The Presidential Records Act exists for a reason. Republicans who complain about erased history should appreciate that
At this point in our sick national saga, is there any law that Trump hasn’t broken?
A federal statute on the books – Title 18, Section 2071 of the U.S. Code – spells out the provisions of the Presidential Records Act of 1978. All materials generated by a president, in the furtherance of his (or her) official duties, automatically belong to the American people. Which means that all such materials – documents, memos, gifts, letters, whatever – must be transferred to the National Archives upon that president’s departure from office.
The law also warns that anyone found guilty of “willfully and unlawfully” concealing, removing, mutilating, obliterating, or destroying, or attempting to do any such action, can be fined and imprisoned for up to three years.
As David Ferriero, the official Archivist of the United States, stated this week, “The Presidential Records Act is critical to our democracy, in which the government is held accountable by the people. 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.”
Why, pray tell, did Ferriero feel compelled to issue such a statement? Only because the Visigoth of Mar a Lago had been caught, yet again, pillaging the spirit of democracy. Because, as we’ve now learned, it took the National Archives a full year (from January 2021 to January 2022) to retrieve 15 boxes of our stuff – including potential security-sensitive material – that Trump stole from the White House while being shoved out the door by a record-high 81 million voters.
Granted, other presidents have done bad things. Bill and Hillary took some gifts and furnishings that belonged to the White House that they were compelled to return. But the sheer scale of Trump’s pilferage has reportedly dwarfed all previous episodes.
Of course, considering everything else Trump has done and continues to do, stealing 15 boxes in breach of federal law is roughly the equivalent of jaywalking. This grifter hid his tax returns and his medical records, so why should we care that he spent a full year hiding government documents?
That’s how far he has lowered the bar – he gets away with everything (so far) because nobody expects him to do any better. But just imagine how the right-wing infauxtainment complex would’ve reacted if Barack Obama had stolen 15 boxes and secreted them in his manse on Martha’s Vineyard. Tucker Carlson’s head would’ve detonated with the power of a hundred suns.
We average citizens know full well that ignorance of the law, or blithe indifference to the law, is no defense. If a cop stops us for going 60 in a 45-mph zone, he’s not impressed if we claim that we didn’t see the speed signs. He’d be doubly unimpressed if we were to admit that we did see the signs, but paid them no mind.
But in Trump’s case, there’s a different metric. It boils down to this: Give him a pass, because he doesn’t know any better.
This week, Trump advisers told the press that, with respect to those 15 stolen boxes, Dear Leader had no “nefarious intent,” no “criminal intent.” They said that he simply didn’t make any distinction between how he operated in the public sector and how he had always operated in the private sector.
As one ex-Trump official reportedly insisted: “I don’t think he did this out of malicious intent to avoid complying with the Presidential Records Act. As long as he’s been in business, he’s been very transactional and it was probably his longtime practice and I don’t think his habits changed when he got to the White House.”
Did no staffer enlighten him that working as president is different from running a casino? Was he indeed briefed about the Presidential Record Act, but shrugged it off? Is that why some of the material turned over to the National Archives arrived there in torn-up pieces?
We can certainly ask such questions, but don’t hold your breath waiting for answers.
One final question:
Are there more boxes secreted somewhere at Mar-a-Lago?
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. He is a regular contributor to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, which first published this essay. Readers may email him at [email protected].