized on — and amplified — Donald Trump’s effort to sow doubt about the results of the 2020 election.

All three of them are Trump appointees.

In a twist of fate that could weigh heavily on the select committee’s public hearings slated for next month, the committee’s attempt to obtain Republican National Committee records rests with Judges Neomi Rao, Gregory Katsas and Justin Walker, Trump’s only three picks to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals. The randomly drawn panel is set to decide whether to grant a temporary reprieve to the RNC, which was dealt an eye-opening defeat by a District Court judge — himself a Trump appointee — earlier this month.

The RNC is seeking a stay of the lower-court decision by Wednesday.

“Without an injunction, the RNC will have no opportunity to obtain relief on appeal, as Salesforce has indicated it will respond to the Subpoena,” attorney Christopher Murray wrote for the RNC, referring to the third-party vendor that houses many of the RNC’s internal records and analytics.

On Monday evening, the House select committee pleaded with the three appeals court jurists with a simple pitch: Stay out of our way. Anything less, the committee argued, would risk interfering with a probe of an “ongoing threat to democracy.”

“The House Defendants are at a critical juncture, as the Select Committee is rapidly approaching public hearings and is attempting to promptly complete its investigative efforts, given the gravity of the attack on Congress as an institution, the people who sought to protect it, and the Constitutional functions occurring that day,” House Counsel Douglas Letter wrote in a 14-page filing.

“Further delay in obtaining the materials sought by the subpoena could obscure key facts and affect Congress’ efforts to prevent January 6th from recurring in our rapidly approaching next election cycle, or in the future.”

The three judges are Trump’s only picks on the 11-member court, which is shorthanded after one Clinton appointee took senior status and Obama appointee Ketanji Brown Jackson stepped back from handling cases while she awaits her ascension to the Supreme Court.

If the select committee loses the stay decision from the panel, it could appeal to the full bench of the appeals court or the Supreme Court for a final decision — but with its hearing schedule approaching, any setback could prevent it from obtaining the RNC’s data in time.

The pitch to the appeals court is the culmination of a three-month legal battle between the select committee, the RNC and Salesforce. The select committee subpoenaed Salesforce for those records in February, prompting the RNC to file suit.

The committee says it wants records that would show the metrics of RNC fundraising campaigns in the weeks after the 2020 election — while Trump was pushing lies about the results — to show how many eyeballs the committee drew to those claims, particularly after federal and state courts had largely swept them aside. The panel also wants the identities of RNC staffers who accessed Salesforce’s system in those crucial weeks. Shortly after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Salesforce stopped hosting RNC fundraising efforts and worried publicly that its platform may have been used in ways that furthered the violence.

The RNC rejected the select committee’s effort to obtain its records via Salesforce, claiming the select committee — run predominantly by Democratic lawmakers — was seeking to obtain a political advantage by gaining insight into sensitive fundraising strategies and donor information. The information at issue, the party argued, would permit Democrats to create a “mosaic” of sensitive GOP information about its digital strategy and risk exposing donor identities.

But U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Kelly, a Trump appointee, ruled May 1 that the RNC’s fears were overstated. He said the select committee had clarified that it was not seeking “disaggregated” donor information and had tailored its request narrowly enough to remain focused on the purpose of its investigation: understanding the causes of the mob attack on the Capitol.

In a landmark ruling, Kelly swept aside multiple complaints by the RNC, claiming that the party’s constitutional rights would be violated if he ruled in favor of the Jan. 6 committee. He also rejected procedural claims that the select committee was improperly constituted because it lacked appointees of House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who withdrew his selections after Speaker Nancy Pelosi refused to seat two of them, citing their direct connection to the events in question. (Pelosi selected two other Republican lawmakers.)

Kelly also took the extraordinary step of rejecting the RNC’s effort to delay the effect of his ruling, determining that a stay of the decision would damage the committee’s time-sensitive attempt to discover the truth of what took place. But he threw the RNC one lifeline: He granted a stay until May 25, so the committee could seek a stay at the appeals court level.

On Monday, that case landed before Katsas, Rao and Walker. Their decision about whether to grant a stay to the select committee is likely to determine whether the panel gets the information at all.

The select committee is slated to begin a series of public hearings on June 9 laying out the findings of its investigation. It’s hopeful to weave in data related to the RNC into those hearings and conclusions.

In an emergency motion for an injunction pending appeal, the RNC also urged the appeals court to take up the case on an expedited basis, which it argued would assuage the committee’s concerns about prohibitive delays.

“The district court’s failure to defend this constitutionally protected information will weaponize congressional subpoenas for use by political foes — here, by the majority party against the minority party,” Murray wrote in the filing.