President Trump reportedly has a habit of ripping up documents after he’s done with them, a tendency that has sent aides scrambling to quite literally pick up the pieces.
In line with his self-professed desire to metaphorically tear up Washington institutions, the President has apparently declined to adhere to the decades-old law — and even longer-standing tradition — that requires the preservation of presidential documents, leaving aides scrambling to tape them back together, according to a report in Politico.
Longtime government officials developed a system to mend documents after Trump finished with them, sending the pieces to record management to be taped back together before being sent them to the National Archives, according to Politico.
“I had a letter from [Senate Minority Leader Chuck] Schumer — he tore it up,” Solomon Lartey, one of the officials in record management who restored the documents but was terminated this past spring, told Politico. “It was the craziest thing ever. He ripped papers into tiny pieces.”
Historians say that, like other aspects of Trump’s Administration, his handling of these documents is virtually unprecedented and has serious legal implications that date back to Watergate.
Trump is required by law to preserve all documents he handles during his presidency. The Presidential Records Act mandates that presidents retain all “documentary material,” which includes documents, papers, books, pamphlets, audiotapes and videos, so that they can be transmitted to the National Archives and accessible to the public.
The act, which was passed in 1978 and went into effect three years later, was a direct reaction to Richard Nixon’s refusal in 1974 to hand his audiotapes that contained conversations from his White House tenure to the committees investigating him during Watergate. Nixon claimed that executive privilege prevented him from handing over the tapes; he owned them, he argued, so he could do what he wanted with them. The Supreme Court ultimately disagreed with him in a unanimous ruling, and Nixon handed over the tapes and subsequently resigned.
But his ability to declare that he owned the tapes caused Congress to pass the Presidential Records Act which explicitly stated that all professional files of the Presidents actually belonged to the American people.
“Before Nixon, presidents in effect owned their own papers, and they were scattered in various repositories until [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] started the presidential library system. But deeds of gift, not law, governed the records,” Thomas Blanton, Director of the non-profit National Security Archives, explained in an e-mail to TIME.
Historians note, however, that even before preserving these records became a federal law, presidents have been conscious of the importance of document retention.
“This is quite literally an issue that goes back to George Washington. He was very adamant that records needed to be kept of everything,” said Jeffrey Engel, a presidential historian at Southern Methodist University. “First of all because he thought it would be good for his posterity and record, but secondly because he thought … people need to be able to know what their government had done.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Russell Riley, Professor and Co-Chair of the Presidential Oral History Program at University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Riley has interviewed hundreds of former White House officials dating back to the Carter Administration and says most government workers are, in his experience, careful about such records.
“I can’t say that this has never happened before; behind closed doors we don’t know whats going on. But I can just say that based on interviews with hundreds of people who worked very closely with [past] presidents, I think they take the Presidential Records Act very seriously,” Riley told TIME. “In my 20-plus years of interviewing White House officials, there has been a respect for the necessity of doing this even when it hurt them in their operational activities.”
When he has discovered anything remotely similar to a breach of this policy, Riley said, it was often more done more implicitly; for example, officials worried about leaving traces of their activities may make a point of not creating any written record to begin with. He could not remember anything as quite comparable to ripping up documents.
“The actual destruction of presidential records, because it is a violation of the law, is something that I think every administration up until this one has taken seriously — as they do breaking any laws,” Riley said.
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about whether the Trump Administration are violating the Presidential Records Act. The nonpartisan organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington filed a lawsuit last year alleging that deleted tweets and the use of confidential messaging applications constituted violations of the law. So while government employees may have grumbled about taping Trump’s words back together – “It felt like the lowest form of work you can take on without having to empty the trash cans,” another former staffer told Politico — they may have potentially saved the President from another legal headache.
No explicit punishments for violating the laws are delineated in the Presidential Records Act, so it’s not clear exactly what the ramifications would be if Congress or the courts found the Trump Administration had indeed violated it. The closest thing to a precedent, said Engel and Riley — though noting that it really isn’t that similar at all — seemed to be the case of Sandy Berger, President Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, who was fined $50,000 in 2005 for illegally removing and destroying documents from the National Archive. (Berger, who conceded he took the documents to assist in the 9/11 commission, died in 2015.)
But ultimately, historians cautioned, what matters here is not about punishment Trump could incur. Rather, this story is yet another indication of just how much President Trump can leave those who look to the past for precedent at a loss.
“This is just a terrible way of doing policy-making,” said Engel. “As a matter of course, a person in charge of nuclear weapons should not be destroying documents.”