Donald Trump and the Presidential Records Act

Because they recorded a lot of their conversations, historians and even ordinary citizens have an amazing amount of insight into what went on behind the scenes during the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. When we add in the voluminous reports that Congress produced during investigations in the mid-to-late 1970s, and the massive amount of declassification that has occurred over time and as a direct result of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, we all have the great good fortune of knowing much more about the inner workings of our government in the 1960s and 1970s than people did at the time.

This hasn’t really helped the reputations of the presidents who served in that era, and recording certainly didn’t work out well for Mr. Nixon. Presidents since that time have been more careful about what they preserve for prosecutors and posterity’s review. But they’re still required to safeguard nearly everything they touch and to turn it over to the National Archives. This obligation is set down in a law called the Presidential Records Act that was passed in 1978 and went into force the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated for the first time.

The digital era has ironically made the preservation of Executive Branch records more challenging. We saw this with Hillary Clinton’s emails from her time as secretary of state and we saw it as well during the administration of George W. Bush. The mingling of personal and official business on government phones and email and chat systems creates a headache, and the mingling of official business and political business creates landmines for compliance with the Hatch Act.

The Bush administration ran afoul of the Presidential Records Act when they provided RNC email services to members of the administration and encouraged them to conduct all political business on those “non-governmental” accounts. Predictably, a lot of official business was conducted on RNC email (often by design to maintain secrecy) and about twenty-two million records were initially lost in the process and unavailable for congressional inquiries and oversight.

To comply with the law, presidents have small teams to preserve records and make sure they are safeguarded. One group is responsible for monitoring the president’s paperwork in the White House and even on the road. They collect it and send it over to a crew in the Old Executive Office Building that Trump inherited from President Obama and Obama inherited from President Bush. The OEOB records management analysts collate everything and send it to the National Archives.

Unfortunately for these record-keepers, Donald Trump came into the presidency with a habit of tearing up any document that displeased him or that he considered no longer of any use. So, the job of collating presidential records quickly became more like a third grade art class.

“We got Scotch tape, the clear kind,” [Solomon] Lartey recalled in an interview. “You found pieces and taped them back together and then you gave it back to the supervisor.” The restored papers would then be sent to the National Archives to be properly filed away.

Lartey said the papers he received included newspaper clips on which Trump had scribbled notes, or circled words; invitations; and letters from constituents or lawmakers on the Hill, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“I had a letter from Schumer — he tore it up,” he said. “It was the craziest thing ever. He ripped papers into tiny pieces.”

Lartey did not work alone. He said his entire department was dedicated to the task of taping paper back together in the opening months of the Trump administration.

One of his colleagues, Reginald Young Jr., who worked as a senior records management analyst, said that during over two decades of government service, he had never been asked to do such a thing.

“We had to endure this under the Trump administration,” Young said. “I’m looking at my director, and saying, ‘Are you guys serious?’ We’re making more than $60,000 a year, we need to be doing far more important things than this. It felt like the lowest form of work you can take on without having to empty the trash cans.”

In March and April, respectively, Solomon Lartey and Reginald Young Jr. were summarily terminated without cause and escorted off the White House grounds. They still have no idea what they did wrong and were told only that they served at the pleasure of the president. It’s possible that they were victims of a plumbing job looking to plug leaks.

The cause of their terminations is a separate concern, however, from the proper preservation of presidential records. Several decades from now, historians and ordinary citizens will be sifting through the Trump administration’s records, just as they often look back today at the records from JFK, Johnson, and Nixon. What they’ll see is a lot of documents that have been pieced back together with Scotch tape.

By that time, memories of the president’s childishness may have faded, but this will be an eternal reminder.

If they want a reminder of the president’s criminality, they may want to look at different documents:

Prosecutors are sifting through every shred of evidence against President Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen — literally.

During a hearing Wednesday regarding the FBI’s raid on Cohen’s law office and residences, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachel Maimin revealed the government was piecing together documents from a paper shredder.

“I don’t believe the contents of the shredding machine are voluminous at all,” Maimin said.

Once reassembled, the shredded papers will be turned over to Cohen’s legal team as part of an ongoing review of his material for attorney-client privilege.

Hopefully, the FBI has a better system for preserving those records than Scotch tape.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.