Political News

Judge rules that courts can't police Trump's lack of note-taking in Putin meetings

Posted February 10, 2020 6:30 p.m. EST

— The White House has won a lawsuit over President Donald Trump's lack of having written records of his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, because the federal judges in Washington are powerless to make sure the President complies with record-keeping laws on a daily basis.

Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the DC District Court dismissed the lawsuit, saying judges in Washington don't have the authority to oversee the President's day-to-day actions.

"The law is clear that the Court cannot order the President to perform discretionary duties," the judge noted.

"A district judge must steer clear of efforts to supervise day-to-day operations within the White House ... even when a complaint presents legitimate concerns about an ongoing practice that threatens the preservation of, and public access to, presidential records," Jackson wrote on Monday.

Historian and archivist groups and the left-leaning government transparency group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics had sued Trump and the White House in May, alleging that Trump hadn't properly created, preserved or disposed of records of meetings with foreign leaders.

Those meetings included a May 2017 meeting with Russian diplomats, and five meetings or conversations Trump had with Putin. Some of the Putin meetings had no other witnesses to the conversations, and so no notes exist. At one of the meetings, in July 2017 at the G-20 Summit in Germany, Trump allegedly took his translator's notes.

CREW also had sued over the lack of notes about a Trump meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner's meeting with Saudi Arabian royalty.

The case had been one of several attempts to draw courts' attentions to the President for allegedly not fulfilling his constitutional duties. It had also played into the increased scrutiny of ways the White House kept records of Trump's calls with foreign leaders in the days after news broke about Trump pressuring the Ukrainian President for political help.

CREW and the historians were challenging "this administration's recordkeeping practices -- its operational decisions concerning the creation and maintenance of records," Jackson noted in her opinion Monday. "The gravamen of these claims is that there appears to be a deliberate, ongoing effort to avoid the recordkeeping contemplated by Congress -- at least with respect to a critical subset of foreign relations activities. ... But 'clever drafting of a complaint' or 'artful pleading' is not a means to circumvent" legal standards about when courts can get involved.

Generally, presidential records are considered publicly owned documents and preserved by the National Archives after a President leaves office. The Presidential Records Act, passed in 1978, governs how these records should be kept.

Jackson pointed out that it would be up to Congress to put stricter rules on presidential note-taking. "It is Congress that has the power to revisit its decision to accord the executive such unfettered control or to clarify its intentions," she wrote.

The White House warned its staff in a 2017 memo to make sure they were properly creating and maintaining records.

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