News emerged late yesterday that a federal judge has ordered the White House, according to The Hill, not only to preserve records of President Trump’s “meetings, phone calls, and other communications with foreign leaders”, but also “all records of efforts by White House or other executive branch officials to return, ‘claw back,’ ‘lock down’ or recall White House records.” So not only are the records themselves ordered to be preserved, but so are records of any attempt to hide those records or inappropriately limit their being accessed.
Although the reports emerged last night, the ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson was actually made on Thursday. Interestingly, Jackson had only the day before denied the request to make such a ruling, having received assurances by the administration (the Justice Department, to be specific) that it would comply on a voluntary basis. This change suggests that Jackson lost confidence that the administration’s assurances were sincere. Jackson made this ruling, applicable and important to Trump’s communications related to the Ukraine, but stemming from a lawsuit that began before the events with Ukraine that led to the impeachment inquiry. The lawsuit at hand, filed in May, has as plaintiffs the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the National Security Archive, and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. The suit alleges violations of the Presidential Records Act by the White House. According to The Hill:
A federal judge has ordered the White House to preserve records of President Trump’s “meetings, phone calls, and other communications with foreign leaders,” a move that comes as the president faces a formal impeachment inquiry over his interactions with Ukraine. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, an appointee of former President Obama, issued the directive on Thursday. …Politico first reported the judge’s decision late Saturday. …Politico noted that lawyers pressed Jackson to issue a temporary restraining order in light of reports that the White House placed some of Trump’s phone calls with foreign leaders onto a computer system not typically meant for those conversations. Jackson denied the request on Wednesday after the Justice Department made assurances that it would secure records of communications between Trump and foreign leaders. Justice Department lawyer Kathryn Wyer said in a two-page filing that the administration would “voluntarily agree … to preserve the material at issue,” The Washington Post reported. Just a day later, Jackson issued the directive ordering the White House to preserve a host of communications between Trump and foreign leaders.
The judge’s apparent concern that the administration will not voluntarily comply with preserving the records appears to be a valid one, given that the Trump administration has already shown an unwillingness to comply with congressional requests on other subjects. Failure of the Trump administration to comply with lawful requests in the impeachment inquiry has already begun as well, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blocking testimony from current State Department officials and failing to meet the Friday deadline for him to produce documents, for which he was subpoenaed by House committees, related to the impeachment inquiry. Some reports have emerged that the White House also plans not to comply with requests made under the impeachment inquiry, but it remains to be seen if that is the case. An additional problem for the Trump administration if they do not comply in this case, however, is that the House committees making the impeachment inquiry have made it abundantly clear that failing to comply may be viewed as evidence of obstruction of Congress, which is itself an impeachable offense.