Last week, the National Archives confirmed what The Washington Post, in a classic understatement, labeled Donald Trump’s “unusual” habit of ripping up official government documents.
Time after time, sensitive documents, that were legally required to be kept intact and which ought to have been deposited with the National Archives, were torn into tiny pieces and thrown to the White House floor. Following these childish displays of petulance and/or ignorance of protocol, Trump’s staffers had to perform the absurd and degrading job of sweeping up and storing the pieces so as to try to keep the most powerful man on Earth out of more legal jeopardy, since destroying and making disappear government documents is, obviously, a crime, a violation of the Presidential Records Act. And, once the gophers had rescued the fragments, lowly paid civil servants were then given the unenviable job of scotch taping them back together again.
At first glance, there is something humorous about this image, something of the childish, drunken, rules-flouting ne’er-do-well billionaire in the 1981 movie Arthur. But Dudley Moore’s character in that movie was, ultimately, loveable — and redeemable. Think about Trump’s actions for a New York minute, and there’s precious little loveable about them, nor is there anything visibly redeemable in Trump’s snarling, vindictive personality. In fact, there seems to be a deep-rooted humiliation instinct playing itself out here. These are the actions of a man who doesn’t care about wasting his underlings’ time; doesn’t worry about the messes that he makes and the fact that other people inevitably have to clean those messes up; doesn’t pause to consider how other people feel when they step in to protect his rear-end from the trouble that he routinely, almost deliberately, gets himself into.
As president, Lyndon Johnson would frequently hold discussions with underlings while on the toilet, or while toweling off after a shower. He did so, apparently, to show, in the crudest way possible, who was boss. Trump’s paper-shredding frenzies, and his subordinates’ back-bending labors to rectify the damage, fit the same unpleasant “I’m the big shot around here” mold.
They are also uniquely hypocritical given that Donald Trump pummeled Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election campaign for her use of her personal email address to conduct some official government business while she was serving as President Obama’s secretary of state. In the run-up to the election, the Republican candidate said that Clinton’s email scandal was so serious that electing her would produce a “constitutional crisis.” He called for an investigation into President Obama, alleging that he hushed up the Clinton email scandal. And, in seeking to use the issue as a lightning rod for his fevered crowds, he averred that the email hoopla was a scandal “bigger than Watergate.”
In 2016, Trump’s supporters responded in kind.
Recall those ghastly campaign rallies where thousands of MAGA fans would chant “Lock her up” before they moved onto more bloody calls for Clinton and members of her inner circle to be executed for treason. Even four years later, deep into his reelection campaign, a brooding Trump, seeking to rally his supporters in the final days of the election campaign against Biden, told a gathering in Florida that he did, indeed, “100 percent” favor locking up his erstwhile rival.
It was, of course, all a charade, an exercise in manufactured outrage and demagoguery. Trump didn’t give two hoots about communications security or about the preservation of records. Throughout his presidency, Trump himself, as well as his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, were all routinely mishandling official government documents. Ivanka and Jared did exactly what Clinton was accused of doing — they used personal email accounts to carry out government business. Trump’s White House chief of staff, Mark Meadows, used a series of personal email accounts to carry out White House business. Several other senior staff were also called out for similar actions. And Trump, when he wasn’t using an unsecured personal cell phone to tweet out threats against his enemies, was, it turns out, ripping government documents into itsy-bitsy pieces.
This behavior was written about early in Trump’s bizarro presidency. What wasn’t known until the National Archive revelations was the scale of the mishandling of official records.
With Trump having lost his legal battles to withhold documents from the House committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, a treasure trove of documents has been handed over to the committee. Many of them are from the National Archives and Records Administration; others are from at least 15 boxes of government documents that Trump illicitly absconded with when he left the White House for his cantankerous pseudo-retirement in Mar-a-Lago. Huge numbers of these papers have apparently been taped back together after having suffered carnage at the tiny hands of Trump.
A goodly number of the papers that Trump tore up were, apparently, inconsequential: articles that he had scribbled gossipy Sharpie notes on, personal letters, print-outs from websites he had browsed. They might well be the kind of everyday detritus that one could throw away without giving it a second thought. But others were more consequential — policy memos, drafts of executive orders, and so on. This is, after all, a president whose minions drafted executive orders, which Trump ultimately didn’t sign, to use the military to seize voting machines after he lost the November 2020 election. This is also a president who brought unprecedented pressure to bear on his deputy, Mike Pence, to somehow “overturn” the election and refuse to allow Congress to certify Biden’s victory. Some of the papers Trump took with him down to Florida were, apparently, classified documents.
Slowly but surely, all of this contempt for the structures and rules of governance is being laid bare by the House committee investigating the January 6 Capitol breach. Come the spring, that committee will almost certainly start holding public hearings. Trump’s taped-together papers will be paraded before the public. The shredder-in-chief himself should be, too. He ought to be subpoenaed to testify — both on his role in promoting what was, in essence, an attempted coup against the republic, and also his behavior in shredding, or absconding with, documents that, by law, belonged in the National Archives.
The first question he should be asked is: “Can you think of a good reason, Mr. ex-President, that the person who, in 2016, called for Hillary Clinton to be locked up for using a personal email account, shouldn’t himself be tried for deliberately mishandling official government documents?”