Will Trump Burn the Evidence?Roundup
tags: historic preservation, presidential libraries, archives, National Archives, Donald Trump, public records, secrecy, Presidential Records Act
Donald Trump is not much of a note-taker, and he does not like his staff to take notes. He has a habit of tearing up documents at the close of meetings. (Records analysts, armed with Scotch Tape, have tried to put the pieces back together.) No real record exists for five meetings Trump had with Vladimir Putin during the first two years of his Presidency. Members of his staff have routinely used apps that automatically erase text messages, and Trump often deletes his own tweets, notwithstanding a warning from the National Archives and Records Administration that doing so contravenes the Presidential Records Act.
Trump cannot abide documentation for fear of disclosure, and cannot abide disclosure for fear of disparagement. For decades, in private life, he required people who worked with him, and with the Trump Organization, to sign nondisclosure agreements, pledging never to say a bad word about him, his family, or his businesses. He also extracted nondisclosure agreements from women with whom he had or is alleged to have had sex, including both of his ex-wives. In 2015 and 2016, he required these contracts from people involved in his campaign, including a distributor of his “Make America Great Again” hats. (Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign required N.D.A.s from some employees, too. In 2020, Joe Biden called on Michael Bloomberg to release his former employees from such agreements.) In 2017, Trump, unable to distinguish between private life and public service, carried his practice of requiring nondisclosure agreements into the Presidency, demanding that senior White House staff sign N.D.A.s. According to the Washington Post, at least one of them, in draft form, included this language: “I understand that the United States Government or, upon completion of the term(s) of Mr. Donald J. Trump, an authorized representative of Mr. Trump, may seek any remedy available to enforce this Agreement including, but not limited to, application for a court order prohibiting disclosure of information in breach of this Agreement.” Aides warned him that, for White House employees, such agreements are likely not legally enforceable. The White House counsel, Don McGahn, refused to distribute them; eventually, he relented, and the chief of staff, Reince Priebus, pressured employees to sign them.
Those N.D.A.s haven’t stopped a small village’s worth of ex-Trump Cabinet members and staffers from blabbing about him, much to the President’s dismay. “When people are chosen by a man to go into government at high levels and then they leave government and they write a book about a man and say a lot of things that were really guarded and personal, I don’t like that,” he told the Washington Post. In 2019, he tweeted, “I am currently suing various people for violating their confidentiality agreements.” Last year, a former campaign worker filed a class-action lawsuit that, if successful, would render void all campaign N.D.A.s. Trump has only stepped up the fight. Earlier suits were filed by Trump personally, or by his campaign, but, last month, the Department of Justice filed suit against Stephanie Winston Wolkoff for publishing a book, “Melania and Me,” about her time volunteering for the First Lady, arguing, astonishingly, that Wolkoff’s N.D.A. is “a contract with the United States and therefore enforceable by the United States.” (Unlike the suit against Trump’s former national-security adviser John Bolton, relating to the publication of his book, “The Room Where It Happened,” there is no claim that anything in Wolkoff’s book is or was ever classified.) And Trump hasn’t stopped: last year, he required doctors and staff who treated him at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to sign N.D.A.s.
Hardly a day passes that Trump does not attempt to suppress evidence, as if all the world were in violation of an N.D.A. never to speak ill of him. He has sought to discredit publications and broadcasts that question him, investigations that expose him, crowds that protest him, polls that fail to favor him, and, down to the bitter end, ballots cast against him. None of this bodes well for the historical record and for the scheduled transfer of materials from the White House to the National Archives, on January 20, 2021. That morning, even as President-elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is ascending the steps of the Capitol, staffers from the archives will presumably be in the White House, unlocking doors, opening desks, packing boxes, and removing hard drives. What might be missing, that day, from file drawers and computer servers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is difficult to say. But records that were never kept, were later destroyed, or are being destroyed right now chronicle the day-to-day doings of one of the most consequential Presidencies in American history and might well include evidence of crimes, violations of the Constitution, and human-rights abuses. It took a very long time to establish rules governing the fate of Presidential records. Trump does not mind breaking rules and, in the course of a long life, has regularly done so with impunity. The Presidential Records Act isn’t easily enforceable. The Trump Presidency nearly destroyed the United States. Will what went on in the darker corners of his White House ever be known?
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