Two Advocacy Groups Sue Trump Over Presidential Records

Charlie Neibergall / AP

Two anti-secrecy nonprofits on Thursday filed suit against President Trump alleging that his administration’s centralization of decision making in the White House and the use of social media by him and his staff violate laws such as the 1978 Presidential Records Act.

In a complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the private National Security Archive housed at The George Washington University argued that Trump’s communication style and digital tools also violate the “Constitution’s requirement that the president ‘take care’ that the laws be faithfully executed.”

The records act requires presidents to maintain records for eventual public access, the groups noted in a release, calling into question Trump’s “destruction” of some of his Twitter messages. 

The National Archives and Records Administration has deemed presidential tweets after the Inauguration to be official public records, which means that the Archives would review them before any are destroyed.

By conducting deliberations on policies for executive orders at the White House rather than at agencies, the complaint said, Trump’s team can avoid Freedom of Information Act requests.

“The American people not only deserve to know how their government is making important decisions, it’s the law,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said. “By deleting these records, the White House is destroying essential historical records.”

The complaint reviewed Trump’s evolving drafts of executive orders such as the one restricting entry by citizens of specified majority-Muslim nations, and cited press accounts of the role of such White House advisers as Steve Bannon. It said that White House use of apps with names like Signal and Confide “ensure the destruction of sensitive email messages in violation” of the records act.

“Thanks to Congress, since 2014, government employees have been required to copy any private server email messages about government business to official systems within 20 days,” said National Security Archive director Tom Blanton. “Reports that Trump administration officials are disregarding this requirement – either by not following private email protocol or by using encrypted messaging apps that prevent any kind of preservation – raise serious concerns that presidential records are at risk.”  

Thursday’s suit blasts “This usurpation of recordkeeping responsibility, records that the public otherwise would have the right, under the law, to access because they would be agency records subject to disclosure under the FOIA are improperly cloaked as presidential records subject to the president’s exclusive control and beyond the reach of the public,” the complaint said. “Similarly, decisions that would otherwise be subject to review under the [Administrative Procedure Act] are improperly shielded from review as presidential decisions.”

More broadly, the complaint said “the failure of the president, his staff, and the [Executive Office of the President] to maintain and preserve records as the PRA requires, and their hamstringing of federal agencies from preserving and maintaining records under the [Federal Records Act], and issuing guidance under the APA, has produced an actual, tangible and irreversible harm.”

What the advocacy group’s suit seeks is “relief in the form of a declaratory judgment that President Trump, his staff, and the EOP have violated their non-discretionary statutory duties.”

CREW and NSA are also suing for the release of the White House visitor logs, which the Trump Administration stopped making public in April, and they also raised concerns about Trump’s suggestion that he has tapes of his conversations with such figures as fired FBI Director James Comey. On Thursday, however, the president said does not have tapes of conversations with Comey.

The White House did not respond to inquiries about the lawsuit by publication time.

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