By Shannon Bow O’Brien
Into the sewer.
That appears to be the intended destination of what look like torn-up presidential documents in photographs released by reporter Maggie Haberman to the news publication Axios, which published them on Aug. 8, 2022.
Haberman has a book coming out on former President Donald Trump in early October. One photo, allegedly of a White House toilet, shows a scrap of paper with what Haberman says is Trump’s handwriting on it, sitting at the bottom of the toilet bowl. The other photo, of a different toilet allegedly used on an overseas trip, has several scraps of paper similarly situated, with the name of a Republican congresswoman written on one piece.
This could be the first visual documentation of Trump’s already-reported habit of flushing documents down a White House toilet. In response, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich told Axios, “You have to be pretty desperate to sell books if pictures of paper in a toilet bowl is part of your promotional plan.”
But even without having to unclog plumbing in search of missing papers, national archivists have their work cut out trying to plug potential gaps in the 45th president’s historical record.
On Feb. 7, 2022, it emerged that 15 boxes of documents and other items that should have been handed over to the National Archives and Record Administration had been found at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
Trump says he was told that he was under “no obligation” to hand over the documents, but the law suggests he may be mistaken.
Specifically, Section 2071 of Title 18 of U.S. Code states that anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys” records or documents filed in any public office can be fined or imprisoned for up to three years.
It’s deemed a more serious crime if documents are classified, where a penalty of up to five years imprisonment can apply.
In both cases, those held responsible are disqualified from holding any office in the United States.
These requirements build a complete picture of events that have lasting consequences. Among the records reportedly incomplete or missing from Trump’s tenure in the White House are phone logs from Jan. 6, 2021.
Saving the records
In 1957, the National Historical Publications Commission, a part of the National Archives, recommended developing a uniform system so all materials from presidencies could be archived. They did this to literally save presidential records from the flames: President Warren G. Harding’s wife claimed to have burned all his records, and Robert Todd Lincoln burned all his father’s war correspondence.
So the government collects and retains all presidential communications, including executive orders, announcements, nominations, statements and speeches, and any public, oral communications by presidents, which are also placed as public documents in the Compilation of Presidential Documents.
These are part of the official record of any administration, published by the Office of the Federal Register, National Archives and Records Administration on a weekly basis by the White House press secretary. In most presidencies, the document or transcript is available a few days to a couple of weeks after any event. At the conclusion of an administration, these documents form the basis for the formal collections of the Public Papers of the President.
As a political scientist, I’m interested in where presidents give speeches. What can be learned about their priorities based on their choice of location? What do these patterns tell us about administrations?
Barack Obama primarily focused on large media markets in states that strongly supported him. Trump went to supportive places as well, including small media markets like Mankato, Minnesota, where the airport was not even large enough to fly into with Air Force One.
Presidential speeches often give a different perception of an administration. Without all the pageantry, you can quickly get to the point of the visit in the text.
In speeches that President George W. Bush gave in the 2002 midterm election period, he made the same joke more than 50 times as his icebreaker. He would apologize that audiences had drawn the “short straw” and gotten him instead of his wife, Laura. His commitment to that joke gave a glimpse of his desire to connect to an audience through self-deprecating humor.
I found something odd when I began to pull items from the compilation and organize my own database of locations for the Trump administration. I was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. I pay attention to my home state. I knew that on March 20, 2017, Trump held a public rally in Louisville, where in a meandering speech he touched on everything from Kentucky coal miners to the Supreme Court and “illegal immigrants” who were, he said, robbing and murdering Americans.
But when I looked in the online compilation in mid-2017, I couldn’t find the Louisville speech. No problem, I thought. They are just running behind, and they will put it in later.
A year later, the Louisville speech was still not there. Furthermore, speeches from Trump rallies were missing. By my count, 147 separate transcripts for public speaking events – just over 8% – are missing from the online compilation of Trump’s official presidential speech records.
What’s in, what’s out
The Presidential Records Act, first passed in 1978, says administrations have to retain “any documentary materials relating to the political activities of the President or members of the President’s staff, but only if such activities relate to or have a direct effect upon the carrying out of constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.”
An administration is allowed to exclude personal records that are purely private or don’t have an effect on the duties of a president. All public events are included, such as quick comments on the South Lawn, short exchanges with reporters and all public speeches, radio addresses and even public telephone calls to astronauts in space.
But what Trump said at his large public rallies has so far been omitted from the public record his administration supplied to the Compilation of Presidential Documents. And while historians and the public could get transcripts off of publicly available videos, that does not address the need for a complete official collection of these statements.
Under federal law, presidents are allowed to exclude “materials directly relating to the election of a particular individual or individuals to Federal, State, or local office, which have no relation to or direct effect upon the carrying out of … duties of the President.”
The law has been interpreted to mean an administration could omit notes, emails or other documentation from what it sends to the compilation. While many presidents do not provide transcripts for speeches at private party fundraising events, rallies covered by America’s press corps likely do not fall under these exclusions.
Why does it matter?
Government documents are among the primary records of who we are as a people.
These records speak to Americans directly; they are not what others tell us or interpret to us about our history. The government compiles and preserves these records to give an accurate accounting of the leaders the country has chosen. They provide a shared history in full.
Since 1981, the public has legally owned all presidential records. As soon as a president leaves office, the National Archivist gets legal custody of all of them Presidents are generally on their honor to be good stewards of history. There is no real penalty for noncompliance.
But these public documents have so far always been available to the public – and they’ve been available quickly. Internal presidential documents like memos or email have a rigorous archival procedure that lasts years before they are even accessible. I have a record of every presidential speech from 1945 to 2021 – every president since Bill Clinton has all their public speeches available online. Until Trump, there have been no missing public speeches in the permanent collection. By removing these speeches, Trump is creating a false perception of his presidency, making it look more serious and traditional.
And by the way: That 2017 Louisville speech is still missing from the records in 2022. I’m hoping it might be found among those 15 boxes.
Shannon Bow O’Brien is Associate Professor of Instruction at the University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
I don’t usually comment on your socialist BS, but your statement regarding Trump flushed documents down a toilet goes beyond pale. It borders on pure stupidity. Where on earth do you dream this crap up. Maybe next time you could allege that he made them into a taco ate them and then crapped them in the toilet.
“…dream this crap up”????
If you Google “Trump documents flushed”, you will see numerous stories that show photographs of document fragments (with Trump’s distinctive scrawl on them) in toilet bowls.
It has been testified to by several of his former staff as well as reported by journalists that Trump was notoriously sloppy and careless with documents throughout his term in office.
Also….to save you some time, here are some facts about the search of Mar A Lago, since I suspect you may be considering that more “crap” that evil leftists are “dreaming up” — It was not a “raid”, the FBI did not “break in” to his place, it was not “under siege”, nor “occupied”.
It was the result of a legal process, and sufficient specific evidence was shown to a Federal judge to justify it.
It was not a “raid” – the FBI notified the Secret Service at Mar A Lago ahead of time that they were coming.
They did not “break in”, the Secret Service peacefully allowed them to enter the property.
I write all this because this reflexive, very often completely incorrect reaction like Don’s to anything that might reflect badly on Trump is dangerous – he has propagandized too many to deny reality and mindlessly believe anything he says. Already, there are calls on right wing media that it’s time to start a civil war.
Our founders were convinced that an informed citizenry was the foundation of a free country. The damage Trump and his minions have done with deliberate misinformation will be a long time undoing.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
Our government was and is a source is lies, deception, and misinformation. That’s why we have classified documents with “need to know” access.
I’ve been their and done that…
The dude says
“I don’t usually comment on your socialist BS,”… yet you’re here reading that “socialist BS” every day. Clearly.
That’s OK… if this comment is indicative of what you bring to the discussion, we’re all better off without it.
An Informed Citizen says
1. https://nypost.com/2022/08/08/trump-team-tried-to-flush-documents-haberman-book-claims/ Right wing NY Post showing trump toilet with documents 2. white house aide- Omarosa made the claim that trump ate documents -https://www.newsweek.com/trump-ate-sensitive-document-after-cohen-meeting-former-white-house-aide-1069399 Unfortunately all of your statements regarding trump’s obnoxious behavior have been documentated by right wing sources-not left wing sources so you can’t say that it is the radical left making it up. Try something else for your fantasies.
I don’t care what political affiliations anyone has there is corruption throughout politics from the local level all the way up to Washington, but my problem with this is and as a “news source” why have we not seen any articles on Hunter’s laptop, Joe’s connection to Hunters business partners and the investigations on this subject, or Pelosi’s potential insider trading? Oh there are more but these are the latest hot topics, if we are going to be a legitimate reliable news source and unbias then why are political stories only one sided? Quit following the path of Fox, CNN, or the other far left or right mouth pieces. And before anyone starts sling mud, in the past I have voted for the best candidate not political affiliation and yes I have voted for both Republicans and Democrats.
David Schaefer says
Trump is nothing but a crook and a lier he needs to be in prison.
As are many politicians on both sides…. we need to consider term limits and a fresh start
We have ‘Term Limits” already, it’s called get out and Vote every single Election.
My ass deserves better !
Trump doesn’t believe in rule of law. Removing classified documents and taken them like the belong to him is a against the law. What number crime is Trump up to now? What if he sold classified documents to another country, that is called TREASON.
His soldier McCarthy who kisses his ring on a daily basis because he is too weak to stand up to him or to stand up for his own country is saying this is all political. Once again Trump has his minions spreading false information like he did with the election was stolen and no one ever came up with actual proof to back up that story.
Any group that feels they need to cause another violent attack on our country for Trump just remember he didn’t bail out any of the Capitol rioters and won’t in the future. He will throw them all under the bus and say he had nothing to do with it.
The USA has laws to follow not to break so you break the laws you pay for the crime. If people are against the US laws go move to another country.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
Innocent until proven guilty, right?
An Informed Citizen says
15 Boxes of U. S. Property were removed from Mar-A-Lago in February 2022. These boxes of material belonged to the PEOPLE, not trump. He already committed the crime of stealing U. S. Property and unfortunately he withheld more U. S. Property and refused to give it to the National Archives. Unfortunately he already proved himself guilty of noncompliance with the law. More Property was removed YESTERDAY despite repeated attempts to get trump to give it all back. If you remember, there was a Chinese National SPY that was arrested on Mar-A-Lago a few years ago and charged. For trump to continue keeping top secret material in his possession that belonged to the PEOPLE, meant that he was committing a crime. It is time for you to listen to PBS.
FB Native says
If you’re ever interested in learning just how many cases Drumpf has going on, feel free to follow along: https://www.justsecurity.org/75032/litigation-tracker-pending-criminal-and-civil-cases-against-donald-trump/
Willfully oblivious isn’t an excuse any longer.
It finally feels as though the slow turning wheel of justice is picking up momentum.
Make no mistake, party aside, anyone that breaks the law should be brought to justice. Are we starting to see the house of cards begin to crumble? Only one can hope.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
What classified documents?
Are we to believe classified documents were stolen? Some material is reported to have been checked out of a records library to be returned in the future. Are these the documents? Did he steal his speeches? Was this a probe form the Jan 6 commission, to cause concern, and questions, or to discredit?
Seems quite the coincidence, that he made threating remarks about reducing “the deep state” and shortly afterward his house was entered during his absence.
Please understand, I’m not a Trump lover.
Very likely just a coincidence- why? There’s a history here that may answer some of your questions:
“In January 2022, the National Archives (a so-called “independent” agency of the government) retrieved 15 boxes of materials that Trump had taken from the White House to Florida in apparent violation of rules regarding the preservation of presidential records. In February, the Archivist of the United States (fancy title!) wrote in a letter to the House Oversight Committee that some classified material was included in those boxes. The New York Times reported in May that a grand jury had begun investigating whether any of this material had been illegally “mishandled,” and further reported this week that Monday’s search, according to one source, “was at least in part for whether any records remained at the club.” An attorney representing Trump has told the press that agents carrying out the search seized an unspecified number of documents. The Wall Street Journal reports that “roughly 10 more boxes” were taken.”
So, probably not documents “checked out of a records library? And not a probe from the January 6 Commission either. “What classified documents”?, you ask — see above: the US Archivist already has reported he had classified info at MAL – also reported is that some of the CLASSIFIED material he had on hand at that time (or found yesterday) is so top secret that is CANNOT BE DESCRIBED PUBLICLY.
Trump’s long history in business of not keeping records, not using email, etc. that he carried into the Presidency, where he was violating the Presidential Records Act right from the start, leave no room to give him the benefit of the doubt.
If Trump wanted to really prove this so-called “raid” is the outrage he and his sycophants are claiming, he could release the warrant, which he has a copy of – rather than lie about it and of course, fundraise of those lies.
My God, Trump’s an idiot in my opinion. He is nothing more than a very spoiled child. It seems that, according to some, that anyone who sees through Trump is a socialist. Wrong. It also appears that we need a cult intervention to bring half our country back to reality. They do not see him lie, cheat, steal, whine, smirk, call people names, behave nastily, and behave childishly. They do not see his obvious narcissism and self promotion at any cost to others. They do not see him reward those faithful and destroy those who do not blindly support him.
I hope to hell they nail his ass, and if so, I will believe we still actually have a country, and a democratic one at that. Not an isolated autocracy.
Heathen lady says
ULTRA MAGA says
Do you still believe Biden after he told everyone that Russia would NEVER Invade Ukraine? Do you believe Biden when he tells us that China will NOT Invade Taiwan? Come On Man!
I think the story is about t–rump not Biden. T-runp signed a bill in 2018 that increased the punishment for knowingly removing classified materials with the intent to retain them at an unauthorized location up to 5 years in prison. Lock him up – Lock him up
Ultra: We’re not talking about Biden here, we’re talking about Trump. Besides, Trump thinks Putin is a “genius.”
I think you will find all of Trump’s alleged stolen secrets on Hilary’s server.
Bill: Don’t you wish!
Once again the Cult GOP are catering to Trump regarding a legal search of his property. The FBI is law enforcement for the USA and if they were given creditable information that classified documents were stolen from the White House they have every right to do what they did.
I cannot believe Pence would speak out against this legal inspection when Trump could careless if he was murdered or not on January 6th a long with his wife and daughter. There is something wrong with the Cult GOP’s when power and money are more important then the laws of the USA. There is something else wrong when the Cult GOP party doesn’t care that our democracy is being attacked by their party.
So its obvious many of you are never trumpers, I get it.
But, as a country in search of truth and the exposure of political corruption how can you not be enraged over the
double standard that exists within our system. Do you honestly believe, regardless of political affiliation that Hunter Biden (and Joe) and Hillary Clinton should not be subjected to the same level of investigation.
It is foolhardy to think that the FBI isn’t being used a political tool to influence the outcome of an election.
I love my country, but not its politicians. I have never seen corruption ” regardless of party” to the extent we have now.
FB Native says
It’s not our job to be your history teacher, nor to inform you on how to properly research these assumptions you make. Feel free to leverage a search engine and query “Hillary Clinton Federal Investigation” or, better yet, here ya go: https://www.fbi.gov/news/press-releases/press-releases/statement-by-fbi-director-james-b-comey-on-the-investigation-of-secretary-hillary-clinton2019s-use-of-a-personal-e-mail-system
The fact of the matter is, that Hillary was indeed subjected to a federal investigation in 2016, and the then AG & FBI Director decided that no charges should be drawn.
As is with TFG, if the current AG and FBI Director deem his actions did not violate the FRA or NARA, then so be it. But what happened yesterday was all part of the justice process.
If it’s the truth you seek, open your eyes and mind and stop with the deflection nonsense.
I can recall t-rump speaking about having to flush his toilet seventeen times and also complaining about water pressure. Sound like he was flushing more than toilet paper. Lock Him Up – Lock Him Up
Alphonse Abonte says
assemble the Toilet Committee!
FB – if it is truth you seek, apply it fairly without discrimination. AND posting a link to a web site hardly make you rise to a history teacher. Check your facts, without bias.