NARA Needs Magic 8 Ball To Figure Out What Documents are Still In Trump’s Possession

The National Archives has until Tuesday to provide an update to a congressional committee on a critical question: Are there any unaccounted-for records from the Trump White House?

Last month, National Archives officials informed staff for House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D., N.Y.) that they are unsure whether all presidential records from the Trump administration are in its custody, as required by federal law, prompting the committee to set a September 27 deadline for an update.

Since the FBI searched former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida on August 8, the locations of those White House documents, both presidential papers from regular business and classified material, have been in the limelight. Over the past year, the archives and Mr. Trump’s lawyers discussed the custody of White House records, including boxes of papers returned to the archives in January and those confiscated by the FBI in August.

Records are protected by the National Archives and Records Administration under federal statutes that govern the storage and handling of classified information after a president leaves office. The agency is also in charge of presidential libraries.

Based on an examination of document management during Mr. Trump’s four-year administration, the archives may face an uphill challenge in ensuring that it has all of the presidential documents it needs. According to former presidential aides, the data might contain nonclassified materials like speech drafts, meals, and programs from White House events.

Throughout an administration, the National Archives personnel routinely accumulates boxes of records. This did not happen during the Trump administration, according to Gary Stern, a career National Archives officer speaking at an American Historical Association panel in January 2021.

He said that they really couldn’t start picking up until January, and they couldn’t get it all done even by January 20; he remarked when President Biden was sworn in. The content of boxes acquired by the archives following Mr. Trump’s departure implies a lack of order, which may complicate the process of accounting for all of the papers: The FBI provided an inventory following the August 8 search, which listed boxes containing a variety of materials, including news clippings and images, as well as classified information.

Because of a comprehensive record-keeping system that has typically been in place at the National Security Council, the archives may have a bigger edge in accounting for classified data.

As a result of interviews with former NSC officials, if the procedures were followed correctly, archivists would have an inventory of classified documents and a record of who accessed classified material, in addition to the documents themselves. According to these former officials, a paper that was given to the Oval Office but never returned would appear missing.

According to Bill Leary, NSC director of records and access management under President George W. Bush and during President Barack Obama’s first term, the tracking and indexing system at the NSC was unprecedented within the federal government. The system was designed to ensure that documents from the NSC to the president were returned and cataloged.

Some document-accounting approaches have evolved somewhat over time. During the Bush administration, former officials reported that Harriet Miers, White House staff secretary, frequently returned papers to the NSC with the stamp “president has seen” as part of an agreement between Ms. Miers and Condoleezza Rice. Still, during the Obama administration, papers were returned with the label “BFO,” which stands for “back from the Oval.”

According to interviews, congressional testimony, court filings, and other public sources, the Trump administration sometimes violated such norms, even within the NSC. This might impede the National Archives’ current attempts to account for all records.

In his previous interview with The Wall Street Journal, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly stated that when he arrived six months into Mr. Trump’s presidency, the right process for handling classified data “was not well observed in many situations.”