Problems with presidential records are not just about Trump

President Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors
Associated Press/Alex Brandon
President Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America’s small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington on June 18, 2020.

Donald Trump’s alleged efforts to destroy or hide some records of his presidency initially looked cartoonish, including documents found stuffed in a toilet and boxes of records recovered from his Florida resort. The recent discovery of more than seven hours of missing phone call records from Jan. 6, 2021, the day when his supporters breached the Capitol, raises concerns about a potential cover-up. But there is a more fundamental issue. Regardless of whether the gap in Trump’s phone records arose from happenstance or skullduggery, it illuminates a broader and disturbing pattern: The modern presidency can facilitate cover-ups, and a president’s enormous power to control information and keep secrets can impede the effective working of democracy.

As historians of the modern presidency, we’ve spent decades examining memoranda of conversations, phone recordings and records, classified documents, and much more. All presidents want to shield aspects of their decision-making from public scrutiny. Much of the work of historians involves unearthing and deciphering what presidents did not want known while they were in office. The tension between policymakers and historians is natural.  Unexplained gaps in historical record are not. In our experience, they almost always signal broader misdeeds.

The most infamous example of presidential destruction of evidence occurred during the Watergate investigations. In November 1973, President Richard Nixon revealed that 18.5 minutes of recordings from his White House taping system had been erased. The lost moments covered his conversation with his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, on June 20, 1972 — the day after Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published their first article linking the Watergate break-in to the White House. 

The lost recording was never recovered. Nixon continued to maintain his innocence of complicity in illegal behavior. He and his supporters contended that he was a victim of partisan attacks and lies. Without the evidence, Nixon’s claims remained credible, and it fueled attacks on Democrats by his followers, including Ronald Reagan.

As president, Reagan encouraged his own deceptions in the White House. He authorized his National Security Council to sell weapons secretly to Iran and divert the proceeds to the financing of anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua. When a Lebanese newspaper broke news of the scheme in November 1986, Reagan lied about his involvement and his assistants tried to hide the evidence. Lt. Col. Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall, shredded documents in the basement of the White House, even as investigators visited their offices.

Although months of congressional hearings and a nearly seven-year investigation revealed evidence linking Reagan and other high-ranking administration officials to the Iran-Contra affair, the destroyed evidence prevented a definitive connection. Reagan likely escaped prosecution because of what was missing in the record — an accounting of his behavior at crucial moments. Evidence deceptions slowed the investigation, which allowed Reagan to run out the clock on his presidency. Most impactful, the inability to study the full record foreshortens the ways that citizens and policymakers understand the nature of U.S.-Iran relations.   

The pattern of record distortion extends beyond the White House to the vast network of agencies a president oversees, especially but not exclusively the CIA. The agency destroyed almost all of its records pertaining to its coups and attempted coups in Iran and Indonesia in the 1950s and in Guyana in the early 1960s. Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy personally authorized these actions, and they influence U.S relations with these countries to this day — but we have little record to assess what really happened and how we might heal old wounds. 

In some cases, hiding evidence shields government officials from legal recourse. When the CIA destroyed records of Project MK-ULTRA, the mind-control experiments it conducted on unwitting victims in the 1950s, it made it harder for those victims to receive compensation for a lifetime of reported physical and mental afflictions.  

What happened in the past matters for current policymaking. The CIA shredded 92 videotapes of waterboard interrogations from 2002. The loss of this record hinders our nation’s ability to assess the meaning and impact of this grim method of torture, deliberately dubbed “enhanced interrogation” to mask its cruelty.  

These examples of record destruction are noteworthy because they are not exceptional. If we widen our gaze beyond mere evidence-tampering, we see how efforts to hide unseemly, unwise, illegal, embarrassing or reckless activities have become a defining characteristic of the modern presidency. Presidents and their loyalists have too much control over the records they produce. We rely on them to archive accurate notes of meetings, emails and phone calls. For those closest to the president, there is little oversight of what they record and how. There are few protections against the doctoring and destruction of documents. 

American citizens must come to terms with the extensive evidence that the modern presidency can facilitate cover-ups. The time has come for Congress to update and expand protections for legal accountability — not just for the protection of an accurate historical record, but for the sake of democracy itself.

Kenneth Osgood is a professor of history at Colorado School of Mines, and has been a research fellow of Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has published five books on U.S. politics and diplomacy, including “Total Cold War: Eisenhower’s Secret Propaganda Battle at Home and Abroad” and “Selling War in a Media Age.”   

Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a professor in the Department of History and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. The host of a weekly podcast, “This is Democracy,” he is the author and editor of 11 books, most recently “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.”

Tags CIA Donald Trump Government secrecy Iran-Contra Oliver North Richard Nixon Ronald Reagan Trump phone records Watergate scandal

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