Trump’s unprecedented disregard for standards

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump is not the first to be criticized for flouting rules and traditions about safeguarding sensitive government records, but national security experts say recent revelations point to an unprecedented disregard for standards post-presidencies established after the Watergate era.

Documentary dramas have cropped up from time to time over the years.

Democrat National Security Advisor Lyndon B. Johnson kept explosive files for years before turning them over to Johnson’s Presidential Library. Records showed his successor Richard Nixon’s campaign secretly communicated in the final days of the 1968 presidential race with the South Vietnamese government in an effort to delay the start of peace talks to end the war from Vietnam.

A secretary in the Ronald Reagan administration, Fawn Hall, testified that she altered and helped shred documents related to the Iran-Contra affair to protect Oliver North, her boss at the White House National Security Council .

Barack Obama’s CIA director David Petraeus was forced to resign and pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor for sharing classified documents with a biographer he was having an affair with. Hillary Clinton, then Obama’s secretary of state, faced FBI scrutiny that extended to her 2016 presidential campaign against Trump for her handling of highly classified documents in a private email account. . The FBI director recommended no criminal charges, but criticized Clinton for his “extremely negligent” behavior.

As more details emerge from last month’s FBI raid of Trump’s Florida home, the Justice Department has painted a picture of disregard for the rules on a scale some thought inconceivable after the establishment of the Presidential Records Act in 1978.

“I cannot think of any historical precedent in which there was even the suspicion that a president or even a high-ranking officer in the administration, with the exception of the Nixon administration, deliberately and consciously removing or even accidentally such a large volume of paperwork,” said Richard Immerman, who served as deputy deputy director of national intelligence from 2007 to 2009.

FBI agents who searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort on Aug. 8 found more than 100 documents with classification marks, including 18 marked top secret, 54 secret and 31 confidential, according to court documents. The FBI also identified 184 documents marked as classified in 15 boxes recovered by the National Archives in January, and it received additional classified documents during a June visit to Mar-a-Lago. Another 10,000 additional government documents without classification markings were also found.

This could violate the Presidential Archives Act, which states that these archives are the property of the government and must be preserved.

This law was enacted after Nixon resigned from office amid the Watergate scandal and sought to destroy hundreds of hours of secret White House tapes. He established government ownership of presidential records beginning with Ronald Reagan.

The law specifies that immediately after the departure of a president, the National Archives and Records Administration takes legal and physical custody of the outgoing administration’s records and begins to work with new White House staff on the proper handling of records. archives.

According to the National Archives, documents that have no “administrative, historical, informative or probative value” can be destroyed before obtaining written authorization from the archivist.

Documents were recovered from Trump’s bedroom, closet, bathroom and storage spaces at his Florida resort, which also serves as his home. In June, when Justice Department officials met with a Trump attorney to retrieve files in response to a subpoena, the attorney handed them documents in a “Redweld envelope, double-wrapped in duct tape.” .

Trump claimed he had declassified all documents in his possession and was working earnestly with department officials to return the documents during the search for Mar-a-Lago. During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed that Clinton’s use of his private email server for sensitive State Department material was disqualifying for his candidacy; his supporters’ chants to “lock him up” became a mainstay of his political rallies.

James Trusty, a lawyer for Trump in the records case, told Fox News that Trump’s possession of the sensitive government material was tantamount to clinging to an “overdue library book.”

But former Trump attorney general Bill Barr said in a separate interview with Fox News that he was “skeptical” of Trump’s claim that he declassified everything. “People are saying this (raid) was unprecedented – well, it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put it in a country club, OK,” Barr said.

Trump’s attitude about White House files is not so surprising to some who have worked for him.

One of Trump’s national security advisers, John Bolton, said informants quickly learned that Trump often tries to keep sensitive documents and that they took steps to ensure the documents did not go missing. . Classified information has been tweeted, shared with reporters and adversaries – even found in a bathroom in the White House complex.

This approach is out of step with how modern presidents have operated.

Obama, while writing his memoirs at the White House after leaving office, had paper documents he used in his research delivered to him in locked bags from a secure National Archives warehouse and returned them from the same way.

Dwight Eisenhower, who left office years before the Presidential Records Act was passed, kept official records safe at Fort Ritchie, Maryland, even though there was no obligation for him to do.

Neil Eggleston, who served as a White House attorney during the final years of the Obama administration, recalled that Fred Fielding, who held the same position in the George W. Bush administration, advised him as he started his new job of hammering home to staff the requirements laid down in the Archives Act.

Similarly, Trump’s White House attorney, Donald McGahn, sent a memo to all staff in the administration’s first few weeks emphasizing “that presidential records are the property of the United States.”

“It’s not a difficult concept that documents prepared during our presidential administration are not your personal property or the personal properties of the president,” Eggleston said.

Presidents are not required to obtain security clearances to access intelligence or formal instructions on their secrets-protecting responsibilities when they leave office, said Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA officer and director head of the White House Situation Room.

But guidelines issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees intelligence agencies, require that any “compartmentalized sensitive information” – some of the most valuable information the United States possesses – be accessed only in secure rooms. called “SCIF.

The FBI, in a court filing, last week included a photo of some of the documents officers uncovered while searching for Trump’s estate. The photo showed cover pages on at least five sets of papers labeled “TOP SECRET/SCI”, a reference to compartmentalized sensitive information, as well as a cover page labeled “SECRET/SCI” and “Contains information sensitive compartments”. The FBI also found dozens of empty files marked classified, with nothing inside and no explanation of what might have been there.

A chair may retain reports presented at a briefing for later review. And presidents — or presidential candidates in an election year — aren’t always briefed in a SCIF, depending on their schedules and locations, Pfeiffer said.

“There is no directive from the intelligence community that says how presidents should or should not be briefed on the documents,” said Pfeiffer, now director of the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security. “We never had to worry about that before.”

People around the president with access to intelligence are trained in intelligence rules on handling classified information and are required to follow them. But imposing restrictions on the president would be difficult for intelligence agencies, Pfeiffer said, because “by virtue of being the executive of the executive, he sets all the rules for secrecy and classification.”

President Joe Biden recently told reporters that he often reads his top-secret daily presidential briefing at his home in Delaware, where he frequently spends weekends and vacations. But Biden said he is taking precautions to ensure the document remains secure.

“I have an enclosed space in my house that is completely secure,” Biden said.

He added: “I read it. I’m relocking it and giving it to the army.”


Associated Press reporter Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.


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