Editor’s Note: Sean Casten, a Democrat, represents Illinois’ 6th Congressional District. Democratic members of Congress Jamie Raskin of Maryland; Jim Himes of Connecticut; Madeleine Dean and Mary Gay Scanlon of Pennsylvania; Brad Schneider and Lauren Underwood of Illinois; Jared Huffman of California; Tom Malinowski of New Jersey; and Jason Crow of Colorado contributed to this commentary. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The peaceful and orderly transition of presidential power is a hallmark of our constitutional democracy embodied in the 12th, 20th and 25th Amendments. The 2008 transition between President George W. Bush’s administration and Barack Obama’s is often referenced as the standard for presidential transitions because of the high level of bipartisan cooperation exhibited by both teams.
It’s an expression of the most deeply rooted of our patriotic American values — allegiance to the republic and the system of self-governance that has guided us for 244 years.
With Election Day behind us, our country is entering an uncertain moment. Since 2016, President Donald Trump, members of his campaign and his administration have run roughshod over both the letter and the spirit of our laws. His associates have racked up an unprecedented number of indictments and convictions. Some of them, along with a raft of former cabinet members and White House officials, have normalized brazen financial and ethical conflicts of interest.
With the protections afforded by Presidential immunity ending in a matter of weeks, some officials may be tempted to cover the tracks of this administration and destroy evidence of wrongdoing.
We cannot allow that to happen.
All incoming administrations inherit policy disputes and diplomatic and military challenges from their predecessors. They inherit a job that existed before they arrived and will exist long after they leave. Maintaining the strength and resilience of the United States requires that the incoming team have access to the full record of events and internal deliberations relevant to existing policy challenges. No good comes to the United States if, say, Russian President Vladimir Putin has a more complete view of US-Russian communications over the prior four years than President Biden does.
It is for precisely that reason that Congress passed the Federal Records Act of 1950 and the Presidential Records Act of 1978. These laws ensure that documents, including digital and electronic records, pertaining to the official duties of the president, vice president, and federal agencies are retained and preserved.
This is crucial to our democracy and a peaceful transition of power. Both laws serve and protect the American people — the ones to which those documents belong. Anyone who violates those laws can be subject to criminal penalties or action from the next US attorney general.
Our challenge in this moment is that the culture of the Trump administration has led some of its officials to treat our laws and democratic norms as hindrances rather than sacred obligations. In the past four years we have already seen violations of the PRA and FRA.
For example, Trump seized and refused to release an interpreter’s notes after a meeting with Putin. White House staff, including Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, have reportedly relied on personal emails and encrypted messaging applications to conduct official business.
But these represent only the “known unknowns.” The PRA and FRA require preservation of all records, not just those that Congress is aware of. Given the pattern of behavior by Trump and his senior officials, we must remain vigilant to ensure all laws are followed, and all documents are preserved during this transition.
And here we would like to address the employees of federal agencies who have been forced to bear silent witness to malfeasance over the past four years: We thank you for your service. We have your back.
It is not lost on us that for every Alexander Vindman forced into the public spotlight, there are countless other quiet public servants who have refused unlawful orders and worked to uphold public integrity. We thank you for your dignity and patriotism, and we will work to ensure that our country will never put you in such a position again. We know that we can rely on you to put the United States of America first as you work through the transition process in these next 60 days.
Trump will be President until January 20, and until then, he is entitled to exercise all the lawful powers of his office to faithfully execute our laws and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” for the common good. But if you are asked to do something that you believe may violate the law, please seek legal counsel before complying, and notify your agency inspector general.
As members of Congress, we will be proactive during this transition, staying in regular touch with inspectors general and record-keeping officials.
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In the winter of 1776, Thomas Paine wrote of those who stood up for our country that they “deserve the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
To the American people who did not support Donald Trump and did not give up, who marched, who organized, who voted: Our republic still stands because of you. You have earned our “love and thanks” many times over. We cannot always count on elected officials to uphold their oath to protect our Constitution. But we take comfort from the knowledge that we can always count on you. Remain vigilant. We know you will.