It has become clear in recent days that former President Donald Trump mishandled official presidential documents to an astonishing and possibly illegal extent while in office. Multiple sources now indicate that after winning the presidency with a campaign in which he savaged Hillary Clinton for her mishandling of official emails, Trump improperly stored possibly classified material at Mar-a-Lago, tore up other documents that staffers then had to tape back together, and even clogged White House toilets by trying to flush documents — putting an absurdly literal new twist on the old Nixonian phrase “White House plumbers.”
In light of all this, it’s fair to be deeply suspicious about gaps now being discovered in White House records examined by the House committee investigating Jan. 6.
Trump’s penchant for tearing up paper to announce he’s done discussing a topic has long been known, but the degree to which he indulged this childish habit is only now becoming clear. When the committee requested documents from the National Archives related to Trump’s presidency, some of the documents had been ripped up and taped back together.
This is an issue because the Presidential Records Act requires all records from every presidency to be saved and turned over to the National Archives when the presidency ends. It doesn’t matter whether the thing being destroyed is a routine memo or a sensitive classified document. It belongs to the government. Destroying these things was plainly illegal, as Trump’s staff repeatedly told him.
Now, the National Archives says Trump improperly took what may have been classified materials with him from the White House to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida when he left office. The discovery came after Trump last month finally turned over 15 boxes of documents that weren’t supposed to have left the White House and that the archives had been lobbying to get back.
On the heels of all that, a forthcoming book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman reveals that White House staff during Trump’s presidency repeatedly found toilets clogged with paper, apparently documents Trump had attempted to flush. Trump on Thursday denied the account, but given his established history as both a prodigious liar and a habitual destroyer of records, his denial is hardly credible.
It is in this context that the House Jan. 6 select committee this week discovered gaps in White House phone records during times when Trump was definitely making phone calls on that day. It is unclear whether that means Trump tampered with the records or was using a personal cellphone that would have kept records out of the hands of investigators.
Either way, the former president’s utter contempt for the sanctity of official presidential records is an issue in and of itself. A formal investigation by the Justice Department of Trump’s handling of documents is warranted.