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Wake Up To Politics - February 11, 2022

Wake Up To Politics: Why Trump’s records aren’t his
Wake Up To Politics - February 11, 2022

by Gabe Fleisher

Good morning! It’s Friday, February 11, 2022. Election Day 2022 is 270 days away. Election Day 2024 is 998 days away.

Why Trump’s records aren’t his

For most of American history, once a president left office, the papers and records from their time in the White House were regarded as an afterthought.

Presidents could do what they wanted with the documents: many kept them and passed them down through their families, some deliberately destroyed them and erased the historical records of their presidencies. Either intentionally or accidentally, most records from those early administrations have been lost to history.

Over time, there was a slow push to have a more formal process to dictate how presidents would handle their papers. In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to donate his personal and presidential papers to the federal government; those materials became the heart of America’s first presidential library.

Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, decided to build a presidential library as well; that led to the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955, which encouraged presidents to donate their papers to the government, to ensure future historians would have a full understanding of their time in office.

The donations still remained completely voluntary — but, like so much about American politics and the presidency, that would change in the wake of the Watergate scandal of the 1970s. Amid the tug-of-war over Richard Nixon’s tapes and White House documents, Congress passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, requiring that all of his presidential materials be handed over to the National Archives, where historians and investigators could access them. (Nixon challenged the law, but it was upheld by the Supreme Court.)

The fight over Richard Nixon’s Watergate tapes and documents led to a new law on presidential records. Nixon library

Four years later, lawmakers approved the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978 — applying the earlier statute to all future presidents and stating once and for all that presidential records belong to the public, not the president. While they had previously been seen as a president’s personal property, they are now the property of the United States.

You probably guessed where I’m going with this. The PRA has been in the news lately, due to a string of recent reports about former President Donald Trump’s challenged relationship with the law. But before I dive into the latest Trump reporting, I wanted to lay out why this story isn’t just noise — even if it includes some toilet talk — and why it actually matters.

I’ll put my biases out on the table here: I’m a huge presidential library nerd. I’ve actually been to all 13 of them (and have a fully-stamped passport to prove it). When you’re at those libraries, you get a sense of how critical those documents are: how each one (from mundane doodles to historic speeches) can help form a sense of who the presidents are and how they arrived at the decisions they did, building a greater understanding of our history and the institution of the presidency.

The most striking portrayal of this is at Lyndon Johnson’s library in Austin, where visitors can catch a glimpse of the stacks of boxes that make up his archives. The boxes in the display are just a few of the 56,250 held at the LBJ library, containing 45 million pages. Without those pages, historians would know a whole lot less about LBJ’s mindset after JFK’s assassination, how he achieved his push for civil rights, and why he made the decisions he did in Vietnam.

The display of boxes at the LBJ library. KUT News

So why are we talking about presidential records this week? Just as the PRA has its roots in the Watergate investigation, the renewed focus on the law was initiated by the fight between Trump and the House January 6 committee over some of his papers. The Supreme Court sided with the committee last month, ordering the National Archives to hand over about 700 pages of Trump’s records to the panels.  

Here’s what we learned from there:

  1. It started late last month with a Washington Post report that some of the records given to the committee “had been ripped up and then taped back together” by archivists. The Post later reported that Trump “tore up briefings and schedules, articles and letters, memos both sensitive and mundane” throughout his presidency.
  2. Then, on Monday of this week, the Post added that the National Archives had discovered that some of Trump’s records were not transferred to the agency at the end of his presidency, as required by the PRA. Last month, according to the report, 15 boxes of documents were retrieved from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, including letters he had received from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former President Barack Obama.
  3. On Wednesday, the New York Times revealed that some of the documents Trump had taken to Mar-a-Lago contained classified information. Going further, on Thursday, the Post said that some of them were “clearly marked as classified,” and some as “top secret” — a classification applied to information that “could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security” if disclosed.
  4. Thursday also brought the revelation, via Axios, that New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman’s forthcoming book will report that White House residence staffers periodically discovered that the toilets had ben clogged by pieces of paper — which they believed had been caused by Trump flushing paper down the toilet.
  5. Later on Thursday, the Times reported that the January 6 committee had discovered gaps in the White House call logs it had received, finding that calls it has been publicly reported Trump made during the Capitol riot were not official recorded.
Former President Trump signing an executive order while in office. White House

These developments are already being investigated as potential violations of the PRA.

The House Oversight Committee announced on Thursday it was opening a probe into Trump’s handling of his White House records and whether he broke the law with his ripping, flushing, and taking documents back to Mar-a-Lago — since the PRA clearly states that all presidential records should be preserved and then handed over to the National Archives.

Even more worrying for the former president, the Washington Post also reported this week that the National Archives — suspecting that Trump’s actions could have broken the law — has asked the Justice Department to investigate Trump record-keeping.  

A case against Trump would not be easy to bring: it would require proving not just that Trump mishandled his White House records, but that he did so intentionally or with “gross negligence.” But at the very least, the reporting this week reveals a pattern of disregard towards the laws governing presidential records at the Trump White House.  

“The Presidential Records Act is critical to our democracy, in which the government is held accountable by the people,” David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, said in a statement this week. “Whether through the creation of adequate and proper documentation, sound records management practices, the preservation of records, or the timely transfer of them to the National Archives at the end of an Administration, there should be no question as to need for both diligence and vigilance. Records matter.”

The Rundown

Ukraine. “Britain said on Thursday the ‘most dangerous moment’ in the West's standoff with Moscow appeared imminent, as Russia held military exercises in Belarus and the Black Sea following the buildup of its forces near Ukraine.” Reuters

Trucker convoy. “The Department of Homeland Security is warning law enforcement across the country that a convoy of truckers protesting Covid-19 vaccine mandates, similar to recent protests in Ottawa, Canada, could soon begin in the US -- with the potential to affect Sunday's Super Bowl in the Los Angeles area and cause other disruptions.” CNN

Inflation. “Prices continued their upward march in January, rising at an annual rate of 7.5 percent, the fastest pace in 40 years, as pandemic inflation continues to defy expectations, climbing faster and lasting longer than nearly anyone would have guessed.” Washington Post

Congress. The Senate passed landmark legislation on Thursday that will clear the way for victims of workplace sexual harassment or assault to sue their employers, voiding any contracts that required employees to go through private arbitration process rather than a public lawsuit. The bill cleared the chamber by voice vote; after passing the House earlier this week, the measure is now waiting on President Biden’s desk. The White House has previously indicated he will sign it.

  • “This is among the largest workplace reforms certainly in our lifetime,” declared Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), one of the bill’s sponsors. It is one of several bipartisan bills currently making its way through Congress, as I covered on Thursday. “It has been a busy, productive, and truly bipartisan week here in the United States Senate,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said.
  • Another of those bipartisan bills coming down the pike: The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously voted on Thursday  advance the EARN IT Act, which would chip away at Section 230, the controversial liability shield for social media companies. Under the new bill (which is opposed by Facebook and Google, among others), the companies would be able to be sued over child sexual abuse content posted to their platforms.
A new bill would chip away at the legal shield protecting social media companies from lawsuits. Wikimedia Commons


All times Eastern.

President Joe Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing at 9:30 a.m. Later, at 3:15 p.m., he will depart the White House for Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland, where will he will spend the weekend.

  • Vice President Kamala Harris will travel to Newark, New Jersey, today. At 9:45 a.m., she will depart Washington, D.C., for Newark. At 11:35 a.m., she will participate in a roundtable with Newark residents to highlight the funding in the bipartisan infrastructure law to remove and replace all lead pipes in the U.S. in the next decade. At 2:35 p.m., Harris will depart Newark and return to Washington.
  • White House press secretary Jen Psaki will hold a press briefing at 2 p.m.

The Senate is not in session.

The House will briefly convene at 11 a.m. for a pro forma session — a quick meeting where one member comes to gavel the chamber in, and then promptly gavels it out. No business is conducted during such sessions, which are only held to fulfill the chamber’s constitutional requirements of meeting every three days.

The Supreme Court is not in session.

That’s it for today. If you enjoy Wake Up To Politics, it’s always appreciated if you donate to support the newsletter or buy some merch. Or if you tell your friends and family to sign up at wakeuptopolitics.com.

If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to email me: my inbox is always open.

Thanks for waking up to politics! Have a great day.

— Gabe