The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Breaking the law via toilet would certainly complete one Trump-era story arc

President Donald Trump shows a letter he said was from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a Cabinet meeting at the White House in 2019. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Let’s just start with how bad the decision-making process is that results in flushing regular paper down the toilet at a two-century-old house.

Not to get too into the particulars — assuming that I probably don’t need to, since we are all adults here — but there is a reason that toilet paper breaks apart in water. Our sewer systems are not garbage disposals, and our pipework isn’t a trash chute. Putting paper in a toilet yields a predictable outcome to anyone familiar with both toilets and paper.

And yet! The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman reports that during the Trump administration, White House staffers would occasionally discover that the toilets in the White House were clogged with “wads of clumped-up paper.” We’ve known for years that Donald Trump had a predilection for ripping up notes and other documents. The natural conclusion, then, is that some such scraps then wound up in the toilet.

Repeatedly. That’s really the part of this story that’s so odd. Clog the toilet with wads of paper once, okay, you could have anticipated that result, but lesson learned. But to do so more than once? Baffling, to understate it a bit. Mind you, Trump denied the story in a statement, as he has so often denied reporting from Haberman that was later validated. If you’re going to gamble on who will be proved to have been accurate, Maggie Haberman or Donald Trump, I’d recommend the former.

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This anecdote does lend new context to Trump’s occasional rants about the flow of toilets when he was president. In December 2019, for example, he alleged that low-flow regulations were making bathrooms less efficient.

“People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once,” he said. “They end up using more water. So, EPA is looking at that very strongly, at my suggestion,” he said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s the “Chekov’s gun” rule of the Trump presidency: If he complains at some point about having to flush the toilet multiple times, that’s going to become its own plot point somewhere down the line.

But what the anecdote does not do is offer new insights into the two questions that linger around Trump: How exposed is he to criminal prosecution, and how robust might a 2024 reelection bid be? (These are admittedly not two questions that are generally paired for presidential candidates.)

So let’s begin, once again, at the toilet.

This is part of a line of inquiry that’s been building this week, with The Washington Post’s reporting about the federal government having secured from Trump 15 boxes of material that should have been left behind when he left office. That’s quite likely why Haberman’s story broke now; the subject is in the news.

But unfortunately we don’t know much about how far over the line this behavior might have been. It’s very safe to assume that the toilet story, while tantalizing (well, not tantalizing exactly) is probably a nonstarter. After all, while one might assume that Trump was disposing of material that should have been retained during his presidency, we don’t know that for sure. We don’t know Trump placed the paper in the toilet or that it was anything subject to retention rules. And the nature of the incident means we’ll never know.

So we move up a level. Is the fact that the National Archives had to chase down this material indicative of a legal violation? Some of the material might have been classified, as The Post reported, but we don’t know exactly what that means. (The archives have referred the matter to law enforcement for investigation.) It is not the case that those violating records laws normally face stiff sanction. When a former aide to President Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger, was caught taking highly classified material out of the archives two decades ago, some of which were later destroyed, he was fined $50,000 and had to perform community service. And that was an aide to a president, not a former president himself. While justice should be blind, Attorney General Merrick Garland and President Biden are certainly aware that any effort to prosecute Trump would be fraught, particularly on something as relatively innocuous as taking papers from the White House.

There’s a political angle to this as well, of course. Trump repeatedly harangued Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign for her use of a private email server while she served in the Obama administration. He often misrepresented and exaggerated her actions, but some material on the server was determined to have been classified. The Justice Department determined that there was “no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information,” and Clinton — to Trump’s oft-performed chagrin — faced no criminal charges.

Would Trump pay a political price for retaining documents he should have turned over to the government? Well, I would ask you to consider what voter might look at the broad arc of Trump’s actions since 2015 and find this to be the one that changes him to or from a Trump voter. Maybe a plumber? That’s about it.

The line of inquiry focused on those removed documents may yield nothing concrete. In fact, that’s probably the safe bet. But it sits alongside a large pile of other legal questions centered on Trump and his conduct. At the federal level, that includes the investigation into the pro-Trump riot on Jan. 6, 2021, and his attempts to overturn the 2020 election. At the state level, it includes investigations into his private business by the state of New York and a probe considering his efforts to strong-arm state officials in Georgia to revoke Biden’s win in that state. He probably faces more risk at the state level, given that there’s less political cost for a state attorney general or local prosecutor to file charges than there would be for the Biden administration. But the timeline for any such thing to occur is murky.

It’s useful to consider why these stories are so gripping. One, certainly, is that Trump unquestionably spurred an unprecedented attack on U.S. democracy after he lost in 2020 — an effort that so far has yielded no more serious consequences than the loss of his Twitter account. Since he won, there’s been an obvious thirst from his opponents for his actions to be held to account, but save losing his reelection bid he’s generally avoided any negative blowback. The “he violated records-retention laws” line feels wily in the manner of taking down Al Capone for tax evasion — but then, when the feds arrested Capone, they weren’t worried about triggering a literal insurrection.

This is also why the toilet story is compelling. It combines two features of the Trump presidency — disregard for the rules and a general, uh, earthiness — into one story. Already, hours after the story broke, some hack in East Hollywood is crafting a script for this particular scene in some yet-to-be completed movie of the Trump years.

Ending the Trump era on some revelation that he had been caught scrambling like Karen Hill to dump the evidence in the toilet has a poetry that has captured America’s imagination this morning. But the more likely story is the predictable one: Trump did something odd that he shouldn’t have, and it, too, lands as a paragraph in a book documenting numerous other odd, inappropriate things he did.