There’s growing concern among historians and political analysts that missing documents will leave a hole in the record of President Donald Trump’s term, one of America’s most tumultuous presidencies.
Trump has been cavalier about the law requiring that records be preserved. White House staffers say he has a habit of ripping up documents before tossing them out, forcing them 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, 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 held up an acknowledgement of Joe Biden’s victory, is delaying the transfer of documents to the National Archives and Records Administration.
“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 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.
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.
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 January 20, as required by law. But Trump’s reluctance to concede has meant they will miss the deadline.
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.