Aug 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Why all those Trump documents exist in the form of physical paper

Illustration of four pillars, one made from a tall stack of papers.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The FBI's seizure of 11 sets of classified documents from Mar-a-Lago has raised a litany of questions about presidential records. One of those questions: Why, in the era of digital everything, is the U.S. government still relying so heavily on paper in the first place?

The answer: Much of the classified bureaucracy remains a paper world due in no small part to the security vulnerabilities associated with standard commercial devices, national security lawyer Bradley Moss tells Axios.

  • Classified databases and email accounts that meet the federal government's cybersecurity requirements exist, of course, but they generally require sitting at a terminal and viewing the information on a screen. Paper can be a lot easier to work with in a meeting.
  • The President's Daily Brief — a comprehensive and highly classified written summary of U.S. intelligence — was printed out onto physical paper every day until 2012, when it began to be administered via iPads that former President Obama and his inner circle could swipe through in the Oval Office.

That changed with Trump, a notorious technophobe with a short attention span who preferred to be briefed orally on a select few intelligence issues.

  • "On most days, Trump's PDB comprised three one-page items describing new developments abroad, plus brief updates of ongoing crises in the Middle East," according to an account published by the CIA's Center for the Study of Intelligence.
  • Despite his general resistance to studying intelligence, Trump reportedly sought to hold onto some of the more riveting documents he was personally interested in.

What they're saying: "Often the president would say [to intelligence briefers], 'Well, can I keep this?' And in my experience, the intelligence briefers most often would say, 'Well, sir, we'd prefer to take that back.' But sometimes they forgot," former national security adviser John Bolton told CBS News.

  • Former acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney corroborated that account, telling CNN: "From time to time, the president would say 'Can I keep this?'"
  • The New York Times reported that when the National Archives sought to retrieve documents that he had taken, Trump resisted, telling advisers: "It’s not theirs, it’s mine."

Between the lines: The hectic final days of the administration, when Trump was consumed by the aftermath of Jan. 6 and his looming second impeachment, was the capstone for a president who had long skirted procedure for preserving records.

  • "When the rushed packing of the West Wing occurred after Jan. 6, these documents were no doubt still sitting around the residence," Moss said.

Why it matters: Former President Trump has survived a historic level of legal scrutiny over the past six years, fending off investigations that ensnared many of his top aides and allies. His downfall may ultimately stem from an archaic practice — preserving paper records — that he refused to approach like his predecessors.

Go deeper