Originally Posted: June 11, 2018
President Trump reportedly has a habit of ripping up documents after he’s done with them, a tendency that has sent aides scrambling to quite literally pick up the pieces.
In line with his self-professed desire to metaphorically tear up Washington institutions, the President has apparently declined to adhere to the decades-old law — and even longer-standing tradition — that requires the preservation of presidential documents, leaving aides scrambling to tape them back together, according to a report in Politico.
Longtime government officials developed a system to mend documents after Trump finished with them, sending the pieces to record management to be taped back together before being sent them to the National Archives, according to Politico.
“I had a letter from [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer — he tore it up,” Solomon Lartey, one of the officials in record management who restored the documents but was terminated this past spring, told Politico. “It was the craziest thing ever. He ripped papers into tiny pieces.”
Historians say that, like other aspects of Trump’s Administration, his handling of these documents is virtually unprecedented and has serious legal implications that date back to Watergate.
Trump is required by law to preserve all documents he handles during his presidency. The Presidential Records Act mandates that presidents retain all “documentary material,” which includes documents, papers, books, pamphlets, audiotapes and videos, so that they can be transmitted to the National Archives and accessible to the public.
The act, which was passed in 1978 and went into effect three years later, was a direct reaction to Richard Nixon’s refusal in 1974 to hand his audiotapes that contained conversations from his White House tenure to the committees investigating him during Watergate. Nixon claimed that executive privilege prevented him from handing over the tapes; he owned them, he argued, so he could do what he wanted with them. The Supreme Court ultimately disagreed with him in a unanimous ruling, and Nixon handed over the tapes and subsequently resigned.
But his ability to declare that he owned the tapes caused Congress to pass the Presidential Records Act which explicitly stated that all professional files of the Presidents actually belonged to the American people.
“Before Nixon, presidents in effect owned their own papers, and they were scattered in various repositories until [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] started the presidential library system. But deeds of gift, not law, governed the records,” Thomas Blanton, Director of the non-profit National Security Archives, explained in an e-mail to TIME.
Historians note, however, that even before preserving these records became a federal law, presidents have been conscious of the importance of document retention.
“This is quite literally an issue that goes back to George Washington. He was very adamant that records needed to be kept of everything,” said Jeffrey Engel, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University. “First of all because he thought it would be good for his posterity and record, but secondly because he thought … people need to be able to know what their government had done.” READ MORE