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Congress wants to know why White House documents were moved to Trump's residence

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

The House Oversight Committee is opening an investigation into former President Donald Trump's handling of 15 boxes of presidential documents. The committee wants to know more about how and why the boxes ended up at Trump's Florida residence. It's the latest twist in the saga over Trump's treatment of official documents while in the White House and after leaving office.

NPR's Brian Naylor joins us with more. Hi, Brian.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: What do we know about what Trump did with these kinds of documents?

NAYLOR: So under something called the Presidential Records Act, the National Archives is supposed to assume responsibility for all of the president's records while in office, and the president is supposed to preserve those records. But Trump was well known for taking a disdainful attitude towards preserving documents. There were many stories of him tearing up letters and papers and leaving White House staffers to tape them back together.

And now, according to a forthcoming book by The New York Times' Maggie Haberman, engineers at the White House who were called to unclog the toilet on more than one occasion found it was blocked up by torn documents. Now, we should say here that the former president denies the toilet story, calling it categorically untrue. But the Archives has confirmed that some of the documents it received from the Trump White House had been taped together.

FLORIDO: What kind of documents were these? Do we know if they were classified?

NAYLOR: Well, so according to published reports in the Times and The Washington Post, some were, the Post says, even top secret. And the boxes included letters to Trump from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Trump once called love letters. Also returned was the original letter that former President Obama left for Trump when Trump took office. And also reportedly among the items was that map that Trump drew with a Sharpie to show the projected path of a hurricane into Alabama, contradicting what government forecasters had predicted.

FLORIDO: Right. So Brian, is this how other presidents have treated White House documents?

NAYLOR: Well, so, you know, the Presidential Records Act that we mentioned earlier was passed after concerns that President Nixon attempted to destroy records during Watergate and tried to avoid turning them over to the government after he left office. And there have been other instances of former presidents removing things from the White House during transitions, including, in Bill Clinton's case, gifts and furnishings. But the issues with Trump have been pretty out of the ordinary by all accounts.

FLORIDO: And are there any consequences for mishandling these records?

NAYLOR: Well, not many. The Archives has no enforcement powers, per se. Compliance with the Presidential Records Act has always been a kind of a gentlemen's agreement, as one former official said. That said, there have been cases where the government has prosecuted people over records.

Former national security adviser Sandy Berger was prosecuted for removing a document from a reading room at the National Archives and given a $50,000 fine. And, of course, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the subject of an FBI investigation for having classified documents on her personal email server, which, of course, Trump made a huge issue of in the 2016 campaign with all the calls of lock her up.

FLORIDO: Will the DOJ investigate this, you think?

NAYLOR: Well, neither the Archives nor the DOJ is commenting, but generally speaking, it would likely be a difficult task to prosecute Trump over something like this. The bar is pretty high.

FLORIDO: That's NPR's Brian Naylor. Thanks, Brian.

NAYLOR: Thanks, Adrian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.