Suppose you elected as president a person who habitually readcheats at golfcheats on his spousesappears to cheat on his taxesattempted to steal to election, reneges on debts, promised sorry to government officials he had instructed to break the law, told his followers to punch protestersand who, as a young man, is alleged to have hired someone to take the SAT for him? Would you expect him to abide by either the spirit or the letter of the Presidential Records Act, which requires presidents to preserve historically relevant materials? Or, given what you know about this president, who just happens to be Donald Trump, would you assume he would violate it by ripping up, flushing, or pilfering government documents?
Having spent a lifetime training us to expect him to do the bad thing rather than the good thing, Trump astonished nobody this week when it was reported that he absconded to Mar-a-Lago with at least 15 boxes of presidential documents. Actually, it was a surprise that there were any documents left to remove because we have known for years that while serving in the White House, he had a habit of making confetti of government paperwork. Now comes a salacious new wrinkle on Trump’s anti-archival tendencies. According to a forthcoming book by New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, Trump is alleged to have plugged a White House toilet with flushed papers. Trump denies having sent government papers down the swirly, but given his track record, his denial is almost as good as a confession. We’re lucky nobody pointed him the way to the White House incinerator.
Trump’s paperwork abuses—if, in fact, he’s guilty—don’t teach us anything new about him. Trump’s disdain for anything historical that didn’t promote him has been well documented. Remember how he urged the preservation of Confederate statues but backed out on his promise to save the art on the Bonwit Teller building he bought and demolished in New York City? But his record reminds us once again that all the safeguards we built into the presidency to prevent its occupant from going feral will never be enough to restrain a person like Trump. The web of law, constitutional protections and cultural mores that prevent a president from bounding over the fence to do whatever he wants are only effective if the president recognizes them as real.
But what about impeachment, you say? Can’t we use that big stick to threaten naughty presidents and punish them if they don’t behave? In theory, yes. But only if you impeach other convict, something the system has yet to do against a sitting president because it’s such a hard trick to pull off. At almost every step in his lawless presidency, Trump operated under the correct assumption that nobody could bring him down. He knew, for example, that it’s phenomenally difficult to bring criminal charges against a sitting president. He also knew that the Senate, as constituted, would almost never convict him following impeachment. And he knew that he could entice others to do his criminal bidding, if need be, by promising presidential pardons.