We just witnessed another textbook example this week of how Trump gets away with bending rules in his favor, and without having to pay a price from the press or the Beltway establishment. It’s maddening to watch and it highlights just how unprepared D.C. institutions still are in terms of dealing with an unapologetic authoritarian like Trump who, through his entire adult life, has always assumed rules do not apply to him. And they clearly do not.
The media continue to normalize his criminality, in this case absconding from the White House with classified documents as he readies another presidential run. (And shredding other docs.) It’s the same D.C. press corps that crucified Hillary Clinton for years simply because journalists thought her email story might have a hint of criminality to it. It never did.
What Trump has done since he first arrived in Washington, D.C., in January 2017 was shred longstanding Beltway protocols; traditions that for decades and sometimes centuries were based on a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ on the proper way to behave and the ethical course that should be followed while running the government. The consummate bully and liar, Trump didn’t care about any of those rules and began obliterating them immediately. He flooded the zone with crass, outlandish and destructive behavior, which the press tried to keep pace with at first. Shattering Beltway protocols used to carry a penalty, which was handed out by the press.
Eventually, as the years passed, news outlets mostly gave up, especially with the day-to-day transgressions, adopting a Trump-being-Trump view of his chronic rule breaking. Beltway institutions, particularly within the federal government, embraced the same mealy-mouthed approach, which gave Trump the okay to trample norms. “He didn’t think the rules applied to him,” a former White House aide told CNN this week. And he was right.
That’s why he packed up 15 boxes of presidential documents, some of them marked “top secret,” and shipped them off to Mar-a-lago, even though all the contents should have been sent to the National Archives, because the Presidential Records Act requires that all records created by presidents be turned over at the end of their administrations. Previously, Trump spent years destroying presidential documents, which is not allowed by law.
The whole story revolved around “the Trump administration flagrantly violating federal law by removing and destroying protected federal records,” as Media Matters noted. But that’s not how it got played in the press this week.
The Washington Post, which broke the 15-boxes story on Monday, politely carried spin from unnamed Trump advisers saying there had been no “nefarious intent” in keeping the batch of documents, some of which the January 6 committee want as part of its insurrection investigation. Instead, there had been a “frenzied packing process” in the wake of Trump’s defeat, the Post explained.
The newspaper actually granted anonymity to a “former Trump White House official,” so he or she could be quoted as saying that Trump packing up the 15 boxes was just an honest mistake by a man who would never consider breaking the rules — the same Trump who told more than 20,000 lies while in office.
Following up the Post’s credulous reporting, the New York Times managed to be equally obsequious, as it typed up the same spin from the same former Trump officials. Shorter Times: Nothing to see here folks, it was all just a misunderstanding.
Look at the Times’ ridiculously gentle headline, “Trump Gives Documents Improperly Taken From White House to Archives.” [Emphasis added.] Even before reading the article, news consumers are tipped off that this wasn’t a major infraction by Trump; it wasn’t a criminal act because he gave back the documents that were “improperly taken.” Fact: Trump did not simply “hand over” the documents, as the Times suggested in the article. He turned them over after his lawyers negotiated for months with the National Archives.
At the top of the article, the Times stressed that 15 boxes were taken (illegally) because of the “hasty exit” Trump made from the White House, and because aides were “preoccupied” in January 2021. What does “hasty exit” even mean? Like every other president whose time in the White House ends, Trump was given ten weeks notice from the time of the November election to the time the new president was sworn in. There was nothing “hasty” about the transition.
The Times’ ho-hum coverage took a strange turn on Thursday when Axios reported Maggie Haberman’s upcoming Trump book reports that “staff in the White House residence periodically discovered wads of printed paper clogging a toilet — and believed the president had flushed pieces of paper.” That’s weird because two days earlier it was Haberman who wrote the Times story suggesting Trump taking 15 boxes home with him was an honest mistake — yet she knew he was likely flushing documents down the toilet while he was president? Why wasn’t that crucial information included in the Times’ Archives reporting? And if Haberman knew that, why did she allow Trump aides to spin the story this week as nothing more than a bureaucratic misunderstanding?
When the Archives story progressed after it was learned that classified documents had been found within the 15 boxes, the Times ran that update on page 15, not page 1, once again signaling the news wasn’t especially important.
That’s how Trump gets away with shredding everything.