Political News

Donald Trump is literally tearing up the trappings of the US presidency

Posted June 11, 2018 3:28 p.m. EDT

— This, from Politico's Annie Karni, is stunning:

"Under the Presidential Records Act, the White House must preserve all memos, letters, emails and papers that the president touches, sending them to the National Archives for safekeeping as historical records.

"But White House aides realized early on that they were unable to stop Trump from ripping up paper after he was done with it and throwing it in the trash or on the floor, according to people familiar with the practice. Instead, they chose to clean it up for him, in order to make sure that the president wasn't violating the law."

Karni's piece details the work of a small group of White House aides to reassemble documents, memos, printed-out stories and the like that Trump rips to shreds -- literally -- day in and day out.

This is no small thing. After all, as Karni notes, all papers that the President touches have to be preserved. They are history.

That Trump doesn't know that -- or, even worse, knows it and doesn't care -- speaks volumes about something we already know from his first 16 months in office: He fundamentally misunderstands the office of president.

Being president is, at root, a sort of public trust. Yes, you live in the White House and you work in the Oval office. But you aren't the owner of the building; you are a temporary resident. Your time in the office is constitutionally limited -- no matter what you do, you won't ever be president for more than eight years.

Federalist Paper #57 gets at this idea nicely:

"The aim of every political constitution is, or ought to be, first to obtain for rulers men who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society; and in the next place, to take the most effectual precautions for keeping them virtuous whilst they continue to hold their public trust. The elective mode of obtaining rulers is the characteristic policy of republican government. The means relied on in this form of government for preventing their degeneracy are numerous and various. The most effectual one, is such a limitation of the term of appointments as will maintain a proper responsibility to the people."

Most past modern presidents have understood this idea innately: Yes, they were elected with a certain set of ideas and ideology to hold the highest office in the country. But their most important responsibility isn't to their party or any single individual or idea. It is to the American public and, in the broadest sense, to the perpetuation of the democratic principles on which this country was built.

Notice I said "most" past presidents. Because the Presidential Records Act, which was passed in 1978, came in response to the Watergate scandal, during which then President Richard Nixon repeatedly violated the public trust in pursuit of his own personal and political interests.

What the Presidential Records Act did, most consequentially, is make clear that any and all papers that passed through a president's hand were owned by the public, not the president. Those documents were required to be preserved in the public interest. (This is a good study on the impact of the Presidential Records Act on the presidency.)

Trump has never seen the presidency through the lens of a public trust. That sort of stuff is for the politicians who came before him -- the same ones who screwed everything up by playing by the rules, in his mind. Trump simply doesn't feel constrained by that kind of thinking. If he wants to rip up a letter from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, he rips it up. (Yes, this reportedly really happened.)

(Side note: That there is no one within the White House willing and able to tell Trump he simply can't do that is telling in and of itself.)

What Trump doesn't understand is that being president isn't the same thing as being the head of a private company. In that latter role, he is largely free to set the rules -- and obey or not obey them -- as he wishes. It's his company, he can do, largely, what he wants.

The presidency is not that. It's not Donald Trump's White House. Or his military. Or his Justice Department. These are all things that existed before Donald Trump ever even thought of running for president. And they are things that will exist long after he leaves the White House.

The destruction of presidential records is only the latest example of the fact that Trump simply doesn't grasp that idea. Any of it.