According to some new reports from Trumpworld uber-correspondent Maggie Haberman’s forthcoming book, shop steward, some staffers believed that during his tenure, President Trump sometimes clogged a White House toilet by flushing documents. (Trump has publicly denied this.) axios pointed out that this detail, if true, “adds a vivid new dimension to his failings in preserving government documents.” Yes, of couse. But we just wanted to know: Is this actually a good way to get rid of a sensitive document in an emergency? To get an answer, we caught up with Patrick Garner of Cardinal Plumbing, Heating & Air in Northern Virginia (who last spoke to Slate about installing via zoom at the height of lockdown). This interview has been abridged and edited.
Heather Schwedel: Have you heard about Trump’s alleged method of getting rid of documents? What was your reaction?
Patrick Garner: I saw something like this on Reddit earlier in the day but didn’t really pay attention. I checked it out when you sent it to me. It’s pretty hilarious. Actually, my first reaction was that this is exactly what a kid would do. If you wanted to hide the testimony or hide a warrant, you would flush it down the toilet. Not only is that short-sighted, but it won’t work either. It will be found out almost immediately.
What actually happens when papers are flushed down a toilet?
One of the things any plumber will tell you is never flush baby wipes down a toilet, and you won’t even flush down a paper towel. So imagine printer paper or even card stock if it’s a nice White House letterhead. Obviously it won’t be able to be flushed down. Also, if you might get it behind the hole of the toilet, it will either get clogged in the toilet or worse, it could be pushed down further down the line, which can cause problems not only in this bathroom but really in the whole Building.
What happens then?
So when it gets stuck in the toilet, and most people don’t really pay attention to their toilet, but if you look to the side, you see a shape that looks like an S. It’s a trap in the toilet. So if it gets caught in the trap, there really isn’t much you can do. You might be able to put a snail down and push it through, but to do that you need to lift the toilet off the floor, pinch everything, and push it through. Often this will not work. So all you have to do is replace the toilet, but that’s honestly the best-case scenario. You run the risk of either pushing it further down or getting stuck even more.
I’ve seen where someone does this – in fact, it was literally a kid. He flushed a whole bunch of test answers and testimonials and stuff down his toilet. His parents tried to get it out themselves with a drill and they pushed it so far that we actually had to get in and use a jackhammer and open up their bottoms and cut out the pipe so we could get the items. Now that’s an extreme example, but it happens.
Suppose someone wanted to read a document that a president decided to flush down the toilet. Is that theoretically possible?
It depends on the type of paper it was printed on. For example, when you flush down a paper towel, it really just clumps. If you wash down a baby wipe, it will break down, but it will become very stringy. Computer paper, and especially card stock, which I know many documents are printed on, can actually remain legible. You can read everything there. If the pipes themselves are dirty, and old pipes are very dirty, then there is a risk that you will be covered with debris and limescale. But I absolutely pulled out paper and was still able to read exactly what was on it.
So it’s not a reliable way to get rid of documents containing government secrets, you say.
It is not reliable in the fact that it is not going anywhere because it is found immediately. And it’s not reliable in the fact that you really don’t destroy it. Anyone will likely be able to put the thing back together and see exactly what it is.
How much could a clogged toilet affect the entire building? Should the White House be on alert about document sewage?
It really depends on where the toilet is located. Everything will eventually connect into one realm. So imagine a river. You and I are on a river and I’m 500 yards north of you. If I start throwing pollution into that river, eventually it will come to you and it will ruin all of you. If you’re behind me, you’re obviously fine. So what is behind or rather downstream of this toilet will be affected. If it’s the last restroom in the White House, it doesn’t matter. If it’s the first, everyone will be affected.
How would you expect the pipes to be in a place like the White House?
Initially, the whistles in the White House would probably have been wooden whistles, which they made out of tree trunks. At some point they might have approached Orangeburg, these are whistles that we used during WWII. It’s actually just tar paper. What they have right now is most likely PVC. PVC is the standard for waste lines. Probably the whistles themselves are probably in good condition, especially if they are well maintained. With PVC it really won’t be any different than what you and I have in our homes once we get down to the actual plumbing. If it were cast iron pipes, which is possible – in fact most houses in our area have cast iron pipes. I’m just assuming they don’t because they are a large facility. Now if it was cast iron, which is possible, the cast iron pipe will actually start to crack and scale up. And that’s when things get caught very easily. They basically act as barbs, and anything trying to get past them will get snapped at these tiny barbs.
How much would it cost to fix all this? It’s probably taxpayer money.
If you just pull out a toilet and stick a sewer cam in it, you’re easily looking at $600 or $700 for a regular home. Now we’re talking about a contractor who needs a security clearance and has to work with specialty toilets. So I could easily see the best scenario at $1,500. If they had to dig up the floor, get a jackhammer, cut the pipe, fix the pipe and re-floor – we’re talking tens, maybe 20,000s.
Where does paper rank in terms of frequently washed away clogging items?
Baby wipes and paper towels will be your biggest items. Feminine products are obviously a no go. Something that surprises many people is dental floss. You don’t normally see government documents, but I guess there’s a first for everything.
What’s the craziest attempt to flush something down the toilet you’ve ever seen?
A few years ago we were called by the police. They had performed a SWAT stab on a house they suspected was selling drugs from their home and indeed they flushed down the toilet a large quantity of drugs still in plastic bags and everything was clogged. So they called us, we removed the toilet and our camera – we have an HD sewer camera so we can see what’s in the pipes – and we put it there. We found out exactly where all the drugs were. We opened up the bottom, cut out the pipe, and now the cops have their evidence.
I also had someone call me about four years ago because a toddler grabbed her father’s wallet and washed down a lot of money. Unfortunately, we were able to release most of the money – but they didn’t really want to use it. They actually tried to pay us with it. They said, “Okay, you know, can this be your reward?” I swear to God. We will take another type of cash or check please.
You mentioned that many of these flushing scenarios involved children. Have you ever met an adult who flushed something like this down?