One of the amazing things about the controversy surrounding Donald Trump mishandling White House documents is the degree to which it’s changed quickly.
Initially, the story was about a sitting president who spent four years tearing up official materials, despite federal law, and despite the direction of “at least two chiefs of staff and the White House counsel.”
Then the story advanced unexpectedly: The Republican didn’t just destroy White House documents, he also took 15 boxes of materials — all of which had been “improperly removed“ — with him to Mar-a-Lago. By this point, the controversy wasn’t just about destruction of important presidential records, it also started to resemble a heist.
Midday yesterday, the story took another turn when the public learned that the National Archives had referred all of this to the Justice Department as a possible criminal matter. And why did the National Archives reach out to federal law enforcement? The New York Times had this report overnight:
The National Archives and Records Administration discovered what it believed was classified information in documents Donald J. Trump had taken with him from the White House as he left office, according to a person briefed on the matter.
Remember, when the recent revelations first came to light, the former president’s aides characterized the “improperly removed” records as largely trivial. The Republican’s team told The Washington Post this week that the items “included correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which Trump once described as ‘love letters,’ as well as a letter left for Trump by President Barack Obama.”
That was before we knew he took 15 boxes full of stuff — and before the reporting that the materials included sensitive information believed to be classified.
The Times’ report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, added that the Justice Department told the National Archives to have its inspector general look into this. We don’t yet know whether that’s happened, though the article went on to note, “An inspector general is required to alert the Justice Department to the discovery of any classified materials that were found outside authorized government channels.”
Not surprisingly, these developments have sparked interest on Capitol Hill. The Washington Post reported this morning that the chair of the House Oversight Committee is “moving quickly” in the hopes of getting answers.
In a letter sent Wednesday to Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) requested information “to examine the extent and impact” of Trump’s apparent violations of the Presidential Records Act, which requires the preservation of memos, letters, notes, emails, faxes and other written communications related to a president’s official duties. The letter, provided to The Washington Post, asked for a detailed inventory of the contents of the recovered boxes, a description of records that Trump “destroyed or attempted to destroy” without the approval of the Archives, and whether the contents are undergoing a review to determine if they contain classified information.
While we wait to see if another shoe falls, it’s also worth appreciating the larger context.
As every American who was conscious six years ago remembers, voters were told that Hillary Clinton’s email protocols were one of the defining political issues of our time. As Election Day 2016 approached, and the United States faced the prospect of having a ridiculous television personality elected to the nation’s highest office, “email” was the one thing voters heard most about the more capable and more qualified candidate.
The fact that Clinton did not rely entirely on her state.gov address, the electorate was told, was evidence of her recklessness. She put the United States at risk, the argument went, by mishandling classified materials. For some, it might even have been literally criminal.
During the presidential campaign, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan went so far as to formally request that Clinton be denied intelligence briefings — insisting that her email practices were proof that she mishandled classified information and therefore couldn’t be trusted. To this day, rabid Republican activists will reflexively chant, “Lock her up!” at the mere mention of her name because she allegedly failed to properly deal with classified materials.
When various observers — including me — said this was an outrageously stupid controversy, we received pushback from those who argued with great sincerity that this deserved to be an issue that dictated the outcome of one of the most important national elections in modern history.
And now, here we are, learning that Clinton’s opponent — who was elected in part because of her email practices — may have mishandled classified information while improperly taking White House materials to his private golf resort.
I realize that “but her emails“ jokes are probably a little too easy, but that doesn’t mean they’re wrong.