The National Archives and Records Administration put the National Archives and Records Administration in the national spotlight after former President Donald Trump sued the Congressional Committee investigating the January 6 attack on the US Capitol to prevent the agency from releasing Trump White House documents.
A court is expected to hear the latest arguments in the case on November 30.
Why are call logs, drafts, speeches, handwritten notes and other documents of Trump’s tenure in the possession of the National Archives?
“The President’s records are the property of the United States Government and administered by the National Archives,” says the agency’s acting deputy chief operating officer, Meghan Ryan Guthorne. “Therefore, all presidential papers, materials and records in the custody of the National Archives, whether donated, confiscated or governed by the Presidential Records Act, are owned by the federal government.”
The Presidential Records Act of 1978 established that all presidential records are owned by the public and automatically transferred to the custody of the National Archives as soon as 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 to go completely digital.
“The National Archives and Records Administration is the official record keeper for the United States government,” says Ryan Guthorne. “Only one to 3% of records are considered permanent records, and are documents that are essential to understanding the rights and entitlements of American citizens, holding our elected officials accountable for their actions, (and) our Let’s document the history of a nation.”
Presidential records were not always owned by the public.
“From George Washington through Jimmy Carter, presidential administration papers were considered the personal property of the president, as they saw fit,” says Ryan Guthorne.
Most commander-in-chiefs have donated their presidential papers, a precedent initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. This continued until the 1970s when President Richard Nixon struggled to destroy his records, including secret tape recordings during the Watergate scandal, which eventually led to his resignation.
Congress suspected that the tapes contained evidence that could convict the president. Lawmakers passed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act of 1974, which applied only to Nixon’s presidential material and directed that Watergate-related material be retained by NARA.
During his lifetime, Nixon struggled to keep his presidential records private. NARA received most, but not all, of the Watergate-related recordings. After Nixon’s death, his family donated his presidential papers and other materials.
“Julie Nixon Eisenhower called me, said she wanted to meet me, said the family wanted to settle down,” says John Carlin, who served as the United States archivist from 1995 to 2005.
In June 1995, more than 20 years after Watergate, Nixon’s daughter contacted Carlin during his first week.
“You have to remember that in those days, presidential records were personal,” Carlin says. “Nixon was going to keep them, and he had the law. … And so, when he called that day and said, ‘We’re ready to settle,’ it was good news. …when he (Nixon) was alive, he fought it. I mean, tooth and toenail. There was no compromise.”
Carlin says that working with Nixon’s papers consumed most of his decade’s tenure at the helm of NARA. But now, with the Presidential Records Act in force, he doesn’t expect similar complications to arise with Trump’s records.
“I’m not a lawyer, so keep that in mind, but I don’t think he has a leg to stand on,” Carlin says. “The law is in favor of the government. The law is clear. They are government records, presidential records that the government controls and has access to. ,
Among those who have access to White House records are presidential scholars like Shannon Bo O’Brien who are interested in documenting history.
“The public can start making requests through the Freedom of Information Act five years after the administration ends, but the president can also impose some restrictions on public access for up to 12 years,” says government department professor Bo O’Brien. at the University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts.
“If we don’t have access to this material, we don’t have access to truth. In many ways we only have access to fictional truths that people want to tell us, or people who want to see us, and it’s always Not the most accurate.
Bo O’Brien sees an upside to Trump’s fight to keep his presidential record out of the hands of Congress.
“If nothing else, this Trump administration could give us additional clarity on some areas of the law that have never been challenged before,” she says.