WASHINGTON – As president, Donald Trump never liked to leave a paper trail. He avoided email, admonished aides to stop taking notes during meetings and ripped up documents when he was finished with them.
But Trump was unwilling to part with some of his administration's records when he left the White House last year, whisking them away to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. Although more than a dozen boxes have since been returned to the government, the discovery alarmed archivists and historians who were already skeptical of Trump’s commitment to transparency.
For them, the episode is not just a story about a presidential packrat or a sloppy filing system, but an example of how fragments of American history are at risk of being lost. Destroying or concealing documents, they said, could prevent future generations from understanding how important decisions were made.
“My first reaction was words you’re probably not allowed to print," said Lindsay Chervinsky, a presidential historian. Academics rely on official records to paint a complete picture of every administration, and she said revelations about the documents at Mar-a-Lago were a reminder of "how fragile that process can be if people do not follow the rules.”
The Presidential Records Act, which requires the preservation of White House documents, was passed in 1978 after the Watergate scandal, when a collection of secret tapes played a defining role. Although President Richard Nixon had considered destroying them, the tapes were ultimately discovered by investigators, revealing that Nixon tried to cover up the bungled burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters. He chose to resign rather than face impeachment and removal from office.
It can be hard to believe that there's anything left to learn about Trump's presidency, which has already been the subject of around-the-clock media coverage and a small library's worth of books. But official records can still prove insightful once they become public after being processed by the National Archives, which can take years.
"History books are actually where the real accountability lies," Chervinsky said. "If we don’t have that full story, it’s not an accountability system. And the very heart of a democracy is that leaders are accountable to the people.”
Trump’s erratic handling of documents could have more immediate effects than the eventual judgment of historians. The congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in 2021 is examining the former president’s actions that day, but finding gaps in official records such as call logs.
There’s also the potential for legal trouble if Trump or his associates are determined to have mishandled any documents, especially if they’re classified. Presidents have the power to declassify any information they choose, but that expires after they leave office.
Concealing or destroying records is a crime with a potential prison term of three years; storing classified information in an unauthorized location can carry a sentence of up to five years.
Sandy Berger, President Bill Clinton’s former national security adviser, removed classified documents from the National Archives in 2003. He claimed he took the files to help prepare testimony to the 9/11 Commission, which was probing intelligence failures in the years leading up to the terrorist attacks in 2001. Berger pleaded guilty and, instead of serving time behind bars, he paid a $50,000 fine.
The House Oversight Committee has asked the National Archives to detail the records it recovered from Mar-a-Lago by Friday.
Trump suggested in a statement that there was nothing nefarious about the boxes that were stored at his Florida resort. He said it’s been “a great honor” to work with the National Archives “to help formally preserve the Trump Legacy."
There's never been a case where a former commander in chief has been punished for violating the Presidential Records Act. Lee White, director of the National Coalition for History, said Congress failed to improve enforcement when it updated the law in 2014.
“The law basically relies on the current president to follow the rules of the road,” he said.
The White House produces geysers of records, including emails, calendars and transcripts. President Barack Obama’s administration left behind an estimated 300 million emails — more than 1 billion pages if printed out — and another 30 million pages of paper documents.
All of these are funneled into the National Archives through painstaking work that is intended to prevent anything from falling through the cracks. For example, a digital copy of a memo isn't sufficient if someone printed it out and took notes in the margins during a meeting.
White said archivists explain all of this to staff members when a new administration takes over.
“You don’t just get hired at the White House and they stick you at your desk. They walk you through all these rules,” he said. “Nobody can claim ignorance.”
Journalists, historians and members of the public can begin seeking documents with Freedom of Information Act requests five years after a president leaves office.
However, a former president can extend the secrecy for an extra seven years under some circumstances, such as when the records involve confidential communications from advisers.
President Bill Clinton chose to do that with some documents that involve his administration's failed push for health care legislation. One memo that eventually came out was from Ira Magaziner, a key aide, to Hillary Clinton, and it detailed efforts to reshape public perception of the debacle.
“I am continuing to meet with different Washington ‘insiders’ to try to amend their perceptions of what occurred," Magaziner wrote. "It is a grind, but I believe that it may be doing some good with some of them.”
Sometimes it can take even longer for records to emerge. For example, President Lyndon Johnson taped many of his private conversations, but they didn't become available until decades after his death.
When Michael Beschloss, another presidential historian, listened to them, he discovered a commander in chief unsure about the Vietnam War — “I don’t see any way of winning,” Johnson told Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1965 — even as he was ordering an escalation of American military operations.
“We wouldn’t have known that without those tapes,” Beschloss said.
He said preserving government records “gets to the heart of democracy as much as anything.”
If presidents can hide or destroy whatever archival documents they want — creating their own version of history — “that’s totalitarianism,” he said.