Jacqueline Alemany, Isaac Arnsdorf and Josh Dawsey at WP:
For most of American history, presidents kept their own papers and their personal ownership had never been challenged, according to a 2006 article co-written by Stern, NARA’s general counsel since 1998.
When Nixon resigned, he made plans to destroy White House records, including the Oval Office tapes that had become central to the Watergate scandal. Congress stepped in and passed the Presidential Records Act, which requires the White House to preserve all written communication related to a president’s official duties — memos, letters, notes, emails, faxes and other material — and turn it over to the Archives.
Disputes over the Nixon tapes continued into the 1990s, with lawsuits by former aides and Cabinet members seeking to block disclosure and from public-interest groups demanding access, according to the article. At the end of the Reagan administration, Stern, then with the American Civil Liberties Union, led a groundbreaking lawsuit seeking to preserve White House records related to the Iran-contra scandal.
People wait for a moving van after boxes were moved out of the Eisenhower Executive Office building inside the White House complex on Jan. 14, 2021. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Research by presidential representatives have in the past raised security risks. In 2005, former Clinton administration national security adviser Sandy Berger pleaded guilty to removing and destroying classified documents from the Archives related to the 9/11 Commission’s investigation. That case was overseen by Christopher A. Wray, then head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and now the Trump-appointed director of the FBI.
“This is not a sleepy agency — NARA staff are used to records-related controversies,” said Jason R. Baron, a professor at the University of Maryland and former director of litigation at NARA. “This matter, however, is unique. No piece of paper that’s a presidential record should be at Mar-a-Lago. It is clear that NARA staff made extraordinary efforts to recover presidential records and was rebuffed on numerous occasions.”
Trump’s disdain and disregard for the presidential record-keeping system he was legally bound to adhere to is well-documented. And while advisers repeatedly warned him about needing to follow the Presidential Records Act early in his presidency, his chaotic handling of the documents prevailed.
NARA’s motto, Littera Scripta Manet, translates from Latin to “the written word remains.” But in Trump’s White House, the written word was often torn, destroyed, misplaced or hoarded.