The Media Today

The shred scare

February 11, 2022
President Donald Trump takes a piece of paper from his suit jacket as he speaks in the East Room of the White House, early Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Last week, amid an already intense Trump news cycle, the National Archives made an unusual disclosure to the Washington Post, confirming not only that it had recently transferred ripped documents from Trump’s White House to the House committee investigating January 6, but that Trump himself had ripped them up, and that some of them had not been put back together again. We’ve since learned a lot more about Trump’s, erm, document-retention practices, much of it from the Post, which has stayed on the story. On Monday, the Archives further confirmed that it had to retrieve fifteen boxes of documents and trinketsincluding Trump’s “love letters” from Kim Jong-un and the hurricane map he once defaced with a Sharpie—from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence after he failed, as required by law, to hand them over on departing the White House. (Trump aides denied any malicious intent, explaining that Trump’s departure was all a mad rush since he’d spent weeks thinking that he wouldn’t be leaving.) On Wednesday, the New York Times wrote that some of the documents taken by Trump appear to have been classified. Yesterday, the Post reported that some were clearly marked as such.

Because this is Trump we’re talking about, the story gets weirder. On Monday, Omarosa Manigault Newman, an Apprentice contestant turned Trump aide turned estranged Trump aide, joined MSNBC via a blurry video call from the back of a car to confirm Trump’s habit of tearing up documents and alleged that, on one occasion, she saw him “chewing” torn paper. Then, yesterday, Axios published a nugget from a forthcoming book by Maggie Haberman, of the Times, claiming that staff in the White House residence would sometimes find wads of (presumably undigested) paper clogging up the toilet. This revelation, as you can imagine, clogged up Twitter and cable news. Commentators agreed that Nixon’s White House plumbers were at least metaphorical. Others recalled Trump’s fixation with toilets that don’t flush properly—“We’re looking very strongly at sinks and showers and other elements of bathrooms…people are flushing toilets ten times, fifteen times, as opposed to once”—and agreed that it now makes a lot more sense.

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There was also a lot of media discussion as to whether Trump has violated the PRA, which stands, in this case, for Presidential Records Act, not Public Restroom Anxiety. The PRA, which was passed in 1978 post-Nixon and his plumbers, requires the White House to retain a broad array of documents related to a president’s official duties, and Trump has often been accused of violating it. Annie Karni, now of the Times, first reported on his shredding proclivities for Politico in 2018, profiling two since-fired officials whose job it had been to Scotch-tape the fragments, some as small as confetti, back together. (“It felt like the lowest form of work you can take on without having to empty the trash cans,” one said.) By that point, watchdog groups had already sued Trump, claiming that his staffers’ use of encrypted messaging apps violated the PRA (the suit was eventually tossed), and similar questions had arisen around Trump’s deletion of tweets and whether or not he was backing them up, in line with the Archives’ recommendations that he do so. (The answers, as I reported for CJR at the time, were complicated.) After Trump lost to Joe Biden, watchdog groups, sensing the danger Trump might pose to the public record on his way out the door, sued again, in a bid to prevent “any bonfire of records in the Rose Garden.” (Trump himself accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of breaking the law when she theatrically ripped up a copy of his State of the Union address in 2020. She did not break the law.)

Some pundits have speculated that document management might be what finally lands Trump in serious hot water, like a chewy Al Capone. This position was bolstered when the Post reported, on Wednesday, that the Archives had asked the Justice Department to examine Trump’s handling of White House documents. The circumstances here remain murky, however. The Times reported that Justice told the Archives’ inspector general to look into Trump’s Mar-a-Lago stash and the presence of classified material therein, but it wasn’t clear if the IG had referred the matter back to Justice, or if prosecutors will launch a full probe. As Brandon Van Grack, a former federal prosecutor, told the Post, of the classification issue, “there are just a ton of unknowns here”; for instance, Trump could have legally declassified the materials before he left office. The PRA involves a lower legal bar than classification, but is notoriously hard to enforce, as many legal commentators have been at pains to point out this week. One Archives official told the Post that it is effectively a “gentlemen’s agreement” (and Trump does not do those).

In addition to exploring the legal issues at stake, coverage of Trump’s document practices has often emphasized his hypocrisy—he did, after all, relentlessly hammer Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 campaign, for her handling of classified information and use of a private email server. Some media critics have accused news organizations of related hypocrisy. Writing on Tuesday, Craig Harrington, of Media Matters for America, argued that the Times had so far paid less attention to Trump’s mishandling of documents than it afforded the Clinton-email story, which it infamously hyped ahead of the 2016 election, and compared the front-page prominence of the two stories. Meanwhile, Eric Kleefeld, also of Media Matters, argued that both the Times and the Post “uncritically carried spin” from Trump aides trying to brush off the Mar-a-Lago transfer as an accident. “Treason,” Kleefeld wrote, “can’t be a good excuse for something else.”

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The main issue here, perhaps, is that the Clinton-email story got too much play in the run-up to the 2016 election; Trump’s document practices are, by this point, a big story across mainstream outlets, and the coverage I’ve seen has often been framed aggressively. I wrote in Tuesday’s newsletter that the bar for centering Trump in the news cycle these days should be high, given the urgency of Biden’s agenda; new reporting on Trump’s misdeeds, I argued, has sometimes cleared this bar, but not always—since it often falls short of things we already saw Trump do with our own eyes—while breathless punditry expressing constant surprise at the depths of Trump’s depravity increasingly feels pretty useless. Both of these dynamics are at play in an interesting way in the documents story. The Clinton-hypocrisy charge, in particular, is worth noting, but perhaps not worth hyping; brazen hypocrisy has always been a hallmark of Trump’s political attacks. As I wrote on Tuesday, we know who Trump is by this point. The documents story, like so many others, doesn’t reveal anything new about his character.

Still, the facts of this story do, in my view, meet a high standard of newsworthiness. The strong suggestion of presidential criminality is always consequential, and particularly so in light of the intensifying January 6 probe. The fact pattern on the classification front requires more reporting. But there is already an urgent point to be made here about the historical record. As I’ve written before, reporting that reveals new details of Trump’s behavior in office isn’t always interesting enough to be worth centering in the news cycle; sometimes, contributing to the building and availability of this historical record is enough.

The documents story is, in one sense, another contribution to this record. But it’s doubly important on such terms because it is also about the record itself. Every Trump White House document will not be immediately newsworthy. But threats to the nation’s legal right to preserve them are. Beyond the immediate stakes—the January 6 probe again—we all have a clear long-term interest in piecing together this seismic moment. Literally.

Below, more on Trump and documents:

  • Last call: Yesterday, the Times reported that the House committee probing January 6 has found gaps in the official White House call log from that date, even though Trump is known to have made calls while the insurrection was unfolding. “Investigators have not uncovered evidence that any official records were tampered with or deleted, and it is well known that Mr. Trump routinely used his personal cellphone, and those of his aides,” the Times reports. “There is nothing in federal record-keeping laws that explicitly addresses whether a president can use a personal cellphone for official business. But the spirit of the law is that presidents should avoid doing so—and if they do, their calls should still be memorialized,” a former director of litigation at the National Archives said.
  • Brought to book: In addition to Axios reporting the toilet detail, Haberman unveiled the title and cover of her forthcoming book, which will be called Confidence Man and come out in October. (Trump put out a statement dismissing the toilet story as “fake,” accusing Haberman of inventing it to promote her book, but Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs backed Haberman up, saying that she had heard the same thing.) Haberman’s having saved the detail for a book, rather than reporting it more promptly in the Times, inflamed a new iteration of an old debate on media Twitter. Parker Molloy took aim at “the trend of reporters keeping information from the public so they can sell books at a later date,” arguing that “it’s hard to trust the press when you don’t know what they’re hiding.”
  • More toilet reading: In 2019, I profiled Flush, a French magazine that sought to use toilets, and the act of using them, as a lens to examine society and politics. “It’s through the object—through the function, in fact, of going to the toilet, of relieving yourself—that we can say things,” Aude Lalo, who grew Flush out of a blog about toilets called Les Pisseuses, told me. “We’re undeniably in a niche… I don’t know of any other magazine, at least in France, on this topic. On the other hand, toilets are universal.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.