The Justice Department told White House personnel on Wednesday that they must preserve all notes regarding President Donald Trump’s meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders.
“Defendants today instructed relevant personnel to preserve the information,” Justice Department lawyers told a federal judge in a court filing.
The question of whether the White House was preserving the information arose in federal court Tuesday, following government transparency and historical archivist groups’ emergency request to maintain the notes from the Trump-Volodymyr Zelensky July 25 call and other Trump discussions with world leaders.
The groups had sued Trump and his executive office in May for failing to document at least five meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and one with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The Justice Department noted Wednesday that relevant documents would be protected while the lawsuit over White House note-taking continues, and White House staff was already told in February 2017 to keep all presidential records, either in hard-copy or electronic.
Yet the department’s direction Wednesday becomes an important step for the Trump administration as the impeachment inquiry regarding Trump’s July 25 call unfolds on Capitol Hill and the White House comes under fire for record-keeping practices.
The transparency and archivist groups had flagged record-keeping practices around the Zelensky call this week following a whistleblower’s accusation and CNN reporting that the White House restricted access to several transcripts of calls between Trump and foreign leaders.
In particular, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, the National Security Archive and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations had sought a special court order to make sure the White House would preserve all records of communications with foreign leaders. They also asked the court to order the White House to keep all documents regarding policies, legal advice and investigations about record-keeping.
A Justice Department lawyer on Tuesday had told the judge, Amy Berman Jackson of the DC District Court, that there was no risk to the White House’s record-keeping of Trump’s foreign calls. But the attorney wouldn’t go as far as pledging the White House would preserve all documents, saying she hadn’t received authorization from the White House to say they would.
Jackson was satisfied with the Department’s response Wednesday and took no further action.
“It is encouraging to know that those records that have been created will be preserved at least for the time being,” Noah Bookbinder, CREW’s executive director, said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “We look forward to arguing our case in court to ensure that they always will be.”
This story has been updated.