Two government watchdog groups on Thursday called on President Donald Trump to stop his practice of tearing up White House documents and papers. And the head of one of the nation’s foremost historical organizations said he believes Trump is violating federal law.
Presidential historians say they are deeply concerned about published reports that Trump routinely rips up and throws away documents, including while at Mar-a-Lago, saying the practice is a clear violation of a federal law that mandates the preservation of all presidential papers.
“He’s absolutely breaking the law,” said Earl Lewis, President of the Organization of American Historians.
The association has taken legal action in the past to protect public records and may now act to prevent the president from destroying more records, Lewis said.
“We believe in the importance of the president to follow the letter and spirit of the law.”
Trump routinely rips up and throws away documents, saying the practice is a clear violation of a federal law that mandates the preservation of all presidential papers.
Word of the president’s paper-ripping habit broke on June 10 when Politico published an interview with two former White House staffers who said they worked full-time to re-assemble and tape back together papers the president had ripped up. Other staffers in the White House are assigned to retrieve the pieces that Trump leaves on the floor and in trash cans.
Moreover, the Palm Beach Post reported Wednesday that the practice extends to Trump’s visits to his Palm Beach club and residence.
In addition to the OAH’s criticism, two Washington,D.C.,-based government watchdog groups on Thursday asked White House counsel Don McGahn to “take all necessary steps” to ensure the president complies with federal laws that mandate the preservation of all presidential papers.
“Without question, the president’s actions depart significantly from accepted archival preservation practices and risk the loss of critically important papers,” according to two-page letter signed by the executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, CREW, and Austin R. Evers, the Executive Director of American Oversight. “President Trump’s actions place the records of his presidency and that history at risk and, indeed, may violate the law.”
While the groups only suggest the president may be breaking the law, presidential historians troubled that there has been little public outcry. They say presidential papers — even John F. Kennedy’s doodles during the Cuban missile crisis — not only provide the most complete accounting of history but also serve as a check to presidential power and accountability.
Trump’s practice of ripping up papers means a thorough record of his presidency rests with those who dig through the trash and tape the papers back together, said Julian Zelizer, Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University and a CNN political analyst.
“Some people hear about this and say, well this is bad for historians but the real issue is making sure the White House is accountable,” said Zelizer said. “This is about presidential power and accountability.”
The Presidential Records Act requires that all presidential documents, from diaries to drafts of speeches, be retained, both for current reference and the historical record. Although the law gives the president the responsibility for the custody and management of the records, it does not allow him to decide which records should be kept or destroyed.
That power lies with the National Archives and Records Administration, which reviews the records collected by the Executive Office and determines if they qualify for inclusion in the presidential archive.
“Presidents do not have blanket authority to do what they want with those materials,” said Robert Dallek, a Pulitzer Prize winning author and presidential historian who has authored and edited over 40 books.
Dallek testified during hearings about whether Richard Nixon’s records belonged to his family or the government.
Nixon’s family wanted to sell the documents. When asked their worth, Dallek said he did not know but selling them would be “a terrible blow to American history.” The court ruled the documents belong to the government, Dallek said.
“Trump should be informed that this is something he is not allowed to do,” Dallek said.
The records law dates back to 1978, and was a measure responding to the Watergate era and the infamous Nixon White House tape recordings. In particular, one 18-minute recording that went blank.
George Washington was the first president to acknowledge that a president’s papers belong to the public, said presidential historian Robert Watson. President Harry Truman also insisted that his papers belonged to the public. President Barack Obama was such a stickler that he retained many records that were not deemed public.
“What Trump is doing is completely illegal and without any precedent in modern times,” Watson said. “The public has the right to everything, warts and pimples.”
Solomon Lartey, a former White House staffer who worked fulltime piecing together the president’s torn papers said many of the documents he pieced back together again were articles that the president did not like. Lartey said the president often circled portions he disagreed with and then wrote notes on the article.
There was also a letter from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, which Trump tore into little pieces, Lartey said. Some days there were so many pieces of paper that more than 10 staffers worked fulltime to tape them back together, Lartey recalled.
“We were sworn not to tell anybody about our situation,” Lartey said.
The question now is, who is responsible for making sure the president complies?
The National Archives could take action. However, the National Archivist is appointed by the president.
Non-government groups, such as CREW and American Oversight could also take legal action.
Last year CREW and the National Security Archives sued Trump and the Executive Office, alleging the White House’s use of confidential messaging apps and the destruction of the president’s tweets violated the act.
Congress, also could act.
“Congress isn’t doing much oversight these days,” Zelizer said. “There has to be some kind of political pressure.”