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Opinion Trump’s document destruction isn’t something to paper over or shrug off

President Donald Trump reading off his paper during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in January 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

An enduring mystery might finally have been solved. Remember when Donald Trump ranted about how “people are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once,” and nobody knew what on earth he was talking about? Maybe he was referring to personal difficulties in trying to flush away official White House documents.

A forthcoming book by New York Times correspondent Maggie Haberman, who covered Trump’s White House, reports that staff in the upstairs residence repeatedly found one of the toilets clogged with wads of printed paper. Trump issued a statement Thursday denying any and all document-flushing. But given what else we know about how he handled official paperwork — which belongs to the nation, not to him — I’m inclined to believe Haberman’s version of events.

From reporting in The Post, we learned this week that the National Archives and Records Administration had to recover 15 boxes of documents that Trump wrongly took with him to Mar-a-Lago, rather than sending them to the agency as required by law. From the Times, we learned that there may have been some classified material in those purloined documents. And now the National Archives and Records Administration has asked the Justice Department to investigate the matter.

We also know that some of the documents Trump did send to the Archives when he left office were pieced together with tape because of Trump’s habit of ripping up papers by hand when he finished with them — despite having been repeatedly warned, including by his chiefs of staff, that federal law required all those materials to be preserved. As Politico first reported in 2018, aides constantly had to fish torn bits of paper out of wastebaskets and painstakingly reassemble them.

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“People who have nothing to hide don’t … destroy evidence to keep it from being publicly archived as required under federal law.” That’s not me talking; that’s what Trump himself said at a campaign rally in 2016, as he railed about the earth-shattering importance of how Hillary Clinton had handled or mishandled her emails.

The Post's View: Documents weren't the only things Trump tore up while in office

The Justice Department should indeed investigate whether Trump broke the law by destroying, stealing or flushing official documents that he was required to preserve and surrender to the Archives. Granted, it is much more urgent that Justice investigate whether Trump committed the crime of seditious conspiracy by inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol. But the question of the documents cannot simply be dismissed with a “Trump will be Trump” shrug.

Most critical, obviously, is whether the security of highly classified information might have been compromised. But the completeness and continuity of the historical record is also important. Unlike his cluttered business headquarters in Trump Tower, the Oval Office never belonged to Trump — or to any other president. It belongs to us, the American people, and so does the flood of paper that passes through.

And while the Justice Department has to be deliberate in deciding whether to launch any investigation, let alone one into the actions of a former president, Congress is under no such constraint. Let’s have some hearings, people.

If the Democrats in charge of the House and Senate have forgotten how to do this sort of thing, they should solicit some pointers from their colleagues across the aisle.

In July, August and September of 2016, House Republicans issued more than 70 subpoenas and letters demanding information relating to Clinton’s email practices — which, you will recall, ended up being a nothingburger.

They fished for facts — or politically useful innuendo — from the FBI, the attorney general, the State Department, the office of the Director of National Intelligence and a host of other government agencies, as well as several private technology firms. In one month alone, September 2016, the GOP-led House Oversight and Reform Committee held five days of “emergency” hearings about Clinton’s emails and issued a dozen subpoenas.

Clinton was indeed careless. But Trump appears to have been both deliberate and persistent in his unlawful destruction of documents. Either the Presidential Records Act means something, or it doesn’t. Congress must choose.

This shouldn’t be added to the workload of the select committee investigating Jan. 6, which has bigger fish to fry. It is quite possible to have multiple committees conducting overlapping investigations, as Republicans did with Clinton’s emails and the Benghazi attack.

And unlike that GOP extravaganza, hearings into Trump’s handling of official and possibly classified papers would not be a purely political exercise. There is no question that those 15 boxes of documents had to be retrieved. There is no question that some official documents had been torn up.

And as for whether any were flushed, call White House staff to testify under oath. Now that’s a hearing I would definitely watch.