As a historian and a member of the American Historical Association (AHA), I found that particularly interesting. The AHA, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR), the National Security Archive, and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) joined together to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against President Trump and other administration officials to ensure compliance with records laws. The groups said that with Trump facing “potential legal and financial exposure once he leaves office, there is a growing risk that he will destroy records of his presidency before leaving.”
Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, said in a statement, “Presidential records are always at risk because the law that’s supposed to protect them is so weak. The archive, historians, and CREW are suing to put some backbone in the law and prevent any bonfire of records in the Rose Garden.”
When asked for a response, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) said it could not comment on pending litigation, nor did the Trump administration make any comments about the lawsuit.
The Presidential Records Act requires presidents and White House personnel to preserve all records of “the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of the president’s constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties.” NARA restricts these records from public view until at least five years after the end of an administration. NARA can withhold some records for much longer.
James Grossman, director of the AHA, said, “Research rooted in these materials provides an unparalleled look inside an administration’s activities that would, if absent, leave the world wholly reliant upon the memoirs and memories of those whose deeds we professionally investigate and evaluate.”
Presidential records and the keeping of them have long been a source of tension and revelation. Congress passed the Presidential Records Act with historians in mind. A president’s papers used to be considered the personal property of that president, for better or worse. And, sometimes, it was for worse. Much of George Washington’s papers were neglected by his heirs and destroyed by rats. During Richard Nixon’s presidency, his records, which included the so-called smoking gun tape, were legally seized from him. After that, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act to clarify that a president’s records belong to the public.
Conflicts between Trump and records laws have been occurring for nearly his entire term. Unbelievably, Trump has a habit of ripping up paper he is finished with and throwing it in the trash or on the floor. How childish and disrespectful do you have to be to rip up a document and throw it on the floor? I guess you have to be as uncaring and immature as Donald Trump. Because of these careless acts, an entire team of records specialists has been taping the pieces back together for preservation.
The lawsuit also focuses on other administration officials, including Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who uses screenshots to keep records of communications on nonofficial messaging accounts such as WhatsApp or private email. According to the lawsuit, screenshots violate the Presidential Records Act because they do not include metadata and other attachments that could be of historical value. Congress amended the act in 2014 to include specific instructions on electronic records. It prohibits all official communications sent on nonofficial messaging platforms unless an official account is copied on the original transmission or forwarded to an official account within 20 days.
The historians say White House counsel incorrectly directed staff to preserve such records “via a screenshot or other means” in a February 2017 memo. White House counsel provided this memo during a Senate briefing in October 2017. In December 2018 testimony, Kushner’s personal attorney Abbe Lowell told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that Kushner had used and continued to use WhatsApp to communicate with foreign leaders and that he used screenshots to preserve records of the communications. Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a senior adviser, also used private email accounts for White House business, as did former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland and former White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon. Wasn’t this what Trump attacked Hillary Clinton over and had crowds chanting “Lock Her Up”? Then again, we know that the Trump administration says one thing and does the opposite, flaunting a wanton disregard for every law, precedent, and American institution.
The lawsuit seeks to stop the disposal of any of these potential records without following proper protocols and to have the “screenshotting policy” rescinded. This isn’t the first time historians have sued over the administration’s alleged violations of the records act. Three of the groups — CREW, SHAFR, and the National Security Archive — have previously sued to challenge White House officials’ use of encrypted apps such as Signal and to allege President Trump has violated the records act by not keeping records of phone calls and meetings with foreign leaders.
I doubt the lawsuit will be successful. Yes, they may win in court to halt the destruction of documents. Still, I doubt anyone thinks it will actually stop the administration from destroying documents that could implicate them in crimes or be used to discredit them in the history books. Trump will spend the rest of his life, claiming he won the 2020 election and rewriting history to align with his own delusions. Historians, however, will remember and document the ineptitude and unlawfulness of the Trump presidency.