Following the retrieval of records from former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, the National Archives and Records Administration has made a formal request for the Department of Justice (DOJ) to look into Trump’s handling of records during and after his time in office.
Such an inquiry could possibly lead to criminal charges against Trump, as tampering with official documents is in violation of the Presidential Records Act, though experts say that this is unlikely.
Fifteen boxes of material from Trump’s time as president were recovered from his Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Beach, Flordia. That these boxes were in Trump’s possession rather than with the National Archives is a violation of the law.
Although the contents of the boxes are largely unknown, sources with knowledge of the retrieval have said that they include keepsakes from Trump’s presidential tenure, such as letters from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Those sources have also said that it’s possible that the boxes contained classified materials.
Past presidents have violated the Presidential Records Act in minor ways, sometimes mistakenly, by bringing pieces of White House memorabilia to their post-presidential residences. But the amount of records Trump kept after his departure from office is unusually high.
Trump’s handling of presidential documents, both inside and out of the White House, has attracted renewed attention after the House select committee investigating the January 6 Capitol attack started receiving documents from the National Archives that were relevant to their inquiry. Several documents that were handed over to the committee, which were once handled by Trump, were ripped up and had to be taped back together in order to be read.
This further confirms reporting from Politico in 2018, which detailed how Trump staffers often had to repair ripped documents after he tore them up or otherwise disposed of them.
The January 6 commission isn’t the only House committee looking into Trump’s mishandling of White House documents. Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-New York), chair of the House Oversight Committee, has requested information from Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero in order to “examine the extent and impact” of Trump’s defiance of the Presidential Records Act.
New details revealing the extent to which Trump sought to dispose of official records have emerged from a number of sources — including from a new book by New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman, who reports that Trump clogged White House toilets by attempting to flush documents down the pipes.
There are also as-yet unfounded allegations that Trump ate papers, rather than have them be turned over. All of these actions are seemingly in violation of the Presidential Records Act.
Although penalties for violating the rule include huge fines or even several years of imprisonment, experts have said that enforcement of the act is difficult.
“The problem is that the Presidential Records Act, as written, does not have any real enforcement mechanism,” said James Grossman of the American Historical Association, noting that the law acts more like a “gentleman’s agreement” than anything else.
“You can’t prosecute for just tearing up papers,” added former House counsel Charles Tiefer. “You would have to show [Trump] being highly selective and have evidence that he wanted to behave unlawfully.”