Why presidential papers don’t belong to presidents

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The circumstances surrounding the FBI’s Monday search of former US President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, were not immediately clear, according to media reports. However, the Department of Justice has been actively investigating the discovery of boxes containing classified information that were moved to Trump’s residence in Florida after he left the White House in January 2021.

Why are call logs, drafts, speeches, handwritten notes, and other documents from the Trump presidency in the possession of the National Archives?

“The presidential records are owned by the United States government and managed by the National Archives,” said Megan Ryan Guthorne, acting vice president of operations. “Therefore, all presidential papers, materials, and records in the custody of the National Archives, whether donated, confiscated, or subject to the Presidential Records Act, are owned by the federal government.”

FILE – People wait for a moving truck after boxes are moved from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building inside the White House compound, on January 14, 2021, in Washington.

The Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that all presidential records are publicly owned and automatically transferred to the custody of the National Archives once the Commander-in-Chief leaves office. All presidential libraries and museums are part of the National Archives. Former President Barack Obama’s Presidential Library will be the first entirely digital library.

“The National Archives and Records Administration is the official record keeper of the United States government,” said Ryan Guthorne. “Only about one to three percent of records are permanent records, and these are documents that are essential to understanding the rights and entitlements of United States citizens, and that hold our elected officials accountable for their actions, [and] documenting our history as a nation.”

Presidential records were not always publicly owned.

FILE - The National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., on view August 7, 1984. The sign hanging from the columns reads,

FILE – The National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., on view August 7, 1984. The sign hanging from the columns reads, “ARCHIVES AT 50.”

“From George Washington to Jimmy Carter, the papers of the presidential administration have been considered the private property of a president who deals with him as he sees fit,” said Ryan Guthorne.

Most military leaders donated their presidential papers, a precedent set in motion by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. This lasted until the 1970s when President Richard Nixon fought to destroy his records, including secret tape recordings, during the Watergate scandal that eventually led to his resignation from office.

FILE - President Richard Nixon is shown gesturing to transcripts of the White House tapes in this photo in April 29, 1974, after he announced during a nationally televised address that he would turn the transcripts over to House impeachment investigators.

FILE – President Richard Nixon is shown gesturing to transcripts of the White House tapes in this photo in April 29, 1974, after he announced during a nationally televised address that he would turn the transcripts over to House impeachment investigators.

Congress suspected that the tapes contained evidence that could incriminate the president. Lawmakers passed the Presidential Recordings and Preservation of Materials Act of 1974, which applied only to Nixon’s presidential material and ordered NARA to retain Watergate-related material.

During his life, Nixon fought to keep his presidential records secret. NARA has received most, but not all, of the Watergate-related registrations. After Nixon’s death, his presidential papers and other materials were donated by his family.

“Julie Nixon Eisenhower called me, said she wanted to meet with me, and said the family wanted to settle down,” says John Carlin, who worked as an archivist in the US from 1995 until 2005.

Nixon’s daughter reached out to Carlin during his first week on the job in June 1995, more than 20 years after Watergate.

FILE - Richard Nixon embraces his daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, shortly after she resigned from office on August 9, 1974. Also pictured are Nixon's daughter, Tricia Cox, and her husband, Ed Cox.  (National Archives)

FILE – Richard Nixon embraces his daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower, shortly after she resigned from office on August 9, 1974. Also pictured are Nixon’s daughter, Tricia Cox, and her husband, Ed Cox. (National Archives)

“You have to remember that in those days, the president’s records were personal,” Carlin said. Nixon was going to keep them, and he had the law on his side. … And so, when she called that day and said, ‘We’re ready to settle,’ that was good news. … when he [Nixon] fight it. I mean, teeth and nails. There will be no compromise.”

Among those who access White House records are presidential scholars like Shannon Beau O’Brien who are interested in documenting history.

said O’Brien, a professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts.

If we don’t have access to this material, we can’t get to the truth. We just have access to the curated facts, in many ways, which is what people want to tell us, or what people want us to see, and that’s not always the most accurate.”

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