Fight over Trump records puts focus on low-profile National Archives
The tempest surrounding Trump White House records has put an unusual amount of focus on a low-profile but powerful independent federal government agency: the National Archives.
Over the past several months, the National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, stood in the middle of a fight between former President Trump and the select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol over a massive document request.
Now, the Archives has been further drawn into the spotlight with the revelation that Trump took boxes of official documents with him from the White House, including some reported to be classified and marked “top secret,” when he left office last year, in violation of federal records keeping laws. The House Oversight and Reform Committee announced Thursday that it is investigating the matter in a letter seeking information from U.S. archivist David Ferriero.
It’s an odd place for a 1,100-person agency that functions mostly under the radar. The National Archives manages the vast trove of documents from not only the White House but other federal government agencies, including highly classified information.
“I think it’s the most difficult challenge the National Archives has ever had,” said John Carlin, a Clinton appointee who served as the eighth archivist of the United States. “In terms of what potentially could have gone wrong, what could potentially have really damaged the Archives and their image with the public as well as Washington, D.C.”
Carlin, who oversaw the effort to preserve the Nixon tapes when he was the U.S. archivist, said that he has been pleasantly surprised by the Archives’ ability to navigate the document requests from the Jan. 6 committee, pointing to the lack of public complaints from lawmakers as evidence the Archives staff have done a good job under difficult circumstances.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh gosh, they don’t have the staff to do it,’” he said.
The committee’s document request to the Archives was nothing short of sweeping. It sought documents, communications, calendars, schedules, movement logs, videos, photographs, visitor logs and telephone records related to Jan. 6 and efforts to challenge the 2020 election results. It asked for documents not just from top White House aides but also from members of Trump’s own family.
In a court filing last year, John Laster, director of the Archives’ White House liaison division, said that staff started by sifting through hard-copy documents while they waited for “hundreds of terabytes” of Trump-era electronic records to be fully transferred from White House servers to the Archives.
The documents were held in legal limbo until earlier this year as Trump challenged the release of more than 700 pages on the grounds of executive privilege.
But the Supreme Court last month declined a request from Trump to block the release of his presidential documents to the Jan. 6 committee, paving the way for hundreds of pages of materials the Archives had identified to be transmitted to the panel.
The Archives is providing the documents to the committee on a rolling basis.
“We haven gotten significant production from National Archives on a lot of matters of interest to the committee, and we’re in the process of going through those documents. And, you know, it’s a laborious process. So it just takes a lot of time,” Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House select committee, told reporters last week.
Ferriero notified Trump earlier this month that he would provide the panel with documents that belonged to former Vice President Mike Pence by March 3, unless those are blocked by a court order.
The workload is not insignificant to the agency.
Thompson said he has also sent another letter to Archives “updating” its earlier request in an effort to prioritize the outstanding documents. The committee refused to provide a copy of the letter to The Hill.
“They’ve added about 20 employees to help with our committee’s request, just given the nature of what we’re looking for,” Thompson told reporters of NARA’s staffing levels.
The Archives did not respond to questions from The Hill about staffing or document production to the Jan. 6 committee.
Trudy Huskamp Peterson, who served as acting U.S. archivist between 1993 and 1995, said that staffers working on such massive requests would need the highest security clearance and would likely be pulled from other divisions of the Archives. She said it could have an adverse impact on other operations.
“Those units that have had to ‘loan’ people to the project, they’re stuck,” Peterson said. “It trickles down.”
The Jan. 6 probe is no longer the only high-profile congressional investigation the Archives has been ensnared in.
Days after revelations that the Archives recently obtained 15 boxes of presidential records that Trump had taken from the White House with him to his Mar-a-Lago beach club in Palm Beach, Fla., House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) announced the panel would launch an investigation into the circumstances.
“I am deeply concerned that these records were not provided to NARA promptly at the end of the Trump Administration and that they appear to have been removed from the White House in violation of the Presidential Records Act,” Maloney wrote in a letter to Ferriero on Thursday, seeking answers to detailed questions by Feb. 18.
Separately, the Archives is said to have sought a Justice Department investigation of Trump’s handling of documents.
Experts say that, while there have been past instances of officials taking records, the scale at which Trump appears to have flouted records laws is unprecedented.
“I suspect there have always been small amounts that were taken and returned,” said Peterson. “I think what we’re talking about here is quantitatively different.”
Former officials say the record keeping responsibilities are typically well known in the West Wing.
“Everybody who has been in the White House understands that there is a public responsibility incumbent on every member of an administration to preserve public records,” said Bill Galston, chair of the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program and a former Clinton domestic policy aide.
Galston said that the Archives would be “derelict in their duty if they didn’t do their best to reclaim all of the records of the former administration.”
In a statement Thursday, Trump confirmed the return of the documents while insisting the circumstances were “routine.”
The National Archives is hardly the first agency to be drawn into the political fray because of Trump. The former president’s futile efforts to contest the 2020 election also put an unusual amount of pressure on the General Services Administration when then-Trump appointee Emily Murphy for weeks refused to allow President Biden’s transition team to have access to federal resources to allow the presidential transition process to begin.
The flurry of activity sets up what promises to be a busy few months for the Archives, which is also nearing a period of leadership transition.
Ferriero, the current U.S. archivist, is set to leave his post in mid-April after serving 12 years on the job.
The position is Senate-confirmed, meaning that Biden will have to nominate a successor and that person will need to be approved by the 50-50 Senate before assuming the duties of the role.
The White House did not return a request for information on Biden’s process of choosing a nominee to serve as the next archivist. The president is currently consumed by deliberations over how to fill the impending Supreme Court vacancy.
Ferriero, who previously served as the director of the New York Public Library, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Peterson stressed the need for senior leaders at the Archives to appear impartial, noting that she was a registered independent when she served in the role.
“You just cannot afford to be partisan,” Peterson said. “You have to look neutral.”
Rebecca Beitsch contributed.