Concerns Donald Trump's mishandling of White House records may leave a hole in history

Associated Press
·6-min read
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018 - Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, in 2018 - Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

The public will not see President Donald Trump’s White House records for years, but there’s growing concern that the collection will not be complete, leaving a hole in the history of one of America’s most tumultuous presidencies.

Mr Trump has been cavalier about the law requiring records to be preserved. He has a habit of ripping up documents before tossing them out, forcing White House staff to spend hours taping them back together.

"They told him to stop doing it. He didn’t want to stop," said Solomon Lartey, a former White House records analyst who spent hours taping documents back together well into 2018.

The president also confiscated an interpreter’s notes after Mr Trump had a chat with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Mr Trump scolded his White House counsel for taking notes at a meeting.

Top executive branch officials had to be reminded more than once not to conduct official business on private email or encrypted text messaging systems and to preserve it if they did.

Mr Trump’s baseless claim of widespread voter fraud, which postponed for weeks an acknowledgement of president-elect Joe Biden’s victory, is delaying the transfer of documents to the National Archives and Records Administration, further heightening concern about the integrity of the records.

"Historians are likely to suffer from far more holes than has been the norm," said Richard Immerman at the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. In the Trump White House, "not only has record-keeping not been a priority, but we have multiple examples of it seeking to conceal or destroy that record".

Watch: Trump expected to grant up to 100 pardons, commutations as term ends

Even with requests by lawmakers and lawsuits by government transparency groups, there is an acknowledgment that non-compliance with the Presidential Records Act carries little consequence for Mr Trump.

The Presidential Records Act states that a president cannot destroy records until he seeks the advice of the national archivist and notifies Congress. But the law doesn’t require him to heed the archivist’s advice.

Most presidential records today are electronic, and records experts estimate that automatic backup computer systems capture a vast majority of them, but cannot capture records that a White House chooses not to create or log into those systems.

Moving a president’s trail of paper and electronic records is a laborious task. President Barack Obama left about 30 million pages of paper documents and 250 terabytes of electronic records, including the equivalent of about 1.5 billion pages of emails.

When Mr Trump lost the November election, records staffers were in position to transfer electronic records, pack up the paper ones and move them to the National Archives by January 20 as required by law. But Mr Trump’s reluctance to concede has meant they will miss the deadline.

"Necessary funding from the (White House) Office of Management and Budget was delayed for many weeks after the election, which has caused delays in arranging for the transfer of the Trump presidential records into the National Archives’ custody," the National Archives said in a statement to The Associated Press.

"Even though the transfer of these records will not be completed until after January 20, the National Archives will assume legal custody of them on January 20 in accordance with the Presidential Records Act."

White House spokesman Judd Deere said on Saturday that contesting the election did not cause the delay in getting the president’s records transferred to the archives and that guidance was available to staffers on how to pack up their materials.

One person familiar with the transition said guidance typically emailed to executive branch employees, explaining how to turn in equipment and pack up their offices, was sent out in December, but quickly rescinded because Mr Trump insisted on contesting the election.

With little guidance, some staffers in the White House started quietly calling records workers to find out what to do.

Departing employees are instructed to create a list of folders in each box and make a spreadsheet to give the National Archives a way to track and retrieve the information for the incoming Biden team.

The public must wait five years before submitting Freedom of Information Act requests to see the Trump material. Even then, Mr Trump - like other presidents before him - is invoking six specific restrictions to public access of his records for up to 12 years.

Watch: Trump so far not planning to pardon himself

On impeachment and other sensitive issues, some normal workflow practices were bypassed, a second person familiar with the process said. Higher-ups and White House lawyers became more involved in deciding which materials were catalogued and scanned into White House computer networks where they are automatically saved, the person said.

The individuals, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly discuss the inner workings of the White House, said that if uncatalogued materials ended up in an office safe, for instance, they would at least be temporarily preserved. But if they were never catalogued in the first place, staffers wouldn’t know they existed, making them untraceable.

Mr Trump’s staff also engaged in questionable practises by using private emails and messaging apps. Former White House counsel Don McGahn in February 2017 sent a memo that instructed employees not to use non-official text messaging apps or private email accounts. If they did, he said, they had to take screenshots of the material and copy it into official email accounts, which are preserved. He sent the memo back out in September 2017.

Government transparency groups say the screenshots are not adequate because they do not capture attachments or information such as who contacted whom, phone identifiers and other online information.

"It’s an open question to me about how serious or conscientious any of those people have been about moving them over," said Tom Blanton, who directs the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which was founded in 1985 to combat government secrecy.

Mr Trump was criticised for confiscating the notes of an interpreter who was with him in 2017 when Mr Trump talked with Mr Putin in Hamburg, Germany. Lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to obtain the notes of another interpreter who was with Mr Trump in 2018 when he met with Mr Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

Several weeks ago, the National Security Archive, two historical associations and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sued to prevent the Trump White House from destroying any electronic communications or records sent or received on non-official accounts, such as personal email or WhatsApp.

The court refused to issue a temporary restraining order after government lawyers told the judge that they had instructed the White House to notify all employees to preserve all electronic communications in their original format until the lawsuit was settled.

Anne Weismann, one of the lawyers representing the groups in their lawsuit, suspects "serious non-compliance" of the Presidential Records Act.

"I believe we will find that there’s going to be a huge hole in the historical record of this president," Weismann said.