Will Trump’s mishandling of records leave a hole in history?

Deb Riechmann

WASHINGTON (AP) — The public won’t see United States (US) 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.

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 former White House records analyst Solomon Lartey. He said the first document he taped back together was a letter from Senator 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 postponed for weeks an acknowledgement of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, is delaying the transfer of documents to the National Archives and Records Administration, and 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”.

People wait for a van after boxes were moved out of the Eisenhower Executive Office building inside the White House complex in Washington. PHOTOS:AP
This file photo shows President Donald Trump arriving to address the nation from the White House

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. Former 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 Director of the National Coalition for History Lee White. “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 January 20, as required by law. But Trump’s reluctance to concede has meant they will miss the deadline.

“Necessary funding from the (White House) Office of Management and Budget was delayed for many weeks after the election, which has caused delays in arranging for the transfer of the Trump presidential records into the National Archives’ custody,” the National Archives said in a statement to The Associated Press.

“Even though the transfer of these records will not be completed until after January 20, the National Archives will assume legal custody of them on January 20 in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.”