Under the Presidential Records Act, preserving documents in the White House isn’t optional. For all intents and purposes, if a document reaches a president’s hands, there’s a legal requirement that the piece of paper be preserved.
But in this White House, record keeping is a little more difficult – because Donald Trump likes to tear documents apart after reading them. Politico reported yesterday on the folks who – in a very literal sense – were responsible for taping Trump’s papers back together.
Solomon Lartey spent the first five months of the Trump administration working in the Old Executive Office Building, standing over a desk with scraps of paper spread out in front of him.
Lartey, who earned an annual salary of $65,969 as a records management analyst, was a career government official with close to 30 years under his belt. But he had never seen anything like this in any previous administration he had worked for. He had never had to tape the president’s papers back together again.
Armed with rolls of clear Scotch tape, Lartey and his colleagues would sift through large piles of shredded paper and put them back together, he said, “like a jigsaw puzzle.” Sometimes the papers would just be split down the middle, but other times they would be torn into pieces so small they looked like confetti.
This isn’t a joke. The article said Trump has an “enduring habit” of ripping up papers – he ignored pleas from aides to stop – which in the White House, meant there was an entire department dedicated to the task of retrieving the pieces, taping them back together again, and passing them along to the National Archives.
One of Lartey’s colleagues, Reginald Young Jr., told Politico, “I’m looking at my director, and saying, ‘Are you guys serious?’ We’re making more than $60,000 a year, we need to be doing far more important things than this.”
One might think so. As the Washington Monthly’s Martin Longman put it, the job of collating presidential records in this White House “quickly became more like a third-grade art class.”
But while it’s easy to laugh at all of this, there’s actually a serious angle that’s worth paying attention to.
That’s because those responsible for taping Trump’s documents together – officials with top-secret security clearance – were “abruptly” let go recently and they’re not at all sure why.
As Politico reported, the document-preservation team shrunk in the early spring, and folks like Lartey and Young are “full of questions about why they were stripped of their badges with no explanation and marched off of the White House grounds by Secret Service.” They were also reportedly “forced to sign resignation letters without being given any explanation for why they were being dismissed.”
Their personal belongings were later shipped in boxes to their homes.
It’s difficult to speculate about what transpired behind the scenes, and current White House officials were apparently reluctant to answer questions about this, but it’s hard not to wonder. Did the guys with the clear Scotch tape see a document Team Trump considered embarrassing? Or perhaps this is a situation in which the president and those around him decided that complying with the Presidential Records Act is no longer worthwhile?
If we assume that Trump hasn’t suddenly abandoned his paper-tearing habit, either some folks are still taping all of these documents together or not. Perhaps the White House can explain which is true.