As the White House prepares for a presidential transition, the White House Counsel’s office must ensure that all White House staff preserve all records in accordance with the Presidential Records Act (PRA) and remind them that the willful destruction or concealment of such records is a federal crime punishable by fines and imprisonment, CREW wrote in a letter to White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
In light of concerning record keeping behavior by Trump and White House officials, the White House Counsel issued warnings on two separate occasions in 2017 sternly reminding White House personnel of their obligation to preserve records or face criminal penalties. The memos explicitly banned the use of social media messaging apps like Slack and Snapchat in official communications. The White House Counsel also explained that any work related messages sent to private email servers must be forwarded to a work account.
Despite these repeated warnings, White House officials have engaged in concerning recordkeeping practices, which CREW has continued to raise alarms about. In October, CREW sent a letter to Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner warning him that reportedly using apps like Signal and WhatsApp to conduct official business could violate the law. Kushner’s attorney claimed that he preserved all records through “‘screenshots’ of these communications and forward[ing] them to his official White House email account or to the National Security Council,” but we have little confidence that this “screenshot” approach to records preservation complies with the law or that White House officials have systematically screenshotted each and every Presidential record from all of their non-official accounts.
CREW has also previously filed a complaint against Director of the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Peter Navarro for deleting his official Twitter account with no assurance that his tweets were properly preserved. In addition, President Trump himself confiscated an interpreter’s notes of a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and ripped up some of his papers, which would violate the PRA.
The need to address White House officials’ pattern of failing to abide by record keeping law is reaching a new level of urgency as Trump’s time in office comes to an end. It has been more than three years since the White House Counsel’s warnings, during which time many more staff have entered the White House and a transition can result in recordkeeping requirements being ignored or disregarded. If the White House Counsel is committed to a truly transparent government, they will remind White House staff of the penalties and revise policies to ensure that all Presidential records stored in non-official accounts are completely and adequately preserved before the Trump administration concludes. Anything short of this will be an attack on our democracy and the public, which has endured four long years of an administration shrouded in secrecy that has faced little accountability for its monumental number of ethics and recordkeeping violations.