Joe Biden won the presidential election on November 7, and yet, several weeks later, Donald Trump continues to stonewall the transition process. Rather than conceding to what is now a 6 million vote loss, his administration met the results of the election with a flurry of lawsuits aiming to undermine the vote. Now, experts have raised concerns about another obstacle: document destruction.
Trump is no stranger to the practice. He reportedly has a tendency to rip up documents once he is through with them, often leaving his aides clambering to tape the pieces back together. His habit of deleting tweets – the digital equivalent of document shredding – saddled him with a lawsuit in 2017. Perhaps most concerning of all, there is no record of what Trump said in the five meetings that he held with Putin over the course of his presidency. After his first encounter with the Russian president, Trump took the interpreter’s notes and forbade him from repeating what was said during the meeting.
In each of these instances, Trump clearly violates the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978. Prior to the passage of the PRA, documents handled by the president were considered private property. In 1974, Richard Nixon refused to hand over audiotapes during the Watergate scandal; the tapes were his personal property, the White House argued, and so he did not have to relinquish them if he did not want to. To prevent this from happening again, Congress passed the PRA in 1978 and effectively re-classified presidential records as public property. The act was created to ensure that all “documentary material” from the presidency – including papers, correspondence, pictures, audiotapes, videos and, yes, even tweets – are preserved and passed on to the National Archives.
While the PRA is detailed about which materials should be preserved, it fails to outline how this act should be fully enforced. An “Archivist” assumes custody of the records once the president leaves office. The onus to preserve and submit the documentation is, therefore, placed entirely on the president and his administration. Before the turnover, the act: “Allows the incumbent President to dispose of records that no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value, once the views of the Archivist of the United States on the proposed disposal have been obtained in writing.”
Without sufficient legal protections or government bodies overseeing this part of the transition process, outside organizations have had to step in. The nonpartisan independent watchdog group Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has sounded alarms about the oversight community’s fear that the Trump administration will willfully destroy, remove or alter documents before President-elect Biden’s inauguration. On November 18, the group published a formal call for whistleblowers. “As the Trump administration’s exit nears, it’s essential to ensure that all necessary documents are properly preserved,” they wrote. “Whistleblowers are the public’s first line of defense against abuse of power and play a critical role in exposing wrongdoing.”
Document retention is not merely important for maintaining an accurate historical record. As historian Jill Lepore wrote in an article for The New Yorker, “Governments that commit atrocities against their own citizens regularly destroy their own archives.”