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National Archives seeks Justice Dept investigation of Trump

The National Archives believes Donald Trump’s mishandling of official documents may have risen to the level of criminal misconduct.


The story of Donald Trump tearing up official White House documents took an unexpected turn over the weekend. After years in which the Republican’s habit of ripping apart official materials came up intermittently, The Washington Post reported that throughout his presidency, Trump was “relentless” in tearing up documents, including sensitive materials, even after he was directed to stop by “at least two chiefs of staff and the White House counsel.”

The Post was also first to report that officials with the National Archives and Records Administration had to go to Mar-a-Lago last month in order to retrieve documents — materials that were supposed to have been turned over to the records-keeping agency — that the former president had “improperly removed.”

How many materials? While initial reporting suggested it was a modest haul, we soon learned that the Archives had to retrieve 15 boxes from the Republican’s golf resort.

Given the scope and scale of the problem, it wasn’t long before observers raised an awkward question: Did Trump, who’s already facing multiple investigations, cross any legal lines by taking so many materials that didn’t belong to him? It appears officials at the National Archives are asking the same question. The Post reported today:

The National Archives and Records Administration has asked the Justice Department to examine Donald Trump’s handling of White House records, sparking discussions among federal law enforcement officials about whether they should investigate the former president for a possible crime.... Archives officials suspected Trump had possibly violated laws concerning the handling of government documents — including those that might be considered classified — and reached out to the Justice Department, the people familiar with the matter said.

MSNBC and NBC News have not independently verified this reporting.

It’s important to emphasize that it’s one thing for an agency to request an investigation from federal law enforcement; it’s something else for the Justice Department to grant the request and start scrutinizing possible misconduct from the former president.

But if the reporting is accurate, it appears the National Archives believes Trump’s mishandling of official documents may have risen to the level of criminal misconduct.

The next obvious question is the degree to which it matters. Even if prosecutors took an interest, are there real penalties for violating the Presidential Records Act?

The answer is, maybe.

Law professor Charles Tiefer, former counsel to the House of Representatives, told the Post this week that if there were “willful and unlawful intent” to violate the law, there are real legal penalties for those who get caught willfully concealing or destroying public records.

And while I’ll gladly leave it to legal experts to flesh out the nuances of “willful and unlawful intent,” there can be no doubt that Trump aware of the laws he was ignoring.

Indeed, after Trump delivered his State of the Union address in 2020, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi literally tore up her copy of the address as a way of registering her disgust.

Exactly two years ago this week, it led the Republican to make a bizarre claim. “[I]t’s an official document,” the then-president told reporters. “You’re not allowed. It’s illegal what she did. She broke the law.”

Or put another way, as recently as February 2020, Trump was aware of the fact that there are legal requirements surrounding presidential documents — requirements that he spent four years ignoring, before taking 15 boxes’ worth of materials with him to Mar-a-Lago.

Watch this space.