The National Archives revealed that several of the documents it had turned over to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol were in pieces. After former President Donald Trump had ripped up these documents, government officials had taped the pieces back together and delivered them to the records agency. Trump’s flagrant disregard for preserving executive records is only the latest example of a widespread campaign to avoid transparency and accountability in the presidency.
Trump’s flagrant disregard for preserving executive records is only the latest example of a widespread campaign to avoid transparency and accountability in the presidency.
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 changed the status of all presidential records created after 1980 from private documents to public. It tasked the National Archives and Records Administration with collecting, preserving, archiving and sharing those documents. This legislation was passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal in Richard Nixon’s administration. It reflected a widespread recognition that White House documents needed to be systematically cataloged and preserved to ensure public oversight of the presidency. The West Wing staff’s efforts to preserve the documents reflect a desire to comply with the act, but then-President Trump clearly thought himself above the laws that applied to his predecessors.
While his attempt to destroy the documentary record of his years in office is a recent revelation, the public witnessed other ways he worked to minimize other methods of public oversight. He ordered his staff to refuse to participate in investigations, refused to honor congressional subpoenas, reversed the Obama administration’s policy to publish White House visitor logs and ordered the firing of several inspectors general charged with oversight of executive departments. And former press secretary Stephanie Grisham, according to a recent report from The Guardian, told the House Jan. 6 committee that Trump increasingly had private meetings at the White House toward the end of his presidency to avoid the observant eyes of West Wing aides. These alleged secret meetings reflect a serious commitment to avoid accountability and, as such, were a betrayal of the president’s commitment to the American people.
From the earliest days of the presidency, the Executive Mansion, as the White House is sometimes called, played three sometimes conflicting roles — as a home for the president and his family, as a workspace for enormous responsibilities on the president’s plate and as a venue to host public and state events. But even before there was a White House, this multipurpose space existed. George Washington hosted receptions on Tuesday afternoons in the first-floor state dining room at the President’s House in Philadelphia. On Thursday evenings, he hosted state dinners in the same room. He convened regular Cabinet meetings in his private study right across the hall from where his wife entertained guests. The Washingtons’ bedroom was just a few doors down the hall.
The construction of the White House initially provided a bit more separation. The first floor, now known as the State Floor, offered several rooms for entertaining and large public events. The second floor contained several rooms for the first family’s private use. However, as the executive staff expanded, the divisions between public and private blurred. For most of the 19th century, the first floor of the White House was open to visitors. To escape the crush of office-seekers, presidents retreated to the second floor and carved out office space for themselves, their Cabinets and their secretaries on the eastern side of the second floor.
Theodore Roosevelt’s large and rambunctious family highlighted the impractical nature of this arrangement. He ordered the construction of a new west wing to house his staff and offered designated office space.
These alleged secret meetings reflect a serious commitment to avoid accountability and, as such, were a betrayal of the president’s commitment to the American people.
Since Roosevelt, most presidents have attempted to maintain separation between their public and private lives. They conduct most presidential business in the West Wing, host official functions on the State Floor and occasionally invite special guests to visit in the Yellow Oval Room on the second floor.
Presidents generally observe this distinction both to protect their families’ privacy and to ensure appropriate documentation of presidential activities. The chief usher, a position that emerged in the 1890s, helps demarcate the separation of work and family spaces, which is why the chief usher is traditionally not a political hire. That’s until Trump took office and fired Angella Reid, the first woman to hold the position, in 2017.
Unlike with previous changes in personnel, which were prompted when ushers accepted other positions in the administration, the Trump administration offered no rationale for its removal of Reid. The following month, then-first lady Melania Trump announced the hiring of Timothy Harleth, the former director of rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington.
While Reid had previous experience in the hospitality industry, Harleth’s connections to the Trump family and its various businesses represented a significant departure from precedent.
These political loyalties were on full display in the final days of Trump’s administration, according to The Guardian’s report on Grisham’s comments to the House committee. Allegedly, chief of staff Mark Meadows scheduled secret meetings and Harleth waved participants upstairs to the residence — far away from the Oval Office and West Wing aides who might be watching.
These secret meetings are not simply about location. Meetings in the residence that avoid the usual channels of communication do not produce the same written records as meetings in the Oval Office. While West Wing records are often classified for up to 12 years, they exist and eventually see the light of day.
Taken with the news that Trump tried to destroy written records of his meetings and conversations, his alleged secret meetings demonstrate a multi-pronged approach to subvert public and congressional oversight.
When presidents take the oath of office and swear to faithfully execute the Office of President, they accept the responsibility to represent and serve all Americans. In return for trusting the president with enormous power, the American people reserve the right to oversee the execution of that authority. No president is above that oversight.