Regulation

What is the Presidential Records Act?

Former President Trump
Greg Nash
Former President Trump gives a keynote address during the America First Policy Institute Summit in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.

Former President Trump announced on Monday that FBI officials executed a search warrant at his Mar-a-Lago residence, a dramatic step he called “not necessary or appropriate.”

Eric Trump, one of the former president’s sons, said during an interview later on Monday that the search warrant was tied to documents sought by the National Archives.

It was reported earlier this year that the National Archives asked the Justice Department to conduct a probe into Trump’s handling of his presidential records after more than a dozen boxes, which included classified information and under the Presidential Records Act were found to be required to remain with government record-keepers.

Here’s a breakdown of what the Presidential Records Act means in this probe and why it matters: 

Presidents, their immediate staff or those whose role is to aid or advise the president are required to maintain and turn over certain records following their time in the White House under the act.

The documents included under the act “includes any documentary materials relating to the political activities of the President or members of the President’s staff, but only if such activities relate to or have a direct effect upon the carrying out of constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President,” according to the legislation.

After the president leaves office, the archivist receives those records and maintains access to those documents, which are later placed in a depository. The act provides exemptions to instances where records can be shared with certain individuals, including for members of Congress.

After 12 years, those records become public. There are big penalties if those documents are removed or destroyed.

U.S. code says that “Whoever, having the custody of any such record, proceeding, map, book, document, paper, or other thing, willfully and unlawfully conceals, removes, mutilates, obliterates, falsifies, or destroys the same, shall be fined” $2,000, up to three years in prison or “shall forfeit his office and be disqualified from holding any office under the United States.”

Though some of these punishments are often not enforced, according to The Guardian, the punishment of barring Trump from holding office would be especially noteworthy given that Trump has teased the idea of running for president again in 2024. 

Some legal experts believe that there might be limits to how much this could actually affect Trump, though.

“Yes, I recognize the legal challenge that application of this law to a president would garner (since qualifications are set in Constitution). But the idea that a candidate would have to litigate this is during a campaign is in my view a ‘blockbuster in American politics,’ ” Marc Elias, a former top lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, tweeted

The FBI raid at Mar-a-Lago on Monday came on the same day that New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman tweeted out photos to corroborate her previous reporting in her forthcoming book that White House staffers regularly found ripped-up printed paper clogging a toilet in the presidential residence during Trump’s administration, which could also be a violation of the act.

Tags Donald Trump Eric Trump FBI raid Maggie Haberman Mar-a-Lago National Archives President Trump Presidential Records Act
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