Trump’s document destruction, another look

I want to respond to the objections Steve Hayward presented to what I’ve written about Donald Trump’s handling of presidential documents. He objects to my statement that media reports of Trump tearing up documents “seem to be accurate.”

However, his main objection is that there wouldn’t be anything wrong with Trump destroying documents because “every White House document going back to the 1980s is composed on a computer.” I’ll start with that objection.

There are two problems with Steve’s statement. First, it is very likely not true. Second, it doesn’t matter.

It’s highly doubtful that all of the documents Trump was required to preserve were composed on a computer. Consider some of the documents that have come up in the recent reporting.

There are Trump’s personal messages to Kim Jong-un that the former president took to Florida and turned over a year later after archivists sought 15 boxes of presidential documents. Were these composed on a computer?

Maybe. But Trump has described them as “love letters,” so it’s quite possible that he wrote them by hand and that they are not on any computer.

The boxes also contained a map showing the path of Hurricane Dorian. The map may be on a computer. However, Trump reportedly drew a line on it to try to show he had accurately predicted the storm’s course. It’s highly unlikely that the version with the line is on a computer.

The president’s document preservation obligation isn’t limited to typed pages. For example, handwritten notes taken during meetings must be preserved. If Trump destroyed these papers at the end of the meetings, they won’t be found in computer backup.

But even if every document Trump handled could be found on a computer, this wouldn’t justify him destroying the hard copies. The main reason why is that, as Steve acknowledges, the hard copies may contain writings.

Is it okay for the president to pick and choose among his documents and discard any he says have no writings? No.

Nothing in the Presidential Records Act allows this, and for good reason. We don’t want the president to be the one who screens his documents for posterity.

In the same post in which he defends the president’s right to destroy documents Steve calls Donald Trump a “hypocritical narcissist” who “will say anything and everything.” I don’t think we would want a president like that to destroy documents based on the claim that, in effect, there’s nothing unique to see here.

Indeed, such a president, or any president actually, is most likely to destroy precisely those documents that have something to see — especially ones on which he has scribbled something noteworthy. Hence the obligation to preserve everything.

Trump’s aides seem to have understood this obligation. According to reporting, some staffers went to great lengths attempting to do so – retrieving torn documents from waste paper baskets and taping them back together.

Steve speculates that Presidents Bush and Obama threw some documents away. Perhaps. But I’ve seen no indication that they destroyed documents on the scale that Trump reportedly did or tried to do. Nor, from all that appears, did either president take boxes of documents to their post-presidency home, keep them for a year, and return them only when pressed by the Archives.

If Bush had done anything like this, the media would have been all over him for it. But as far as I know he’s never been accused of it. However, if he or Obama did destroy more than the occasional random document, that conduct is problematic too.

This brings me to Steve’s other objection to what I wrote – that I said reports of Trump’s attempts at document destruction “seem to be accurate.” He points to one example from a few years ago in which a negative story about Trump turned out to be inaccurate.

He could easily have pointed to others. Media reports of misconduct by Trump should always be viewed skeptically.

But in this case, Trump issued a statement on the subject. He denied flushing documents down the toilet, but did not deny tearing documents up. It was only then that I concluded that the media reports on the tearing, but not the flushing, seem to be accurate.

Trump has never been bashful about declaring media reports “fake news.” Sometimes he’s right, sometimes he’s not. However, when Trump denies one part of a negative story but not the other part, it’s fair to say that the allegations not denied seem to be accurate.

Both of the objections Steve presented in his “sharp comment” lack merit.

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