BY JEFF ROBBINS
Until last week the most uproarious explanation ever offered for the disappearance of evidence in the possession of an American president involved the erasure of 18½ minutes of Richard Nixon’s tape recording of a key White House meeting he had about the Watergate break-in just after it took place. The tape of Nixon’s meeting about the break-in was subpoenaed, which led to the darndest discovery: a large portion of the tape was missing, and Nixon had no explanation for what in the heck had happened to it.
His longtime secretary, Rose Mary Woods, loyally volunteered to offer reporters a theory of how she might have accidentally destroyed a portion of the tape. While reviewing the tape at Nixon’s request, she speculated, she might have inadvertently placed her foot on a pedal that erased the tape while keeping her foot there for an extended period of time, stretching the rest of her body several feet in the opposite direction to answer the phone.
While attempting to demonstrate this, however, what she demonstrated was that no circus performer on earth could have kept foot and torso virtually in separate rooms for 10 seconds, let alone the length of time she professed. Woods’ claim of truly superhuman elasticity led the late Rep. Al Lowenstein to dub her “Miss Glue-Shoes The Contortionist” and, indeed, her valiant attempt to take the fall for Somebody Else was later found by forensic testing to be impossible.
Last week’s revelations about plumbing problems at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. trumped the Rose Mary Woods Stretch in more ways than one. So very much about former President Donald Trump was so very clearly amiss that his fixation on problematic toilet-flushing was far down a long list of concerns about him.
“People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to one,” the leader of the free world proclaimed from the Roosevelt Room. “Ten times, right, 10 times,” he told a rally. “Not me, of course, not me. But you,” he said, no doubt mystifying a crowd of Make America Greaters. “I won’t talk about the fact that people have to flush their toilets 15 times,” Trump assured another crowd, thereby talking about it.
It seemed fair even at the time to wonder what in God’s name would lead the president of the United States to publicly mention even once his concerns about having to flush a toilet multiple times before dispatching whatever was in the bowl, let alone to return to the subject repeatedly. The explanation for why flushing troubles were so often top of Trump’s mind may have arrived with news that journalist Maggie Haberman’s forthcoming book reports that White House staff would find wads of printed paper clogging a toilet used by Trump and concluded that he flushed government documents therein. Trump denies this, trotting out the usual “fake news” line, but he does not enjoy a great deal of credibility on any subject, much less on subjects involving himself.
Trump’s credibility was not helped by a Washington Post report that he regularly tore up briefing materials, letters and memos, or by a former White House staffer’s on-the-record disclosure that Trump “loved to tear up those documents” and that she observed him eat the pieces of documents he had just ripped up.
And Trump’s attempts to destroy or otherwise make unavailable government documents appear to have been wholesale rather than merely retail. Late last week the National Archives and Records Administration said that it had retrieved 15 boxes of White House records that were supposed to have been transferred to the National Archives when Trump left office, but that instead were taken to Mar-a-Lago.
Like the flushing, the ripping and the eating of documents, this is more than a fetish or a penchant for hiding information that the former guy doesn’t want anyone to see. It’s an apparent violation of federal law.
“Lock her up,” Donald Trump would cry about Hillary Clinton’s improper handling of government emails.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.