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Will Trump Burn the Evidence?

How the President could endanger the official records of one of the most consequential periods in American history.

After Trump’s Inauguration, in January, 2017, the National Archives and Records Administration conferred with the White House to establish rules for record-keeping, and, given the novelty of Trump’s favored form of communication, advised Trump to save all his tweets, including deleted ones. Trump hasn’t stopped deleting his tweets; instead, the White House set up a system to capture them, before they vanish. On February 22nd, the White House counsel Don McGahn sent a memo on the subject of Presidential Records Act Obligations to everyone working in the Executive Office of the President, with detailed instructions about how to save and synch e-mail. McGahn’s memo also included instructions about texting apps:

You should not use instant messaging systems, social networks, or other internet-based means of electronic communication to conduct official business without the approval of the Office of the White House Counsel. If you ever generate or receive Presidential records on such platforms, you must preserve them by sending them to your EOP email account via a screenshot or other means. After preserving the communications, you must delete them from the non-EOP platform.

It appears that plenty of people in the White House ignored McGahn’s memo. Ivanka Trump used a personal e-mail for official communications. Jared Kushner used WhatsApp to communicate with the Saudi crown prince. The press secretary Sean Spicer held a meeting to warn staff not to use encrypted texting apps, though his chief concern appears to have been that White House personnel were using these apps to leak information to the press.

Ethically, if not legally, what records must be preserved by the White House and deposited with the National Archives at the close of Trump’s Presidency is subject to more dictates than those of the Presidential Records Act. In 2016, the International Council on Archives, founded with support from UNESCO in 1948, published a working document called “Basic Principles on the Role of Archivists and Records Managers in Support of Human Rights.” Essentially an archivists’ elaboration of the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it urges governments to preserve archives that contain evidence of violation of human rights.

The rules about record-keeping, like so much about American government, weren’t set up with someone like Trump in mind. It’s not impossible that his White House will destroy records not so much to cover its own tracks but to sabotage the Biden Administration. This would be a crime, of course, but Trump could issue blanket pardons. Yet, as with any Administration, there’s a limit to what can be lost. Probably not much is on paper, and it’s harder to destroy electronic records than most people think. Chances are, a lot of documents that people in the White House might wish did not exist can’t really be purged, because they’ve already been duplicated. Some will have been copied by other offices, as a matter of routine. And some will have been deliberately captured. “I can imagine that at State, Treasury, D.O.D., the career people have been quietly copying important stuff all the way along, precisely with this in mind,” the historian Fredrik Logevall, the author of a new biography of Kennedy, told me.