- By Christine Stapleton Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
It’s become a daily, White House ritual of sorts: A team of federal employees equipped with rolls of clear tape resume the ongoing, humpty-dumpty task of putting back together pieces of documents that President Donald Trump has torn up. It is a presidential habit that aides have not been able to break — and which apparently extends in reach to his Palm Beach club.
Federal law requires all presidential documents, from diaries to drafts of speeches to scribbled notes, be retained, both for current reference points and for the historical record. But Trump, as laid out in a June 10 article in Politico, isn’t so committed to such record-keeping.
The political journal’s story cited two former employees who stated on the record that the president routinely tears up documents, often shredding them himself. The employees, Solomon Lartey and Reginald Young, Jr., said federal workers collect the pieces of paper from the West Wing and the president’s personal residence and tape the bits of paper back together to restore the historical record as completely as possible.
But what happens when the president rips up documents when he is on a weekend foray to Mar-a-Lago or his Bedminster, N.J., retreat? Or, say, on official diplomatic trips to Singapore or Canada?
Is someone assigned to go through the trash and scour the floors of Mar-a-Lago for pieces of paper when the president visits his private club? It seems so, Lartey said in an interview this week with The Palm Beach Post.
“I remember some paperwork coming back from Florida,” said Lartey, a former records management analyst whose job it was to tape together pieces of documents the president treated like trash. Most of the pieces were newspaper articles the president did not like — including one from a local newspaper in Palm Beach, Lartey said.
Undoubtedly, presidential business has been conducted at Mar-a-Lago, which he has dubbed the Southern White House. During his 17 visits to Mar-a-Lago, Trump ordered a missile strike on Syria and hosted two world leaders, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
He’s also conducted discussions on issues like health care for military veterans. He has hosted Cabinet members. And he has held untold numbers of informal talks with individuals, from business CEOs to celebrities to advocates for all kinds of causes.
Notes of those encounters, or better said, pieces of those notes, have made it back to the records team in Washington.
“I don’t know who the staff member was but I’m quite sure somebody was bringing stuff back,” Lartey said. “You just couldn’t throw it away in the trash.”
The White House did not respond to questions about the administration’s record retention practices when the president visits Mar-a-Lago. Neither did the National Archives.
Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all documents, including memos, letters, notes and emails, for possible inclusion in the National Archives. Documents are gathered, organized and assigned categories. They are then reviewed by officials at the National Archive to determine if they qualify for inclusion in the presidential archive.
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.
The Act places responsibility for the custody and management of presidential records with the president himself. However, the National Archivist is tasked with reviewing presidential records and determining if they can be destroyed.
“The originator of the document does not get to decide what’s important and not important,” said Robert K. Brigham, Boskey Professor of History and International Relations at Vassar College. “Especially the president.”
Handwritten notes and doodles can show a president’s state of mind at a particular moment in history, said Elizabeth A. Cobbs, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Destroying documents also raises suspicion — even if nothing nefarious is going on, Cobbs said.
“The propensity to tear things up suggests secretiveness,” Cobbs said. “Creating a paper-trail…that’s how we build confidence.”
A memo or note that may not seem important now may have significance in the future, said Lee White, Executive Director for the National Coalition for History. President Obama was very serious about keeping everything, White said. Other commanders-in-chief were not so meticulous. About 22 million emails on a private email server were lost — and subsequently found — while President George W. Bush was in office.
President Richard Nixon, who routinely tape recorded conversations in the Oval Office, also did so when he traveled, Bingham said.
“When Nixon traveled to Key Biscayne there were systems in place for capturing what happened,” Bingham said. He recorded many of his conversations with Charles Gregory “Bebe” Rebozo, a Florida banker and businessman who became infamous for being a friend and confidant of Nixon.
While there are no specific procedures that a president must put in place to retain records, Bingham suspects the Trump administration has done so.
As for enforcement of the federal records law, the National Archives, National Security Archive, watchdog groups monitor record-keeping. However, it would take action by Congress hold the executive branch accountable.
Lartey, 54, had worked under several administrations as a records analyst but had never experienced anything like the work he was doing taping together Trump’s ripped up paperwork. Trump tore up so many documents that Lartey and several other staffers worked fulltime taping together documents.
“I said to myself, ‘This is like a puzzle,’” Lartey said.
Lartey was fired on March 23. He said he was given no explanation, just escorted to his car. Later, he was allowed to resign. After 30 years as a civil servant, he had planned to retire in September. He is waiting to hear if he will still receive retirement benefits.
Still, Lartey said clear instructions on record retention were given to the staff of the new administration. But the president kept tearing up documents and articles.
On some documents Lartey could see a stamp that indicated the president had seen the document. One letter, torn into small pieces, came from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer — whom Trump dubbed ‘Cryin’ Chuck Schumer’ on Twitter.
“He (Trump) didn’t understand how this stuff worked,” Lartey said. “Everything is a presidential record, electronic or paper.”
Recordkeeping has been under scrutiny since the first days of the Trump administration.
In June 2017, two government watchdog groups sued Trump and his office, claiming White House staff violated the Presidential Records Act by communicating via confidential encryption applications like Signal and deleting some of the president’s messages on Twitter. That case was dismissed in March of this year.
In October, Politico reported that National Archives officials had periodically warned White House lawyers that the Trump administration must to follow document preservation laws.