Last month, the National Archives and Records Administration had to retrieve multiple boxes from Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property after the former president brought official correspondence and other items that were supposed to be turned over to the agency to his personal residence.
As first reported by The Washington Post, the boxes contained correspondence between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which Trump once referred to as “love letters.” The letters, sent while Trump was attempting to negotiate over North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons, were the subject of much conjecture during his presidency.
The boxes also contained mementos, gifts and other letters from world leaders, including a letter from former President Barack Obama.
Under the Presidential Records Act, correspondence like letters, memos and other official items are supposed to be handed over to the National Archives after the president leaves office. The president is also tasked with ensuring that documents and other records are able to be preserved and maintained.
Anonymous sources said that discussions about transferring documents to the National Archives began last year. Although Trump’s advisers say that there was no ill intent in not turning over the documents, some officials say that such a late transfer is unprecedented for the agency. Sources have also said that Trump has no concern for complying with the Presidential Records Act.
Experts say that Trump’s records act violations are a threat to both presidential transparency and national security. “The only way that a president can really be held accountable long term is to preserve a record about who said what, who did what, what policies were encouraged or adopted, and that is such an important part of the long-term scope of accountability,” presidential historian Lindsay Chrevinsky told The Washington Post.
If the records include information that is critical for national security, Chrevinsky went on, it is important that they are preserved for future administrations to reference.
The National Archives have had their fair share of issues with Trump’s flippant view of document preservation and transparency in the past.
During his presidency, Trump regularly ripped up documents; White House aides often had to laboriously tape papers back together before sending them to the National Archives. Recent reporting has found that this practice was even more widespread than reporting during Trump’s presidency had suggested.
In what experts say is a clear violation of the records act, Trump often left scraps of paper all over – including in the Oval Office, on Air Force One and in his private study in the West Wing. Aides quickly realized that they couldn’t stop Trump from ripping the documents, so they implemented protocols to streamline the process of puzzling the papers back together in attempts to lessen violations of the records act.
However, recent reporting by The Washington Post has also found that Trump officials would often put documents into “burn bags” to be destroyed. Officials would sift through the papers to decide what should be saved and what should be burned; for instance, documents detailing Trump’s efforts to pressure Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, which were recently requested by the January 6 committee, have been destroyed.
“He didn’t want a record of anything,” a former senior Trump official told The Washington Post. “He never stopped ripping things up. Do you really think Trump is going to care about the records act? Come on.”