Experts say Trump could be held responsible for the mishandling of White House records

Washington --The alleged improper handling by former President Donald Trump of White House records during his time in office and after he left for Florida has brought new scrutiny to whether or not he violated federal law. If so, can he be held responsible?

Experts say Trump could be held responsible for the mishandling of White House records


 

The Presidential Records Act is the law that governs the records-keeping responsibilities for presidents. It was enacted in 1978 and requires that any memos, emails, and other documents related the president's duties are preserved and given to National Archives and Records Administration at end of each administration.

The Archives recently revealed that Trump had ripped up documents while in office. Some of these were reassembled by White House records management staff. Trump also brought more than a dozen boxes and letters with him to Mar-a-Lago's Palm Beach, Florida residence. According to the Archives, the boxes were recovered by them last month.

Anne Weismann, an attorney who represented watchdog organizations that sued Trump for violating the Presidential Records Act, said to CBS News that Trump "clearly violated the Presidential Records Act" in "multiple ways, including by ripping up records.

She said that the real problem was "there's absolutely no enforcement mechanism under the Presidential Record Act, and there's no administrative enforcement provisions."

Weismann identified two criminal laws Trump could have broken by destroying White House records. If convicted, the first law says that anyone who "willfully injures any property of America" or commits any depredation could face a fine and up to one-year imprisonment. The second stipulates that anyone who "willfully or unlawfully conceals or removes, mutilates or destroys... any record or proceeding...in any public office... is subject to a penalty of up to three years imprisonment if convicted.

Kel McClanahan (executive director of National Security Counselors), said to CBS News that Trump cannot plead stupidity. "Ignoring the law in this case is no excuse," Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, said to CBS News. He stated that Trump's chiefs and [White House] counsel told him, "Stop doing these things." Stop destroying these records.

McClanahan was referring to a Washington Post report in which two former chiefs, Reince Pencebus and John Kelly, were named and former White House counsel Don McGahn warned Trump about the Presidential Records Act.

"Would a reasonable president be able to see that the statute is probably correct if there are two chiefs and one general counsel? He said that it would be an easy case.

Weismann warned that Trump may not be held responsible for violating federal records safety laws.

She stated that it was sending a clear message that presidential record-keeping responsibilities were not very important and can be ignored with impunity. It would be a big problem if you let such flagrant violations go unaddressed.

Weismann addressed the historical importance of keeping presidential documents. He pointed out doodles and notes made by John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. His secretary collected the scribbles and displayed them in an exhibition at National Archives to mark the time when the world was "at the edge of thermonuclear warfare."

She stated that the Presidential Records Act's purpose was to declare, "This is our history, it belongs to the American people, and you, as the president, are responsible for your records while in office." They are supposed to be created, preserved, and given to the people when you leave office. We are losing a part of our history."

Last week, the National Archives confirmed that some documents it received at the end from Trump's White House had been torn up and were reassembled by records management officials. However, "a lot" of the ripped records it received was not reconstructed by White House.

Monday, the agency acknowledged that 15 boxes contained presidential records from Mar-a-Lago. The Washington Post reported there were documents and items found in the boxes that contained letters between Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and a letter former President Barack Obama left to his successor.

According to the Archives, Trump's staff is "continuing to search" for presidential records that belonged to the agency.

The Justice Department has been referred by Archives officials to investigate Trump's White House records handling, CBS News confirmed Wednesday. However, the referral does NOT mean that there will be any criminal investigation or prosecution.

McClanahan stated that Trump could be criminally prosecuted for violating federal laws, but the Justice Department could also file civil lawsuits against him to obtain any presidential records he may possess after leaving the White House.

He said, "It's a tunnel vision to focus only on the criminal element when there are so many alternatives that could serve public policy that DOJ shouldn't have any compunction about doing." "If DOJ employees are conscientious, this won't go away. "I believe that something will happen."

Trump may be counting on Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department to remain on the sidelines during political fights, and "calling DOJ’s bluff."

However, "the question will be a purely government interest and a criminal purely against the public, and how do you prosecute an ex-president for that crime?" McClanahan said.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee launched an investigation into Trump’s record-keeping practices and asked David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States for information about the 15 boxes found at Mar-a-Lago.

"Former President Trump, his senior advisors, must also be held responsible for any violations" Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat hailing from New York, stated to Ferriero in a letter. She added that the panel needed the information to "examine both the extent and the impact" of Trump’s purported violations under the Presidential Records Act.

The New York Times reported that the Archives discovered classified information in documents Trump took from the White House after his first term. According to the Times, the Archives contacted the Justice Department to get guidance. The department instructed the Archives that its inspector general investigate the matter.

Trump denied any wrongdoing. He stated in a statement that the Archives had "openly" and willingly organized the transportation of boxes containing letters and other articles. These boxes will be displayed in the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library.

Trump stated that the papers were handed out easily, without conflict, and on a friendly basis. This is different than the fake news media accounts. It was considered routine and "no big deal" in fact. Based on various legal rulings over the years, I was told that I wasn't under any obligation to provide this material."

It is unclear what decisions Trump is referring to, but federal courts have heard disputes regarding possible violations of the Presidential Records Act during Trump's tenure and have ruled that the courts have no authority to oversee compliance with the law.

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