As soon as Donald Trump concluded his State of the Union address on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was clearly seen on camera tearing her printed copy of the speech in half. She later explained her actions by saying that “she tore up a manifesto of mistruths,” as quoted by CNN.
Pelosi also dismissed the speech as being not a presidential report on the state of the union, but on Trump’s own “state of mind that had no contact with reality whatsoever,” according to the CNN report.
Trump, expectedly, did not see it that way. In fact, echoing other Republicans, including his own son, Donald Trump Jr., Trump claimed that by ripping the printed speech text in half, Pelosi “broke the law,” adding that “it’s an official document. It’s illegal, what she did.”
The assertion that Pelosi broke the law by tearing up the speech was first made by popular conservative Twitter personality Charlie Kirk, who according to a fact-check by PolitiFact, stated that Pelosi could be punished by up to three years in prison for violating a federal law with the heading 18 U.S.C. § 2071, Section 2071 (a).
The claim that Pelosi somehow violated that statute, or any federal law, by ripping up her copy of the speech is “crazy,” according to University of Minnesota Law Professor Heidi Kitrosser, an expert in government records and secrecy laws, as quoted by USA Today.
Because Pelosi’s copy was simply a printout of the SOTU text, it is “absurd to suggest that Pelosi can be prosecuted for doing with it whatever she pleases,” Kitrosser said in a separate statement to PolitiFact.
According to Kitrosser and other legal experts, the federal law prohibiting destruction of government records applies only to official documents that would be filed with the National Archives, or in a federal court. For example, according to the experts, Trump’s own copy of the speech on which he may have made notes or changes would constitute a protected, official record. A printout handed to Pelosi or anyone else would not.
“The State of the Union is a presidential record, which must go to the National Archives under the Presidential Records Act,” Georgetown University Law Professor Victoria Nourse told PolitiFact. Pelosi, however, did not “mutilate the record” filed in the archives, Nourse added.
Some in the media suggested that Pelosi ripped up Trump’s speech as retribution after he appeared to snub her offer of a handshake at the start of the State of the Union event.
Pelosi denied that the two incidents were connected, saying that she extended her hand to Trump simply to help steady him because, in her view, he appeared “a little sedated.”