A new lawsuit accuses President Donald Trump and White House staff of illegally destroying presidential records.
A pair of watchdog organizations, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive (NSA), filed the suit Thursday a federal district court to challenge actions by the White House "that seek to evade transparency and government accountability" and appear to violate the Presidential Records Act.
That law, passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal, requires that the offices of the president and vice president preserve records and make them accessible to the public.
"Yet, the evidence to date suggests that President Trump and others within the White House are either ignoring or outright flouting these responsibilities," the complaint (pdf) states, citing Trump's use of Twitter and reports of White House staff use of the encrypted messaging application Signal, which can auto-delete messages, as well as another encrypted messaging app, Confide, which deletes chats after they're read. The complaint continues:
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From early on in this Administration, White House staff have used and, on information and belief, continue to use certain email messaging applications that destroy the contents of messages as soon as they are read, without regard to whether the messages are presidential records. Presidential statements made on Twitter sent from the President's personal Twitter account, which are subject to federal record-keeping obligations, have been destroyed. The President also has implied that he is secretly tape-recording some or all conversations with Administration officials, and it is unclear if these tapes are being preserved. And there is at least one news report that, when the ongoing congressional and FBI investigations were disclosed, White House aides purged their phones of potentially compromising information. These practices violate the Presidential Records Act.
"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 in a press statement. "By deleting these records, the White House is destroying essential historical records."
The lawsuit also challenges Trump's use of executive orders, which "are cloaked in secrecy, preventing federal agencies from complying with their statutory duties under the Federal Records Act (FRA), the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
For at least some of the 43 executive orders Trump has issued so far, "the White House has maintained control over the process and the documents it generated to avoid leaving a publicly accessible paper trail," the suit charges.