Another chance to prove Trump’s not above the law

York Dispatch editorial board

It may pale in comparison with attempting to disrupt congressional certification of a presidential election or separating young children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, but Donald Trump’s mishandling and illegal possession of government documents is no small matter.

Materials pertaining to the official conduct of a presidential administration — from classified reports to hand-written memoranda — are the property of the U.S. government, not, as the 45th president mistakenly but unsurprisingly presumed, the president. Thus, the Presidential Records Act, which dictates how records are to be preserved and transferred — and which Trump, in characteristic holier-than-thou fashion, ignored.

The issue re-emerged after some of the documents turned over to the bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol were either torn into pieces or taped back together. It intensified when it was revealed that the National Archives had to retrieve 15 boxes of government documents — some of them clearly marked classified or top secret — from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last month. An upcoming book alleges other papers were flushed down toilets.

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FILE President Donald Trump holds up papers as he speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on April 20, 2020, in Washington.  President Joe Biden is ordering the release of Trump White House visitor logs to the House committee investigating the riot of Jan. 6, 2021, once more rejecting former President Donald Trump’s claims of executive privilege. The committee has sought a trove of data from the National Archives, including presidential records that Trump had fought to keep private.  (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Trump’s disregard for preserving official materials was, as Chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., put it, “deeply troubling — but not surprising.” After all, the former president’s habit of tearing up documents has been public knowledge for years.

Knowing they were dealing with a spoiled man-child who refused to comply with even the smallest request for cooperation — two of Trump’s chiefs of staff urged compliance with the Presidential Records Act — staffers took to cleaning up after the president. Not unlike broom-wielding clowns following the elephants at a circus, White House aides gathered torn-up scraps of paper, which, in some cases, were then Scotch-taped back together.

Similar to the actions of senior staff like former economic advisor Gary Cohn, who allegedly took ill-conceived directives from the president’s desk before he could sign them, the ad-hoc archivists acted to save the president from himself — and, in this case, to save history. Understanding the actions of any administration requires as complete and accurate an accounting as possible.

Then there are the national security implications surrounding the documents illegally removed from the White House. Some of the contents “bore markings that the information was extremely sensitive and would be limited to a small group of officials with authority to view such highly classified information,” the Washington Post reported. Not the sort of material to be left in the hands of an ex-president so cavalier about following security dictates.

While it might be tempting to pass over this issue as simply another example of “Trump being Trump,” the matter deserves serious scrutiny. The National Archives has asked the Department of Justice to look into the matter and Maloney’s House Oversight Committee likewise intends to investigate.

The probes must be thorough and the consequences for Trump, if wrongdoing is uncovered, severe. After all, a Honolulu woman just this month was sentenced to 90 days in jail for knowingly taking classified documents from the U.S. Embassy in the Philippines.

Unlike the president’s role in the Jan. 6 attacks and his efforts to trade U.S. foreign aid for political favors, both of which saw him impeached but acquitted by acquiescent Senate Republicans, the hijacking of classified government documents is a seemingly more straightforward offense, less susceptible to Trump’s misdirection and obfuscation.

It is also a profound breech of not just presidential protocols but the law. (Republicans who screamed bloody murder over Hilary Clinton’s handling of classified information on an unsecured email server ought to be apoplectic over this national security threat.)

If wrongdoing is uncovered and the former president is once again allowed to skate, it will be neigh on impossible to argue, as a nation, that no one is above the law.