Update: On Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, the FBIat former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home in Florida. Sources tell CBS News the search was related to a Justice Department investigation into Trump’s handling of presidential records.
In the story below, first published on Feb. 10, 2022, shortly after the National Archivesto the Justice Department, legal experts told CBS News that Trump could face consequences for violating the Presidential Records Act or criminal statutes governing the handling of classified material.
Washington — Former President Donald Trump’s alleged improperwhile he was in office and after he decamped to Florida has prompted fresh scrutiny over whether he flouted federal law and, if he did, whether he can be held accountable for doing so.
The law governing the records-keeping responsibilities of presidents is the Presidential Records Act, which was enacted in 1978 and requires any memos, letters, emails and other documents related to the president’s duties be preserved and given to the National Archives and Records Administration at the end of an administration.
But the Archives has recently revealed that Trump tore up documents while in office, some of which were pieced back together by White House records management officials, and brought with him more than a dozen boxes of items and letters to Mar-a-Lago, his Palm Beach, Florida, residence, after leaving office last year. The boxes were retrieved by the Archives last month, the agency said.
Anne Weismann, a lawyer who represented watchdog groups that have sued Trump over violations of the Presidential Records Act, told CBS News that the former president “clearly violated” the Presidential Records Act in “multiple ways,” including by ripping up records.
But “the real problem is there’s absolutely no enforcement mechanism in the Presidential Record Act and there’s no administrative enforcement provision,” she said.
Weismann, though, identified two criminal laws that Trump may have violated by destroying White House records. The first law states anyone who “willfully injures or commits any depredation against any property of the United States” faces a fine or up to one year imprisonment if convicted. The second states anyone who “willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates or destroys … any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document, or other thing, filed or deposited … in any public office” is subject to a fine or up to three years in prison if convicted.
“You can’t plead stupidity,” Kel McClanahan, executive director of National Security Counselors, told CBS News on whether Trump willfully violated the law. “Ignoring the law is no excuse where in this particular case, that would be a very hard argument to make when we have the evidence that his chiefs of staff, his [White House] counsel were telling him, ‘Stop doing this stuff. Stop tearing up these records.'”
McClanahan was referring to a Washington Post report stating two of Trump’s former chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and John Kelly, and former White House counsel Don McGahn warned him about the Presidential Records Act.
“Would a reasonable president know that two chiefs of staff and one general counsel are probably right about the statute? This would be a pretty cut and dry case,” he said.
If Trump is not held accountable for violating federal laws governing the safe-keeping of records, Weismann warned other presidents may be less inclined to comply.
“It’s definitely sending a message…