Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Will Trump's Mishandling of Records Leave a Hole in History?

Will Trump's Mishandling of Records Leave a Hole in History?

Sunday, 17 January, 2021 - 13:45
In this Jan. 8, 2020, file photo President Donald Trump arrives to address the nation from the White House on the ballistic missile strike that Iran launched against Iraqi air bases housing US. troops in Washington. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci, File)

The public won´t see President Donald Trump´s White House records for years, but there´s growing concern the collection won´t be complete, leaving a hole in the history of one of America´s most tumultuous presidencies, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Trump has been cavalier about the law requiring that records be preserved. He has a habit of ripping up documents before tossing them out, forcing White House records workers to spend hours taping them back together.

"They told him to stop doing it. He didn´t want to stop," said Solomon Lartey, a former White House records analyst. He said the first document he taped back together was a letter from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., about a government shutdown.

The president also confiscated an interpreter´s notes after Trump had a chat with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Trump scolded his White House counsel for taking notes at a meeting during the Russia investigation by former special counsel Robert Mueller. Top executive branch officials had to be reminded more than once not to conduct official business on private email or text messaging systems and to preserve it if they did.

And now, Trump's baseless claim of widespread voter fraud, which postponed for weeks an acknowledgment of President-elect Joe Biden's victory, is delaying the transfer of documents to the National Archives and Records Administration, further heightening concern about the integrity of the records.

"Historians are likely to suffer from far more holes than has been the norm," said Richard Immerman at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. In the Trump White House, "not only has record-keeping not been a priority, but we have multiple examples of it seeking to conceal or destroy that record."

Lack of a complete record might also hinder any ongoing investigations of Trump, from his impeachment trial and other prospective federal inquiries to investigations in the state of New York.

But even with requests by lawmakers and lawsuits by government transparency groups, there is an acknowledgment that noncompliance with the Presidential Records Act carries little consequence for Trump.

In tossing out one suit last year, US Circuit Judge David Tatel wrote that courts cannot "micromanage the president´s day-to-day compliance."

The Presidential Records Act states that a president cannot destroy records until he seeks the advice of the national archivist and notifies Congress. But the law doesn´t require him to heed the archivist's advice. It doesn't prevent the president from going ahead and destroying records.

Most presidential records today are electronic. Records experts estimate that automatic backup computer systems capture a vast majority of the records, but cannot capture records that a White House chooses not to create or log into those systems.

Moving a president´s trail of paper and electronic records is a laborious task. President Barack Obama left about 30 million pages of paper documents and some 250 terabytes of electronic records, including the equivalent of about 1.5 billion pages of emails.

The records of past presidents are important because they can help a current president craft new policies and prevent mistakes from being repeated.

"Presidential records tell our nation´s story from a unique perspective and are essential to an incoming administration in making informed decisions," said Lee White, director of the National Coalition for History. "They are equally vital to historians."

When Trump lost the November election, records staffers were in position to transfer electronic records, pack up the paper ones and move them to the National Archives by Jan. 20, as required by law. But Trump´s reluctance to concede has meant they will miss the deadline.

White House spokesman Judd Deere said Saturday that contesting the election did not cause the delay in getting the president´s records transferred to the archives and that guidance was available to staffers on how to pack up their materials.

One person familiar with the transition said guidance typically emailed to executive branch employees explaining how to turn in equipment and pack up their offices was sent out in December, but quickly rescinded because Trump insisted on contesting the election.

With little guidance, some staffers in the White House started quietly calling records workers to find out what to do.

Departing employees are instructed to create a list of folders in each box and make a spreadsheet to give the National Archives a way to track and retrieve the information for the incoming Biden team. The process gets more complex with classified material.

The Biden administration can request to see Trump records immediately, but the law says the public must wait five years before submitting Freedom of Information Act requests. Even then, Trump - like other presidents before him - is invoking specific restrictions to public access of his records for up to 12 years. Six restrictions outlined in the law include national security, confidential business information, confidential communications between the president and his advisers or among his advisers, and personal information.

Editor Picks