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Capitol Voices

Ripping Trump's Speech Was More Than Distasteful of Pelosi — It Was Criminal

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Temper tantrums are rude, obnoxious, and cringe-inducing, but rarely felonious.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s tantrum was.

In tearing up the President’s hand-delivered State of the Union address, the Speaker did more than show her utter derision for America — she broke the law.

A section of federal law (18 U.S.C. §2071) covers the destruction of government documents. This statute states: 

(a) Whoever willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, or destroys, or attempts to do so, or, with intent to do so takes and carries away any record, proceeding, map, book, paper, document, or other thing, filed or deposited with any clerk or officer of any court of the United States, or in any public office, or with any judicial or public officer of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

(b) Whoever, having the custody of any such record, proceeding, map, book, document, paper, or other thing, willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies, or destroys the same, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both; and shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States. As used in this subsection, the term “office” does not include the office held by any person as a retired officer of the Armed Forces of the United States.

Several pundits — sensing the severity of Speaker Pelosi’s mistake — have suddenly taken a keen interest in 18 U.S.C. §2071. They argue that Pelosi’s copy of the State of the Union address was not “government property,” or a “government record.” Instead, they claim the document was simply a copy of a speech, and thus Pelosi’s personal property, to be disposed of in any way she wished. 

These defenses fail to recognize the importance of the specific document Pelosi destroyed.

Unlike the copies of the State of the Union address available elsewhere, Speaker Pelosi’s was an original, hand-signed copy. But it is not President Trump’s signature that made this particular document significant. Rather, at State of the Union addresses, the President hand-delivers one signed, official copy of his address to the Speaker of the House, and one to the President of the Senate (the Vice President). 

Those two copies are considered to be the original documents, transmitted from the head of the Executive Branch to the two heads of the Legislative Branch. From those two original documents all duplicates are produced. These two original documents are therefore not the “personal property” of the two recipients, but instead, the permanent record (and property) of the two chambers of Congress. When the document is “received” by the Speaker of the House, it becomes an official record of the House of Representatives. 

There is no question whatsoever that Speaker Pelosi “mutilated, obliterated, or destroyed” the copy of the President’s address provided to her at the beginning of the evening. The video evidence is clear and abundant; the Speaker herself gleefully told the press that she tore up President Trump’s speech because it was “the courteous thing to do given the alternatives.”

To claim that tearing up the speech was “the courteous thing to do” was perhaps meant as a joke. Even though the statement is utterly laughable, however, it’s not funny — Pelosi’s gesture was deeply and profoundly offensive, and gave the sense that she held the President’s achievements, and, more importantly, the achievements of the American people, in utter contempt.

Obviously, gestures made in poor taste are not illegal. Neither are policy disagreements. But Speaker Pelosi’s shocking behavior was far more than distasteful — it was criminal.

I am proud to have filed an ethics complaint, with a request for a criminal referral, against Speaker Pelosi. America deserves a better Speaker, and Nancy Pelosi deserves to be held accountable.

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