After one of the most divisive and polemical presidencies in modern history, it is crucial that the American people have access to the records and decision-making processes of the Trump administration. Unfortunately, it is clear now that many of those records were illegally destroyed in direct violation of federal law.
Following President Richard Nixon’s refusal to hand over his presidential records after his unprecedented resignation, it became clear to Congress and the American public that the law needed a change. Prior to Nixon’s presidency, a United States president had full discretion over how to handle his records from his service in office. This changed in 1978 when President Carter signed the Presidential Records Act (PRA) into law. The law transferred ownership of presidential records to the public and no longer allowed former presidents to keep records from office.
The Presidential Records Act recognizes the importance of maintaining an accurate and complete account of history. Had Nixon been allowed to keep his records private, the public and congress may never have understood the details surrounding Watergate and lacked critical knowledge of a president who broke the law while in office. This law speaks directly to the idea that the entire government is held accountable to the public and that every citizen is equal in the eyes of the law.
According to numerous reports from staffers in the Trump White House, there was widespread disregard for the law when it came to preserving presidential records. It was common practice for President Trump to tear apart documents when he was finished with them and toss them away instead of preserving them. Staffers would supposedly take piles of documents and frequently put them in “burn bags”, special paper bags which were transported to the Department of Defense to be incinerated.
Among the records that the National Archives did receive following the Trump presidency, were a number of documents which were taped back together after having been torn apart by President Trump. Furthermore, the National Archives recently retrieved more than a dozen boxes of documents from Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s current residence, that he had taken from the white house following his electoral defeat. In order to retrieve these boxes, the National Archives agency supposedly had to threaten to involve the DOJ or Congress if Trump did not give up the records.
The effects of President trump’s actions are already impeding Congressional investigations today. As the US House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack works to fully understand what transpired during the attempted insurrection of the Capital, they are struggling to understand exactly what President Trump did and said on January 6. According to the House committee, the White House call logs of President Trump are missing a number of phone calls that President Trump supposedly took. Without having all the pertinent information, the House committee may struggle to pull together a comprehensive and fully detailed account of what President Trump was doing during the capital riots.
Coverage of President Trump’s mishandling of government records has recently reached a head, as just this past week, on February 9th, the National Archives officially asked the Department of Justice to open an investigation into former President Donald Trump. Whether or not the Department will formally open an investigation remains to be seen. Even if no investigation is launched, it remains clear that the spirit of the PRA was weakened under the Trump presidency.
When considering American democracy and all the issues that it faces, a president’s handling of governmental records while in office may not immediately come to mind. In fact, to some this may seem like a relatively insignificant error on the part of the President and not warranting of a public outcry. To believe that would be misguided and it would miss the main issue at hand. The simple act of saving documents and following the Presidential Records Act speaks to a president’s understanding that they are not above the law and must follow rules like everyone else. If a president struggles to follow even the most mundane and procedural of laws while in office, how can the public expect them to follow laws when the stakes are higher?
It is crucial to the preservation of this country that we learn from past mistakes and can hold public servants accountable. The Presidential Records Act speaks directly to this idea and was created to combat said mistakes. Whether the Trump administration ever faces consequences for their mishandling of government documents and their apparent neglect of the PRA, it is at the very least known that this transpired and that the law was broken. And knowing that the president can flaunt the law and do as they please with apparent impunity, signals that this democracy has a serious issue at hand.