A new suit requesting declaratory relief, injunctive relief, and mandamus relief has been filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the National Security Archive (NSA). (Complaint)
CREW and NSA have brought a civil action against Trump under the Presidential Records Act (PRA), the Declaratory Judgment Act, and Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution (the President has a duty to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed”). The action challenges the actions of Trump, his staff, and the Executive Office of the President that “seek to evade transparency and government accountability.” This is the politest way ever of saying that Trump and his palarounds are liars who are frantically spinning “alternate facts” and trying to hide their actions and information from reporters and the public. More insidious is the notion that the Executive Office of the President is hijacking the roles of executive agencies and, in doing so, avoiding transparency and accountability.
CREW and NSA have two main challenges in their suit.
First, they are challenging the Defendants’ communications practices that allegedly “knowingly prevent the proper preservation of records” that the Defendants either generate or receive when they are carrying out constitutional, statutory, or other official duties of the President. So, basically, the Plaintiffs are arguing that the Trump ’n’ cabal are actively doing things that keeping official records from being properly kept as required by law.
Second, Plaintiffs are asserting the Defendants’ are overstepping the boundaries of their power by usurping agency duties and responsibilities through consolidating power in the White House – if proven, this is also illegal. The Plaintiffs argue that the Executive Orders coming out of the White House are cloaked in secrecy which is preventing federal agencies from being able to comply with their statutory duties under three statutes: the Federal Records Act (FRA), the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Plaintiffs make the point that their lawsuit is coming at a time of suspect activity in the Executive Office. Some examples of potential misconduct and questionable decision-making that CREW and NSA point at are the pressuring of James Comey to terminate the FBI’s investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, as well as Trump’s firing of Comey after Comey refused to terminate the investigation. Plaintiffs argue that the question of whether these actions were illegal may only be resolved through access to contemporaneous records that explain what Trump did and why. Therefore, there is a huge need for transparency right now, specifically.
Our government’s checks and balances include ones that are implemented through congressional and judicial oversight. In order for Congress and the judiciary to keep tabs on what’s going on within the Executive Branch, they need to have access to records of the President’s actions. Compliance with record-keeping responsibilities under the PRA and the FRA is incredibly important for the functioning of our government.
CREW and NSA suggest that Trump and his dudes are either ignoring or just full-on flouting their responsibilities under the two Acts. Plaintiffs allege (based on information they claim to have)that the White House is using certain email messaging applications that destroy messages as soon as they are read, regardless of whether those messages are presidential records. Some of Trump’s tweets, subject to federal record-keeping obligations, have been deleted. Additionally, Plaintiffs assert that Trump has implied that he’s been secretly recording conversations with Administration officials – and who the heck knows whether those recordings are being preserved. There are also allegations, sourced from at least one news report, that when ongoing congressional and FBI investigations were disclosed, White House officials purged their phones of potentially compromising information.
Interjection: YOU GUYS. If this stuff is true, it’s a big deal. If the White House is using software to erase the contents of messages upon their being read, if phones are being purged…this is BAD.
Plaintiffs extend their challenge to the alleged [unconstitutional] consolidation of power in the White House. They argue that the centralization of government decision-making within the White House ensures that decisions normally made or implemented by Executive Branch agencies are able to “evade disclosure under laws like the FOIA, preservation under laws like the FRA, and public review and comment under the APA.”
Essentially, this Trump-power-absorption is wreaking havoc on the order of operations of our government. Records that the public would ordinarily have a right to access under the law (because ordinarily, the records would be agency records subject to disclosure under FOIA) are now improperly cloaked as presidential records subject to the President’s exclusive control and beyond the reach of the public. Additionally, decisions that would ordinarily be subject to review under the APA (for example, when agencies make decisions about propagating or changing regulations, those regulations must go through a public notice and comment period, accessible to the public at large) are also shielded from review as “presidential decisions.”
This is insidious. It is also scary. In simple terms, if what the Plaintiffs are alleging is true, the White House is eradicating a paper trail. They’re enabling themselves to act with impunity because without a trail, it will be very, very, very difficult to demand any kind of accountability.
By acting as they have, Trump’s Troops have prevented federal agencies from complying with the statutory responsibilities. Their actions have also violated the constitutional requirement that the President take care that the law be faithfully executed.
Plaintiffs have a laundry list of facts that they have included in their Complaint.
Included in this list (which you can read yourself in its complete form, beginning on page 13 of the Complaint – along with links to related articles) are:
- The Executive Office’s issuance of gag orders on federal agencies.
- Trump requiring congressional staffers to sign non-disclosure agreements before allowing them to help him draft his first Muslim travel ban executive order.
- Making the White House visitor logs private.
- Trump’s various claims that he has continued his private sector practice of taping conversations.
- Trump’s (and his staffers’) heavy use of electronic messaging tools and platforms to conduct presidential and federal business.
- The Administration’s disregard for the NARA’s guidance on using electronic communication and the use by some staffers of Signal, an encrypted peer-to-peer messaging application, to communicate about presidential or federal business.
- Signal has a disappearing message function that allows a user to set a timer to delete the message from all devices.
- Some of Trump’s staffers may be using the chat app Confide, which erases messages as soon as they’re read.
- There are no policies or procedures in place to record any of these conversations and communications, which are arguably Presidential records.
- Congress has become concerned with these secret, likely erased, communications. Jason Chaffetz (yeah, that guy) wrote a letter requesting that Trump identify all policies and procedures related to non-official electronic messaging (email, texting, social media, etc.) and official electronic messaging, and policies and procedures related to properly securing and preserving communications and presidential records.
- Prior to March 24, 2017, Trump’s staff purged their phones because they expected to be subpoenaed in connection to the various investigations in which Trump was embroiled.
- Trump uses his personal Twitter account, not the President’s account.
- The White House should be capturing all Tweets from both the personal and Presidential account. It is not, however.
- Trump has issued at least 43 executive orders. Executive orders are meant to be issued by and signed by the President and the President alone. Government personnel outside of the President and his staff have had significant roles in preparing, reviewing, and commenting on draft executive orders, including executive agencies. (This is important because this suggests that agency rules are masquerading as executive orders in order to circumvent the mandated rulemaking process under the APA.)
The Plaintffs’ claims are as follows:
- For a Declaratory Judgment that the knowing use by defendants of messaging apps that prevent the preservation of presidential records violates the Presidential Records Act
- For a Declaratory Judgment that the failure of the President, his staff, and the EOP to issue guidelines concerning the use of messaging apps that prevent document preservation violates the Presidential Records Act
- For a Writ of Mandamus and Injunctive Relief compelling President Trump, his staff, and the EO to comply with their non-discretionary duties under the PRA
- For a Declaratory Judgment that Defendants’ use of the executive order process to remove records and rulemaking from the FRA and FOIA and the APA is contrary to law and violates the President’s constitutional obligation to take care to faithfully execute the law
They want the court to:
- Declare that the Defendants’ knowing use of messaging apps that prevent the preservation of presidential records violates the Presidential Records Act;
- Declare that the Defendants’ failure to issue guidelines concerning the use of messaging apps that prevent document preservation violates the Presidential Records Act;
- Order all Defendants, in the form of injunctive and mandamus relief, to refrain from using methods of communication that destroy records before any determination can be made as to whether they should be preserved as presidential records under the Presidential Records Act;
- Declare that the Defendants’ use of the executive order process to remove records from the Federal Records Act and public access under the Freedom of Information Act, and the rulemaking process of the Administrative Procedure Act, are contrary to law and the President’s constitutional obligation to take care that the law be faithfully executed; and
- Grant such other and further relief as the Court may deem just and proper.
Keep an eye on this one, guys. It’s not headline news yet, but CREW’s and NSA’s assertions run deep and are weighty claims. If their allegations are true, then Trump is hijacking the government in a very, very serious way, and erasing the paper trail as he does it.
Some “Brief” (because there’s no such thing as truly brief where laws are concerned) Background on the Laws at Issue
(I’ve also included citations to the laws, so anyone interested can sift through. Otherwise, just skip right over ‘em.)
Presidential Records Act
The PRA was enacted in 1978 in response to Watergate. It is meant to establish public ownership of presidential and vice presidential records, impose record-keeping requirements on the President and Vice President, and to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to preserve presidential records and make them publicly available. The PRA states that “[t]he United States shall reserve and retain complete ownership, possession, and control of Presidential records[.]” 44 U.S.C. § 2202.
The Act directs the President to “take all such steps as may be necessary to assure that the activities, deliberations, decisions, and policies that reflect the performance of his constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties are adequately documented and that such records are maintained as Presidential records[.]” 44 U.S.C. § 2203(a). In other words – the President is to document everything. Period.
“Presidential records” is broadly defined to include documentary materials “created or received by the President, the President’s immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise or assist the President” in conducting activities related to the President’s constitutional, statutory, or ceremonial duties. 44 U.S.C. § 2201(2). In other words…all the President’s elbow-rubbers are included here. Excluded from presidential records are “personal records” which are defined as those “of a purely private or nonpublic character” unrelated to the President’s constitutional, statutory, or ceremonial duties. 44 U.S.C. § 2201(3). I imagine that if a President wanted to write Harry Potter fan fiction under a pseudonym, it would fall under “personal records.”
“Documentary materials” is also broadly defined and includes “electronic or mechanical recordation’s.” 44 U.S.C. § 2201(1). The PRA’s legislative history explains that Congress intended the scope of “Presidential records” to be “very broad since a great number of what might ordinarily be construed as one’s private activities are, because of the nature of the presidency, considered to be of public nature, i.e., they effect the discharge of his official or ceremonial duties.” (So maybe that HP fanfic would be a Presidential record after all, depending on its contents.) The broad definition of “documentary materials” also helps ensure that the President and NARA preserve records that have or, maybe more importantly, are later found to have, great historical value. This way, documents default to “Presidential records” – save first, ask questions later.
There’s also a whole process under the PRA for the destruction of presidential records. The only way the Prez gets to destroy his or her non-personal records is after s/he has affirmatively determined that the records “no longer have administrative, historical, or evidentiary value[.] 44 U.S.C. § 2203(c). After a President has made this determination, s/he must then obtain the written views of the Archivist of the United States that the Archivist does not intend to take action to the contrary. 44 U.S.C. § 2203(c)(1)-(2). The Archivist must then state, in writing, that s/he has no intention of taking action with respect to the destruction of the specified presidential records.
We’re not done yet.
After al of this, then the President has to notify the appropriate congressional committee sixty days before the proposed disposal date of the President’s intention to dispose of the records. 44 U.S.C. § 2203(d). For anyone keeping count this is a four-step, and pretty lengthy, process. In writing the PRA, Congress wanted to guarantee that records were only destroyed after multiple entities deliberated and weighed-in.
(By the way, the Archivist is in charge of the records after the conclusion of the President’s term and must make those records publicly available as “rapidly and completely as possible consistent with provisions of this chapter.” 44 U.S.C. § 2203(g)(1).)
Anyway, as technology has advanced, obviously the PRA has had to evolve as well. In 2014, Congress amended the Act to expand the scope of means of communication. The 2014 amendment prohibits the President, his staff, and the EOP from using non-official electronic message accounts unless they: (1) copy one of the President’s official electronic messaging accounts, or that of his staff or EOP, or (2) forward a complete copy of the presidential record to an official electronic messaging account of the President, his staff, or EOP. 44 U.S.C. § 2209(a)(1)-(2). The President must comply with this requirement within twenty days after the presidential record in question is created or transmitted. An intentional violation means being subject to disciplinary action. 44 U.S.C. § 2209(b).
It should be a given, but “electronic messages” means “electronic mail and other electronic messaging systems that are used for the purposes of communicating between individuals.” 44 U.S.C. § 2209(c)(2).
That Presidential Twitter account, though.
One last thing worth noting is that although presidential records aren’t subject to the FOIA while the President is in office, most records become subject to FOIA requests five years after the President has left office.
The Federal Records Act
The FRA is like the PRA but for federal agencies. Congress enacted and amended the FRA to assure “[a]ccurate and complete documentation of the policies and transactions of the Federal Government,” and [j]udicious preservation and disposal of records.” 44 U.S.C. § 2902(1), (5). The head of each federal agency is charged with keeping track of and saving just about everything that relates to the agency’s actions. 44 U.S.C. § 3101. Further, the head must “establish safeguards against the removal or loss of records [the federal agency head] determines to be necessary and required by the regulations of the Archivist.” 44 U.S.C. § 3105.
Unlike the PRA, the public or other interested parties may request the disclosure of these records through FOIA.
The Administrative Procedure Act
Ah, the APA. Brings back stressful law school flashbacks. The APA governs the internal rule making procedures of federal agencies. 5 U.S.C. §§ 551-559. In short, a federal agency creates a rule that is subject to the APA when it seeks to “implement, interpret, or prescribe law or policy.” 5 U.S.C. § 551(4).
As I briefly mentioned above, the APA requires agencies engaging in rule making to provide public notice of a proposed rule making in the Federal Register, to provide interested persons with a meaningful opportunity to comment on the proposed rule, and to engage in reasoned decision making, considering all public comments. One rules or made, they are subject to judicial review and must be consistent with the statutory text authorizing the agency to promulgate regulations.
Freedom of Information Act
FOIA was enacted in 1966 and established a statutory right of public access to information held by Executive Branch agencies upon request. Congress wanted to “ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 437 U.S. 214, 242 (1978). The Act carries a “strong presumption in favor of disclosure,” U.S. Dep’t of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 173 (1991), and its “limited exceptions do not obscure the basic policy that disclosure, not secrecy, is the dominant objective of the Act.” Dep’t of the Air Force v. Rose, 425 U.S. 352, 361 (1976).
In short, the government should be transparent and the public should have access to its decisions and various decision-making processes. This is important in order to keep corruption in check and to hold those in charge responsible for their actions.
Under FOIA, just about every single record created by a federal agency must be made publicly available. There are a few specific exemptions however. Included in the government entities that fall outside of the APA’s definition of “agency” is the Office of the President, which is not subject to FOIA.
At issue in CREW’s and NSA’s complaint is Article II, Section 3, which is the “Take Care Clause.” The Take Care Clause says that “[the President] shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed[.]” U.S. Const., art. II, § 3. The Supreme Court has interpreted the Take Care Clause as imposing a “duty” or “obligation” on the President to ensure that Executive Branch officials comply with Congress’ law. Kendall v. United States ex rel. Stokes, 37 U.S. 524, 613 (1838).
(So the President can’t just run amok, usurping agency responsibilities, ignoring Acts aimed at the Executive Office, etc. etc.)