Washington- In a victory for transparency, the Biden White House has revoked a Trump-era policy that allowed presidential records to be preserved by screenshot, replacing it with a new policy designed to meet the requirements of the Presidential Records Act. The policy change follows a lawsuit challenging the Trump White House’s “screenshotting” policy, filed last year by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, National Security Archive, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, and the American Historical Association.
Through the lawsuit, the government also revealed that Trump White House staff–including Senior Advisor Jared Kushner–were required to turn over complete versions of their WhatsApp messages before Trump’s term ended, and that those messages are now in the custody of the National Archives and Records Administration as the law requires.
“The Presidential Records Act exists to ensure that we understand what was going on behind closed doors and what we could do better in the future. The Trump administration will be remembered as the most corrupt administration in American history, which made it crucially important to obtain assurance through this lawsuit that administration officials would not destroy historically valuable records on their way out the door,” said CREW President Noah Bookbinder. “With its new recordkeeping policy, the Biden administration has taken necessary steps to begin to bring transparency and accountability back to the White House.”
The four groups filed the lawsuit in December 2020 to stop the destruction of administration records by former President Trump and White House staff. The groups challenged the White House’s official policy allowing staff to preserve official records from personal accounts merely by taking screenshots of the records and forwarding them to their official accounts.
The lawsuit also challenged Jared Kushner’s failure to properly preserve official records from his WhatsApp account, which he used routinely for government business.
This was not the first time CREW, National Security Archive and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations took action against the Trump administration for failing to adhere to its recordkeeping obligations. In June 2017, the trio filed a lawsuit challenging the use by White House officials of encrypted apps to communicate about official business that erase messages as they are read. In May 2019, the three groups filed a lawsuit alleging that President Trump violated the Presidential Records Act by failing to create records of his key meetings and communications with foreign leaders, including Vladmir Putin and Kim Jong-Un.
In March 2020, CREW sent a letter to the White House Counsel after it appeared that Jared Kushner’s shadow coronavirus task force was violating both the PRA and Federal Advisory Committee Act by using private email accounts with no assurance their communications were being preserved. In October 2020, CREW sent a letter directly to Kushner, warning him that his routine use of WhatsApp to discuss official government business could violate the law.
“In the future, we will need to be able to look back at the Trump administration and understand what exactly was going on, and by ensuring these documents were adequately and properly preserved, we believe we have saved documents from being lost to history,” said Bookbinder.