Discover more from Diane Francis
August 11, 2022
Just when you thought American politics had already hit bottom, a tweet posted on August 8 showed photos that allegedly show notes written by Donald Trump torn up and dumped into two toilets in order to flush them away. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman said she obtained these from a White House source and explained their legal and political significance in an interview. “That Mr. Trump was discarding documents this way was not widely known within the West Wing, but some aides were aware of the habit, which he engaged in repeatedly. It was an extension of Trump's term-long habit of ripping up documents that were supposed to be preserved under the Presidential Records Act.” The Act states that all records, phone logs involving a Presidency are the peoples’ property forever, and cannot be removed or destroyed. And just hours after the “toilet tweet” appeared, FBI agents searched Mar-A-Lago castle for top-secret documents and removed 12 boxes of material that should never have left the White House with Trump. Since then, the you-know-what has hit the fan.
Real issues underlie these bizarre goings-on but the photographic “journalism” is, frankly, embarrassing. Just who was in the President’s bathrooms snapping photos after he tossed paper into commodes and before they were flushed? Haberman is a credible journalist, and must have a plausible explanation, because she’s actually included the shots in her upcoming book called “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America". In response, Trump called it a fabrication and labelled her a “maggot”. Then his spokesman sneered: “You have to be pretty desperate to sell books if pictures of paper in a toilet bowl is part of your promotional plan.”
The FBI search, however, is another more serious matter but quickly became fodder for Trump who tweeted out that Mar-A-Lago was “currently under siege, raided, and occupied by a large group of FBI agents” even though agents were undertaking an orderly, court-authorized search of his home. He called it “prosecutorial misconduct,” “the weaponization of the justice system” and “an attack by radical left Democrats who desperately don’t want me to run for president in 2024” without mentioning that federal officials had been pestering him for months due to concerns about secret information stored in his home. In February, he returned 15 boxes but a source told the FBI there was more there. On August 8, another 12 boxes were found and reclaimed.
Behind all this fuss about flushing and a “raid” is The Presidential Records Act which forbids the removal of any White House-generated documents because they are public property. It states that it’s “a crime if someone, who has custody of government documents or records, `willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies or destroys’ them.” The Act became law in November 1978 after President Richard Nixon made off with all his papers and incriminating tapes following his resignation which also, bizarrely, took place on August 8 in 1974. Back then, Washington officials demanded their return, and the Supreme Court forced him to hand back everything, and the current Law was enacted to insure it wouldn’t happen again.
In 2021, Trump left with loads of papers in boxes and was badgered into returning 15 boxes in February 2022. But an FBI source told agents, then a Florida grand jury, that plenty more were being kept at Mar-A-Lago. The jury, then a judge, approved a search warrant and on August 8 Trump’s home, safe, and storage room were searched and another 12 boxes were removed. If information was shared or sold and involved national security, its removal constitutes a “crime”. Conviction can result in a fine, jail sentence or censure from ever holding public office. (Of note: The head of the FBI and judge who signed the jury recommendation for a search warrant were both Trump appointees.)
Keeping boxes may sound like a minor infraction, but historian Michael Beschloss explained the importance of the Act. “A President can’t just take documents when he leaves and destroy them or sell them or give them to another government. These must be preserved and protected under the aegis of the National Archives. If violated, one of the penalties is that he may never be able to serve in federal office ever again. This is serious and not like returning an overdue book to a library. In an atmosphere like this, you have to assume that the Attorney General did not do this casually and therefore the criminal suspicions — we don’t know yet exactly what they are — they have to be fairly serious.”
Trump portrays himself as a victim in all of this but the search was to retrieve stuff he shouldn’t have had and refused to return and involved boxes marked “classified” which could contain top-secret information. For instance, documents could contain information about nuclear codes, military date, the identity of foreign agents or CIA operatives abroad, or federal government strategies to rein in organized crime or terrorist groups. These may also contain evidence about Trump’s role in the January 6 riot and plan to overthrow the 2020 election of interest to the House Select Committee.
This week’s tangle with the FBI is simply Trump’s latest legal tussle. He’s been accused of committing at least 48 criminal offenses, according to Citizens for Ethics, a non-profit advocacy and investigative organization of lawyers. Some of his closest business and political insiders and associates have gone to jail, another dozen have been indicted, he and his children face scrutiny over his corporation’s questionable practices, and 882 Trump rioters involved in the January 6 insurrection have been criminally charged or convicted.
All have been politicized. Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, normally in Trump’s bad books, claimed that the Department of Justice “raid” has “reached an intolerable state of weaponized politicization.” Some right-wingers claim the FBI planted fake evidence at Mar-A-Lago. But all that’s bunk. Trump’s latest brush with the law is entirely his fault for removing records. because he’s refused for months to return what wasn’t his despite pestering by officials.
Most interesting will be if this FBI “haul” contains documents that the January 6 hearings may find useful. But that’s unlikely given testimony by former aides that Trump would routinely destroy or tear up confidential materials while in the White House, in contravention of the Act. He’s already had plenty of time to destroy incriminating evidence in his home, but the FBI source didn’t believe that was the case.
What’s known is that the federal grand jury concluded there was a violation and a “probable crime” before recommending a search warrant. So did the judge. It may turn out to be simply Trump sloppiness and legal recklessness, not part of a cunning cover-up. Charles Leerhsen, a ghost writer who helped Trump write “Surviving at the Top” offered another explanation that Trump might have taken the documents to sell as “presidential memorabilia”. In an interview he added “if there’s a grift to be grifted, he’s gonna grift it.”