Why a historian fears Trump may 'burn the evidence'

Why a historian fears Trump may 'burn the evidence'
President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, use the speaker phone to talk with military family members in the Oval Office of the White House Wednesday, April 1, 2020, during a conference call town hall to discuss the military response to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Fifty years from now, in the year 2070, historians will no doubt look back on the Trump era as a chaotic period in U.S. history. But historian Jill Lepore, in an article published by The New Yorker on November 16, fears many documents that could offer valuable insights on Donald Trump's presidency in the future will not survive.

Lepore stresses that transparency has never been Trump's strong point. Even before he became president, Lepore notes, Trump was big on NDAs: nondisclosure agreements — and in addition to that, he is known for demanding that note-takers destroy their notes after meetings.

"None of this bodes well for the historical record and for the scheduled transfer of materials from the White House to the National Archives, on January 20, 2021," Lepore warns. "That morning, even as President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., is ascending the steps of the capitol, staffers from the archives will presumably be in the White House, unlocking doors, opening desks, packing boxes and removing hard drives. What might be missing, that day, from file drawers and computer servers at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is difficult to say. But records that were never kept, were later destroyed, or are being destroyed right now chronicle the day-to-day doings of one of the most consequential presidencies in American history and might well include evidence of crimes, violations of the Constitution and human-rights abuses."

Delving into U.S. history, Lepore notes that President Richard Nixon, after resigning in August 1974 and leaving the White House, fought to "destroy the records of his presidency" — and as a result, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which "puts presidential records in the public domain."

"The public can see those records five years after the president leaves office, though a president can ask to extend those five years to 12 for material deemed sensitive," Lepore explains. "No longer are presidential papers the private property of the president."

Lepore points out, however, that "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," Lepore writes. "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."

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