What was Trump thinking?

August 25, 2022

By: Jacquelyn D. Heath
Special to The Milwaukee Times

Just when we thought we had momentarily quelled the tempest that is former President Donald Trump, another chapter of questionable and possibly illegal behavior cropped up with his name all over it. This time, it’s the inappropriate handling of documents produced during the Trump presidency that have ended up in Trump’s private possession, instead of with the National Archives where they belong.

After months of trying to get Trump to return the documents – using formal requests, subpoenas and other legal means, which the former president had chosen to ignore – the FBI had to get a warrant from a federal judge to remove the documents from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and return them to the National Archives. In response, the former president now has alleged that his rights under the 4th Amendment against unreasonable search and seizure have been violated.

With his continued lack of cooperation, the former president left the FBI no choice but to recover the documents by whatever means necessary, in the interest of preserving national security.

In 1978, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The Act clarified who actually owns records and documents (written and electronic) created or handled by the U.S. president and vice president after they leave office. The Act was put in place in the interest of national security after it was found that former President Richard Nixon tried to deliberately destroy written and audio-taped records from his presidency that eventually implicated him in the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters and led to his 1974 resignation from office in disgrace.

The Presidential Records Act became law on January 20, 1981 – Inauguration Day — and all presidents since Ronald Reagan have abided by the law, except Donald Trump. This apparent defiance of the law, after taking an oath to uphold the law in the interest of our country and the Constitution, begs the question, ‘What was Trump thinking?’

One would like to believe that someone performing as President of the United States would know the limits of his authority and privilege, and if not, would have the sense to ask someone for guidance…but maybe not, in Trump’s case. After all, the U.S. presidency is the first time in his career that Donald Trump’s actions were required to pass public scrutiny, and required him to relinquish power and authority to someone other than himself. Prior to his 2015 venture into politics to run for president, public service was nowhere on his resume. Instead, he was the owner of a privately held family business with no shareholders or board members to hold him accountable, right or wrong.

In addition, while in office, Trump never divested any of his business interests and placed them in a blind trust to avoid the appearance of using the presidency for his own personal gain, to avoid the creation of a conflict of interest.

Whether inspired by ignorance or defiance, President Trump’s latest disregard for convention has serious consequences. Among them are putting him in direct violation of the Federal Espionage Act, a level of misconduct that could add “felon” to his list of accomplishments. It remains to be seen whether this breach of protocol will continue to escalate to that point. But in the meantime, Mr. Trump might want to take a refresher course in what constitutes proper behavior for a former president.

Who knows, he just might learn something.