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America’s Secrets: Trump’s Unprecedented Disregard Of Norms

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump is not the primary to face criticism for flouting rules and traditions across the safeguarding of sensitive government records, but national security experts say recent revelations point to an unprecedented disregard of post-presidency norms established after the Watergate era.

Document dramas have cropped up sometimes through the years.

Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security adviser held onto explosive records for years before turning them over to the Johnson presidential library. The records showed that the campaign of his successor, Richard Nixon, was secretly communicating in the ultimate days of the 1968 presidential race with the South Vietnamese government in an effort to delay the opening of peace talks to finish the Vietnam War.

A secretary in Ronald Reagan’s administration, Fawn Hall, testified that she altered and helped shred documents related to the Iran-Contra affair to guard Oliver North, her boss on the White House National Security Council.

Barack Obama’s CIA director, David Petraeus, was forced to resign and pleaded guilty to a federal misdemeanor for sharing classified material with a biographer with whom he was having an affair. Hillary Clinton, while Obama’s secretary of state, faced FBI scrutiny that prolonged into her 2016 presidential campaign against Trump for her handling of highly classified material in a non-public email account. The FBI director beneficial no criminal charges but criticized Clinton for her “extremely careless” behavior.

As more details emerge from last month’s FBI search of Trump’s Florida home, the Justice Department has painted a portrait of an indifference for the foundations on a scale that some thought inconceivable after establishment of the Presidential Records Act in 1978.

“I cannot consider a historical precedent through which there was even the suspicion that a president or perhaps a high-ranking officer within the administration, except the Nixon administration, purposely and consciously and even unintentionally removing such a large volume of papers,” said Richard Immerman, who served as assistant deputy director of national intelligence from 2007 to 2009.

FBI agents who searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort on Aug. 8 found greater than 100 documents with classification markings, including 18 marked top secret, 54 secret and 31 confidential, based on court filings. The FBI also identified 184 documents marked as classified in 15 boxes recovered by the National Archives in January, and it received additional classified documents during a June visit to Mar-a-Lago. A further 10,000 other government records with no classification markings were also found.

That would violate the Presidential Records Act, which says that such records are government property and should be preserved.

That law was enacted after Nixon resigned from office within the midst of the Watergate scandal and sought to destroy a whole lot of hours of secretly recorded White House tapes. It established government ownership of presidential records starting with Ronald Reagan.

The act specifies that immediately after a president leaves office, the National Archives and Records Administration takes legal and physical custody of the outgoing administration’s records and begins to work with the incoming White House staff on appropriate records management.

In keeping with the National Archives, records that haven’t any “administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value” may be disposed of before obtaining the archivist’s written permission.

Documents have been recovered from Trump’s bedroom, closet, bathroom and storage areas at his Florida resort, which doubles as his home. In June, when Justice Department officials met a Trump lawyer to retrieve records in response to a subpoena, the lawyer handed them documents in a “Redweld envelope, double-wrapped in tape.”

Trump has claimed he declassified all of the documents in his possession and had been working in earnest with department officials on returning documents once they conducted the Mar-a-Lago search. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump asserted that Clinton’s use of her private email server for sensitive State Department material was disqualifying for her candidacy; chants from his supporters to “lock her up” became a mainstay at his political rallies.

James Trusty, a lawyer for Trump within the records matter, said on Fox News that Trump’s possession of the sensitive government material was corresponding to hanging on to an “overdue library book.”

But Trump’s former attorney general, Bill Barr, said in a separate Fox News interview that he was “skeptical” of Trump’s claim that he declassified every little thing. “People say this (raid) was unprecedented — well, it’s also unprecedented for a president to take all this classified information and put them in a rustic club, OK,” Barr said.

Trump’s attitude about White House records will not be so surprising to some who worked for him.

One in every of Trump’s national security advisers, John Bolton, said briefers quickly learned that Trump often tried to hold onto sensitive documents, they usually took steps to make sure that documents didn’t go missing. Classified information was tweeted, shared with reporters and adversaries — even present in a White House complex bathroom.

That approach is out of step with how modern-day presidents have operated.

Obama, while writing his White House memoir after leaving office, had paper records he utilized in his research delivered to him in locked bags from a secure National Archives storage facility and returned them in similar fashion.

Dwight Eisenhower, who left office years before the Presidential Records Act was passed, kept official records secure at Fort Ritchie, Maryland, though there was no requirement for him to achieve this.

Neil Eggleston, who served as White House counsel through the final years of the Obama administration, recalled that Fred Fielding, who held the identical position within the George W. Bush administration, advised him as he began his recent job to hammer home to staff the necessities set within the records act.

Similarly, Trump’s White House counsel, Donald McGahn, sent a staff-wide memo in the primary weeks of the administration underscoring “that presidential records are the property of the USA.”

“It is not a tough concept that documents prepared through the course of our presidential administration usually are not your personal property or the president’s personal properties,” Eggleston said.

Presidents usually are not required to acquire security clearances to access intelligence or formally instructed on their responsibilities to safeguard secrets once they leave office, said Larry Pfeiffer, a former CIA officer and senior director of the White House Situation Room.

But guidelines issued by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees the intelligence agencies, require that any “sensitive compartmented information” –- a few of the highest-value intelligence the U.S. possesses –- be viewed only in secure rooms often called “SCIFs.”

The FBI, in a court filing, this past week included a photo of a few of the records that agents discovered within the search of Trump’s estate. The photo showed cover sheets on not less than five sets of papers which can be marked “TOP SECRET/SCI,” a reference to sensitive compartmented information, in addition to a canopy sheet labeled “SECRET/SCI” and “Incorporates sensitive compartmented information.” The FBI also found dozens of empty folders marked classified, with nothing inside and no explanation of what may need been there.

A president can keep reports presented during a briefing for later review. And presidents –- or nominees for president during an election yr -– aren’t at all times briefed in a SCIF, depending on their schedules and locations, Pfeiffer said.

“There’s no intelligence community directive that claims how presidents should or shouldn’t be briefed on the materials,” said Pfeiffer, now director of the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security. “We’ve never needed to worry about it before.”

People across the president with access to intelligence are trained on intelligence rules on handling classified information and required to follow them. But imposing restrictions on the president can be difficult for intelligence agencies, Pfeiffer said, because “by virtue of being the chief of the chief branch, he sets all the foundations with regard to secrecy and classification.”

President Joe Biden told reporters recently that he often reads his top secret Presidential Each day Briefing at his home in Delaware, where he continuously spends his weekends and holidays. But Biden said he takes precautions to ensure the document stays secure.

“I even have in my home a cabined-off space that is totally secure,” Biden said.

He added: “I read it. I lock it back up and provides it to the military.”

Associated Press reporter Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.

Follow AP’s coverage of Donald Trump at https://apnews.com/hub/donald-trump

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