Donald Trump has come under fire for his tendency to rip up government documents in direct violation of the law. The former president reportedly enjoyed ripping up reports, especially ones he didn’t like, despite statutes explicitly prohibiting the destruction of presidential records. Under the Presidential Records Act, all documents handled by the president are a matter of public ownership. It requires that the president and his staff preserve important government documents from the White House and, upon their exit, hand them over to the National Archives. It does, however, allow certain records to be destroyed or disposed of once the president determines they are of no administrative, political or historical significance. But there’s a catch. The president must receive written considerations from the archivist of the United States for said documents, and Trump had no such written approval.
The initial reporting came after the January 6th Commission received documents from the White House, some of which were ripped and taped back together by White House Staff. In a statement to CNN, the National Archives, which received the documents from the White House and eventually turned them over to the Commission, explained that the former president was the likely culprit for the ripping, saying “some of the Trump presidential records received by the National Archives and Records Administration included paper records that had been torn up by former President Trump.” While it was not initially clear how they knew Trump was doing the ripping, later reporting showed that Trump’s habit of destroying government property was not a secret among his staffers.
According to The Washington Post, Trump reportedly made a habit of ripping paper, including briefings, schedules, articles, and letters, among other documents. The sensitivity of those documents appears not to have been a concern for the Trump White House. Nor was it the first time that reporters heard of this tendency.
In 2018, Politico reported that experienced staffers, many of whom had decades of experience working in government, were tasked with taking piles of ripped-up records and taping them back together. One of them, Solomon Lartey, a records management analyst, was tasked with repairing these illegally damaged records for the first five months of Trump’s presidency. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, also expressed his outrage while also explaining that our current laws are too lenient “It is against the law, but the problem is that the Presidential Records Act, as written, does not have any real enforcement mechanism….”
Staffers repeatedly tried to ease Trump off his habit of ripping government documents, but he kept doing it. According to the Post, aides from the Office of the Staff Secretary and the Oval Office Operations team would have to go over to the White House to retrieve documents before they were ripped or pick the pieces up after he had finished ripping them and put them back together. The problem got so bad that Reince Priebus and John Kelly told Trump directly that he needed to stop ripping the documents. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, went so far as to describe the process of ripping as being “cathartic” to Trump.
In a similar vein, Trump administration officials had a series of documents Trump took with him to Mara Lago, which national archives officials had to retrieve and take from Trump’s residence. Some of the documents include letters to Kim Jong Un, a letter from Former President Obama, and much more.
Considering all of this, some may argue that it doesn’t matter. The records are at the behest of the president to do with these documents as he likes. That position is blatantly false. None of those papers was Trump’s property. Nor were they property of the Republican Party or their affiliates. They were the property of the American government and its people. They also belong to history. Laws like the Presidential Records Act help preserve these records for people to use and help ensure that American historical artifacts, including presidential documents, are available for public curation and criticism. Trump wasn’t just destroying property he didn’t own; he was destroying pieces of the historical record. Quite literally, he was destroying American history before it could even be written.
Had there been more attention on this problem several years ago, then maybe some sort of injunction could’ve been imposed against Trump and his allies. But now, all we can do is hope that Congress sees fit to reform the presidential records act because clearly, it is insufficient. Americans not only have to start demanding greater protections for our property, and it is our property, but also should demand that the Trump aides should be investigated and forced to testify.