The Presidential Records Act requires that the White House preserve all written communication related to a president’s official duties – memos, letters, notes, emails, faxes and other material – and turn it over to the National Archives.
Typically, the White House records office makes decisions on archival vs. non-archival materials, according to an Archives official. The Presidential Records Act lays out a process allowing a president to dispose of records only after obtaining the assent of records officials.
It is unclear how many records were lost or permanently destroyed through Trump’s ripping routine, as well as what consequences, if any, he might face. Hundreds of documents, if not more, were likely torn up, those familiar with the practice say.
“It is against the law, but the problem is that the Presidential Records Act, as written, does not have any real enforcement mechanism,” said James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association. “It’s that sort of thing where there’s a law, but who has the authority to enforce the law, and the existing law is toothless.”
One person familiar with the National Archives process said that staff there were stunned at how many papers they received from the Trump administration that were ripped, and described it internally as “unprecedented.”
One senior Trump White House official said he and other White House staffers frequently put documents into “burn bags” to be destroyed, rather than preserving them, and would decide themselves what should be saved and what should be burned. When the January 6 committee asked for certain documents related to Trump’s efforts to pressure vice-president Mike Pence, for example, some of them no longer existed in this person’s files because they had already been shredded, said someone familiar with the request.
Early in the administration, the torn paper became such a problem that the administration officials responsible for records management went to then-White House counsel Donald McGahn and then-deputy White House counsel Stefan Passantino, who handled ethics issues, to urge them to remind Trump and other senior West Wing staff about the importance of preserving documents to comply with the records act.
A former senior administration official said Trump was warned about the records act by McGahn, as well as his first two chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and John Kelly, who lamented to allies that Trump would “rip up everything,” according to a person who heard his comments. Passantino also warned other aides about preserving documents.
Passantino declined to comment. McGahn did not respond to requests for comment.
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Priebus urged aides not to put what he called “crazy” documents on Trump’s desk – articles, for instance, from far-right websites spouting conspiracy theories, according to a person with direct knowledge of his request. He told others that Trump would read them and sometimes tear them up.
“He didn’t want a record of anything,” a former senior Trump official said. “He never stopped ripping things up. Do you really think Trump is going to care about the records act? Come on.”
Problems with records preservation persisted throughout Trump’s term and became particularly acute at the time of the transition to the Biden administration.
Other administrations have also run afoul of the Presidential Records Act. White House aides in both Democratic and Republican administrations, for example, have long used personal devices to text with reporters as well as other staff, rather than government-issued devices, while others have been caught using personal email for official work.
But people familiar with Trump’s conduct said it ran far deeper than occasionally skirting up against the boundaries of the law.
“The biggest takeaway I have from that behaviour is it reflects a conviction that he was above the law,” said presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky. “He did not see himself bound by those things.”
Former aides said Trump was haphazard in what he ripped, often tearing up papers that were not classified or even particularly sensitive. Some said they viewed it more as a quirk and not a deliberate attempt to avoid public scrutiny, in part because he was so indiscriminate with what he tore.
While he occasionally left tiny scraps, three people who watched him described a regular process – he would tear a sheet of paper in half once, and then rip it once more into quarters.
“I have seen Trump tear up papers, not into small, small pieces, but usually twice – so take a piece of paper, rip it once, and then rip it again and then throw it into the garbage pail,” said Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer who in 2018 pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations as well as lying to Congress.
The habit dates back to the former president’s time as a businessman, when he used email extremely rarely. Cohen said that Trump seemed to enjoy the actual process of ripping paper, especially if he did not like the contents of the memo.
“When something irritated him, he would tear the document,” Cohen said. “The physical act of ripping the paper for Donald was cathartic, and it provided him a relief, as if the issue was no longer relevant. Basically, you rip the piece of paper and you’re done – that’s how Donald’s brain works.”
The practice continued into the White House. Aides jokingly referred to “The Boxes” – large boxes filled with reams of paper that Trump often travelled with. Two people familiar with the boxes said they contained a true miscellany of paper – physical newspapers, articles, memos, briefing books, a media summary from the day including printed screenshots of cable news headlines – and that Trump would often rifle through them on long flights.
Sometimes he would read something and sign it in his signature Sharpie, placing it in a folder to be sent to a certain recipient, one of these people said. Other times, he would rip the paper once he was done and toss it on the floor.
This person added that they once saw Trump tear up a piece of paper and then slip it into the pocket of his suit jacket.
Trump’s troubling habit became the focus of internal concern early in his administration, one former Trump official said, when records personnel noticed that a range of official documents logged as going to the Oval Office or the White House residence were not being returned to be filed in accordance with White House record-keeping rules.
When staffers first started going to look for these missing records – which spanned a range of topics, including conversations with foreign leaders – they sometimes found them in a pile of ripped paper in the Oval Office or the White House residence.
But on other occasions torn documents were found in classified burn bags, which are used to dispose of documents, according to one former Trump White House official. Records personnel would routinely dump the contents of burn bags on a table and try to puzzle out which of the torn documents needed to be taped together and preserved, the former official said.
Burn bags, which resemble paper grocery bags, are available throughout the White House complex. There are two types for classified and unclassified material, and different requirements for each in determining what can be destroyed, experts said. The classified bags are marked with diagonal red stripes.
Both types of bags are ultimately destroyed, but the mechanism for how they are destroyed and safeguarded is different. There were regular “burn runs,” in which classified bags would be collected from offices and sent to the Pentagon for incineration.
Grossman said that Trump’s chaotic approach to handling physical documents leaves gaping holes in the historical record, not to mention being disrespectful to the archivists and general public.
“We don’t know how much of it was or was not successfully taped back together,” Grossman said. “Also, how much did the taxpayers pay to have a bunch of highly qualified archivists sit at a desk and tape things back together?”
Some experts also said Trump hurt his own legacy with his document destruction practices – leaving less behind for historians to examine.
“For a president to just wantonly tear things up is just a little shocking, that there’s not even a little egotistical thought about legacy,” Chartier said.
The Washington Post
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