Political pundits have been debating the ramifications of former President Donald Trump reportedly destroying documents that should have been saved under the Presidential Records Act for the past day.
Historian Michael Beschloss shared a screenshot of the penalties listed for violating 18 U.S.C. 2071 from the Congressional Research Service. Beschloss’ post backs up a Justice Department website archive that says the same thing.
“Subsection (b) of 18 U.S.C. § 2071 contains a similar prohibition specifically directed at custodians of public records,” says the Justice Department. “Any custodian of a public record who ‘willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies, or destroys (any record) shall be fined not more than $2,000 or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; and shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.’ While the range of acts proscribed by this subsection is somewhat narrower than subsection (a), it does provide the additional penalty of forfeiture of position with the United States.”
A section in the bill makes it far worse if Trump steals the records and sells them. Melania Trump, the former first lady, is already selling some of her belongings from her time in the White House.
“Title 18 contains two other provisions, of somewhat narrower application, which relate to public records. Section 285 prohibits the unauthorized taking, use, and attempted use of any document, record or file relating to a claim against the United States for purposes of procuring payment of that claim,” the DOJ site says. “Section 1506 prohibits the theft, alteration, or falsification of any record or process in any court of the United States. Both of these sections are punishable by a $5,000 fine or imprisonment for five years.”
Hayes Brown, a writer, and editor disagree. He observed in a piece for MSNBC that the Presidential Records Act has no enforcement mechanism and that the Department of Justice would be unlikely to bring a case against Trump.
Here is what the Congressional Research Service says about the Presidential Records Act and penalties for someone who removes or tampers with documents: pic.twitter.com/1Gu4e9RLOb
— Michael Beschloss (@BeschlossDC) February 7, 2022
“If federal prosecutors were to go after him for this specifically, they’d be challenged to prove that this isn’t targeting him with a charge they wouldn’t bring against anyone else,” Brown said. “Given the number of people who purposefully or accidentally walk off or mishandle federal records and the lack of prosecutions over it, that feels unlikely.”
Among the records found at Mar-a-Lago were “love letters” from North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un.
The National Archives stated this week that several White House documents were discovered at Trump’s Florida resort. Those artifacts included Trump’s correspondence with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which he described as “love letters” between him and the elusive dictator, as well as a note left for him by previous President Barack Obama before he left office.
Memos, letters, notes, emails, faxes, and other written communications relating to a president’s official duties must be preserved under the Presidential Records Act.