Washington The public will not see White House records of President Donald Trump for years, but there is growing concern that the group will not be completed, leaving a gap in the history of one of America’s most tumultuous presidencies.
Trump was arrogant about the record-keeping law. He has a habit of shredding documents before disposing of them, forcing White House workers to spend hours recording them together.
They told him to stop doing that. “He didn’t want to stop,” said Solomon Laarte, a former White House records analyst. He said the first document he recorded together was a message from Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, about shutting down the government.
The president also confiscated an interpreter’s diary after Trump had a conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump berated his attorney at the White House for taking notes at a meeting during the Russian investigation with former special counsel Robert Mueller. Senior executives had to be reminded more than once not to conduct and maintain official business on private email or text messaging systems if they did.
Now, Trump’s unfounded allegation of widespread voter fraud, which delayed recognition for President-elect Joe Biden for weeks, is delaying the transfer of documents to the National Archives and Records Administration, raising concerns about the integrity of the records.
“Historians are likely to suffer a lot more holes than usual,” said Richard Emman of the Association of Historians of American Foreign Relations. In the Trump White House, “record keeping was not only a priority, but we have multiple examples of him seeking to conceal or destroy this record.”
The lack of a complete record could impede any ongoing investigations of Trump, from his trial and other potential federal investigations to investigations in New York state.
But even with requests from lawmakers and lawsuits by government transparency groups, there is recognition that failure to comply with the Presidential Records Act has few consequences for Trump.
In dismissing one case last year, US Circuit Judge David Tatel wrote that the courts cannot “manage the president’s day-to-day compliance.”
The Presidential Records Act provides that the president may not destroy records until he requests the advice of the National Archives Secretary and notifies Congress. But the law does not oblige him to adhere to the archivist’s advice. It doesn’t stop the boss from going ahead and destroying the records.
Most presidential records today are electronic. Records experts estimate that automatic backup computer systems capture the vast majority of records, but they cannot capture records that the White House chooses not to create or log into with.
Transferring paper and electronic records to the president is a daunting task. President Barack Obama left about 30 million pages of paper documents and about 250 terabytes of electronic records, including the equivalent of 1.5 billion pages of emails.
Records of past presidents are important because they can help the incumbent president formulate new policies and prevent mistakes from recurring.
“Presidential records tell the story of our nation from a unique perspective and are essential for the incoming administration to make informed decisions,” said Lee White, director of the National Coalition for History. “They are equally important to historians.”
When Trump lost the November election, records officers were in a position to transfer electronic records, fill out paper records, and transfer them to the National Archives by Jan.20, as required by law. But Trump’s reluctance to concede means they will miss the deadline.
The National Archives said in a statement: “The necessary funding from the (White House) Office of Administration and Budget was delayed for several weeks after the elections, which caused delay in arranging the transfer of Trump’s presidential records to the custody of the National Archives.” Statement to the Associated Press. “Although the transfer of these records will not be completed until after January 20, the National Archives will take legal custody of them on January 20 in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the preservation of Trump’s records.
A person familiar with the move said directives typically emailed to executive branch employees explaining how to deliver equipment and their office packages were sent in December, but quickly canceled because Trump insisted on running.
With a little direction, some employees of the White House began quietly calling the registry workers to find out what to do.
Departing employees are required to create a list of folders in each box and create a spreadsheet to give the National Archives a way to track and retrieve information for the next Biden team. The process gets more complex with sorts of materials.
The Biden administration can request to see Trump’s records right away, but the law requires the public to wait five years before filing FOIA requests. Until then, Trump – like other presidents before him – has demanded specific restrictions on public access to his records for up to 12 years. Six specific restrictions in the law include national security, confidential business information, confidential communications between the president and his advisers or between his advisers and personal information.
Another person familiar with the process said that around Trump’s first trial and in other sensitive cases, some normal business practices have been bypassed. Apparently, this person said, worried about the leaks, and senior officials and White House attorneys became more involved in identifying and scanning material in the White House computer networks where they are automatically archived.
Individuals, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal business publicly in the White House, said that if the non-indexed material ended up in a secure office, for example, it would be at least temporarily filed. But if it was never indexed in the first place, employees wouldn’t know it was there, making this material untraceable.
White House employees soon learned that Trump was ignoring the documents when they saw him ripping and disposing of them.
“My manager came to me and said, ‘You have to record these things together,” said Laarte, a former record analyst.
Laarte said that someone in the White House Chief of Staff’s office told the president that the documents are presidential records and need to be preserved under law. Larty said about 10 records employees ended up making scotch tape at various times, from Trump’s early days at the White House through at least mid-2018.
Trump employees have also engaged in questionable practices using emails and private messaging apps. Former White House counselor Don McGann in February 2017 sent a memorandum requiring employees not to use unofficial text messaging apps or private email accounts. If they do, he said, they should take screenshots of the material and copy them to their saved official email accounts. He sent the memo again in September 2017.
“It’s an open question to me about how serious or conscientious any of these people are about relocating them,” said Tom Blanton, who directs the National Security Archives at George Washington University, which was founded in 1985 to combat government secrecy.
Trump has been criticized for confiscating notes of a translator he was with in 2017 when the president spoke with Putin in Hamburg, Germany. Lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to obtain notes from another translator who was with Trump in 2018 when he met Putin in Helsinki, Finland. It is unclear whether the two presidents spoke about Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections. Many people suspected the topic was brought up because at a press conference afterward, Trump said he believed Putin when Putin denied the Russian interference even though US intelligence agencies found The opposite.
Several weeks ago, the National Security Archive, two historical societies and the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics Association in Washington filed a lawsuit to prevent the White House from destroying any communications or electronic records sent or received on unofficial accounts, such as personal email or WhatsApp.
They also claimed that the White House had already destroyed presidential articles.
The court refused to issue a temporary restraining order after government attorneys told the judge that they had instructed the White House to notify all employees to preserve all electronic communications in their original form until the lawsuit was settled.
“I think we’re going to find that there’s going to be a huge hole in this president’s historical record because I think there might have been a serious non-compliance with the Presidential Records Act,” said Ann Weisman, one of the lawyers representing the groups in the lawsuit. “I don’t think President Trump cares about his record and what he says. I think he might care, though, what he might say about his criminal conviction.”
Trump faces several legal challenges when he leaves the White House. There are two inquiries from New York State about whether he misled the tax authorities, banks, or business partners. Two women are also suing him, alleging he sexually assaulted them.
Destroy or save history
Presidential records were considered the personal property of the president until the Watergate scandal under President Richard Nixon prompted Congress in 1978 to pass the Presidential Records Act out of concern that Nixon would destroy the White House records that led to his resignation.
After that, presidential records are no longer the personal property of but the property of the American people – if they are preserved. Lawmakers have introduced legislation that requires audits of record keeping at the White House and compliance with the law.
“The American public should not wait for the president to leave office to find out about the problems with this president’s record-keeping practices,” Weizmann said.
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