He might be. The National Archives and Records Administration has asked the Justice Department to examine the former president’s handling of White House records.
The Archives’ request came after officials recovered 15 boxes of materials from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence that were not handed over to the government as the Archives says was required by law. To make matters worse, Trump turned over some White House records that had been ripped up and taped back together.
And that might not be all. The Archives believes that some of the documents Trump took from the White House contain classified information.
However, as long as Trump was president, he had the authority to declassify any government information. It is not clear — at least to media sources — whether Trump declassified the material before his term in office expired. If he didn’t and if he removed classified material, that’s a serious problem.
Let’s circle back to the torn documents. What’s the story with them?
Former Trump staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman says that while Trump was president, he sometimes tore up documents after meetings. His unfortunate subordinates, knowing that this was improper under record retention requirements, reportedly stayed behind and pieced them back together as best they could.
The White House fired Manigault Newman. She might not be a reliable source.
However, Manigault Newman isn’t the only White House staffer who has talked about Trump’s penchant for tearing up documents. And if he’s responsible for ripping up the torn documents that have been retrieved, it’s fair to wonder whether there are other documents he ripped up that his staff wasn’t able to salvage. (For what it’s worth, Manigault Newman says she once saw Trump tear up a note and eat it. That’s one way to stymie those pesky staffers.)
Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails, and papers that the president touches, and send them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records. As a matter of law, these materials belong to the public, not the president. It seems likely that Trump violated this requirement.
What was in the 15 boxes of material that Trump took to Florida? According to the Washington Post:
The materials. . .recovered included correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Trump once described as “love letters,” as well as a letter left for Trump by President Barack Obama, people familiar with the matter said.
The National Archives also retrieved a map of Hurricane Dorian that had been altered with a black marker by Trump in a failed attempt to show he had not been wrong about the storm’s path, according to a person familiar with the contents of the boxes.
I assume Trump’s letters to the North Korean president are classified — again, unless Trump declassified them while he was still president.
Will Trump be prosecuted for violating document retention requirements and/or illegally possessing classified documents (assuming he did not timely declassify them). It’s too early to say, but my guess is, probably not. According to the Post:
Substantiating a criminal case against Trump — and perhaps even launching a criminal investigation — could be difficult. Legal experts and analysts have noted that the National Archives lacks a real enforcement mechanism, and all recent administrations have had some violations of federal records laws — most often involving the use of unofficial email and telephone accounts.
I guess. But have other presidents made it a practice to tear up and attempt to discard documents they were legally required to retain? Have they taken papers that document their dealings with a major foreign adversary to their residence after leaving office? Not that I know of.
During the 2016 campaign, Ted Cruz spoke of Trump’s troubled relationship with the truth. (Later in the campaign, he was more blunt about this.) Trump had already demonstrated the troubled nature of that relationship before Cruz brought it up, and he has demonstrated it many times since.
Documents have a close relationship with the truth. Sometimes they are the truth. Other times they are instrumental in determining what the truth is.
Thus, we shouldn’t be surprised if it turns out that Trump has a troubled relationship with documents, or at least trouble meeting legal requirements pertaining to their retention.