A vandal in the White House redux

February 11, 2022 3:20 am

Former President Donald Trump. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images).

The stories carry a new dateline. But then we’ve been here before.

Is this another case (pun) of old wine, new bottles?

In the last few days, both the New York Times and Washington Post have published stories detailing the vandalized condition of White House documents received by the House Select Committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. According to the reporting, hundreds of documents examined by the House committee have been ripped, torn, or otherwise shredded, held together in some cases by Scotch tape.

As Captain Renault, the Prefect of Casablanca Police might say, I am shocked, shocked to learn that someone has attempted to destroy public records. Round up the usual suspects!

Let’s make it easy for the Inspector. We don’t need to use the plural form of suspect when describing the individual who routinely tore up records while performing his supposed “duties” as president.

The reason we are revisiting the topic of the wanton destruction of White House documents is that we have been here before, but few paid attention. As far back as June 2018, this writer detailed the behavior of Donald Trump in violation of law:

We already knew he was a vandal. Now he’s given us even more proof of the full dimension of his destructive behavior.

After spending years vandalizing the legacy of President Barack Obama, first through birtherism (the movement that aimed to show President Obama was not a U.S. citizen) and continuing with the destruction of the Affordable Care Act, the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, Donald Trump has provided even more evidence of his banefulness. He’s tearing up documents which by law are to be protected and preserved.

If tearing up healthcare and international agreements weren’t enough, Trump has actually physically torn up documents in the White House that were supposed to be kept for posterity in a future library or government archive.

Unless we’ve missed something, the warnings posted by Politico, yours truly, and a few other outlets were ignored, a situation that no doubt encouraged Trump to continue his imperious behavior, violating law, custom and, of course, the need for a complete historical record of his presidency.

Four years later, people are alarmed that a single individual chose to ignore the legal requirements for holding the highest office in the land.

Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails and papers that the president touches, sending them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records.

The Harris S Truman Presidential Library and Museum, Independence, Missouri. Photo by Denis Smith

The reason for the alarm about Trump’s flagrant violation of the law as shown by his lack of caring for documents is centered on my experiences over the years in visiting historic archives as well as presidential libraries. In particular, a visit to the Harry S Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri – also in 2018 – brought home the idea of historical significance, particularly the “papers that the president touches.”

As a result of a researcher credential issued by the library administration, I was cleared to examine hundreds of documents I requested at the Truman Library. Prior to entering a private area, I was assigned a locker and told to deposit all of my pens, notebooks and other personal items, including a backpack, before entering the research part of the library.

As I wrote at the time, “Now, cleared to enter the research area, I was given two pencils and a few pieces of writing paper to take notes from the documents I would examine.” This action alone impressed on me the profound importance of what I was about to touch.

While doing my work in the Truman Library, I was impressed by the staff and how reverently they treated the documents I and they were examining. If only Trump had that same sense of caring, that same sense of history.

If only.

Yes, if only a twice-impeached president showed respect, caring for anything he touched. Here is how the Washington Post framed part of the issue:

The biggest takeaway I have from that behavior is it reflects a conviction that he was above the law,” said presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky. “He did not see himself bound by those things.”

Some experts also said Trump hurt his own legacy with his document destruction practices — leaving less behind for historians to examine.

It gets worse. New reporting in the Post provides information that boxes of presidential records were taken to Mar-a-Lago rather than being delivered to the National Archives, as provided by law.

According to late breaking developments in this sorry tale of Trump’s destruction and possible theft of government records, the Washington Post has reported that the National Archives has taken the extraordinary step of referring the situation to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution.

According to the Post:

The National Archives and Records Administration has asked the Justice Department to examine Donald Trump’s handling of White House records, sparking discussions among federal law enforcement officials about whether they should investigate the former president for a possible crime, according to two people familiar with the matter.

What Trump has done to these documents is unforgivable. By leaving less behind for historians, he will be sentenced to the hell of history, where whatever is left of his legacy after such destruction will be held in scorn.

But wait, there’s more. If he has destroyed so many presidential records, perhaps any future Trump Presidential Library that could become part of the National Archives Office of Presidential Libraries  might wind up being built on a scale approaching the size of a high school football stadium concession stand.

In our language, we often use the phrase he deserves no less. And in the case of Trump, he deserves no more than a tiny, nondescript, concession stand size building to hold his meager collection of records and otherwise honor (?) his tarnished tenure.

One more thing. If I was caught damaging any historic record at the Truman Presidential Library, I might have been justifiably charged with a crime. Since no one is above the law, and with the referral of this situation by the National Archives to the Justice Department, those interested in the historic preservation of documents await with great anticipation the future indictment of Donald Trump for violation of the Presidential Records Act.



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Denis Smith
Denis Smith

Denis Smith is a retired school administrator and served as a consultant in the Ohio Department of Education's charter school office. He has additional experience working in marketing communications with a publisher and in association management as an executive with a national professional society. Mr. Smith is a member of the board of Public Education Partners.