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For the first two centuries of American history, the outgoing president only took his documents with him when he left the White House. The material was considered his personal property.
But for the past four decades, every presidential document—from notebook doodles to top-secret security plans—has been going straight to the National Archives. Since the material is considered the property of the American people.
So when former President Donald Trump left office on January 20, 2021, all his records should have traveled from the White House to the National Archives, according to Jason Barronwho served as the Director of Litigation at the National Archives for 13 years.
“No president has the right to retain presidential records after he leaves office,” Barron said. “And so it is an exceptional circumstance if the presidential records are found at the residence of a former president or elsewhere under his control.”
But some records — both paper and electronic — were being kept at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. officials found 15 boxes worth of documents From Trump’s estate in January.
And on Monday, the FBI collected 11 more sets of documents, including four marked “top secret,” three marked “secret” and three labeled “confidential.” At least one set of documents was labeled “Top Secret/Sensitive Split Information.” they are three different levels For classified government documents.
warrant that authorized the search Said the FBI is investigating a number of possible crimes, including violations of the Espionage Act. Trump has not been charged with any crime and has denied any wrongdoing.
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Why can’t the president keep his documents these days?
The rules changed for one reason: Watergate.
When President Nixon resigned amid the 1974 scandal, he wanted to take his documents to his home in California—including his infamous tape recording.
Congress felt that it would not have access to that material, and they also feared it might be destroyed. So the legislators passed President’s Recording and Content Protection Actwhich made all of Nixon’s material public property.
However, this measure only applied to Nixon. In 1978, Congress passed a more comprehensive Presidential Records Act This has been the standard ever since.
“Every president, when he leaves office, the records that have been made by the president and his staff are presidential records that go to the National Archives,” Barron said. “The bosses are the American people.”
This includes all presidential material, be it regular, declassified notes or top-secret national security documents.
Prior to these laws, there were virtually no regulations covering presidential records. Presidents took what they wanted when they were leaving office.
“In the beginning, presidents like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were very familiar with their place in history and their legacy,” the presidential historian said. Lindsey Chervinskyauthor of Cabinet: George Washington and the Building of an American Institution, “And so they were very thoughtful about maintaining their documents, cataloging their documents, and then, of course, making sure that all that was left was what they wanted to stay. So deleting something in it also includes.”
In addition, the Presidential Library did not exist until it was opened by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941.
Trump disputes over documents
Throughout his presidency, anecdotes arose about Trump’s handling of the documents. For starters, he didn’t like to read them, and there were reports that he sometimes did. rip them off Or even flush them down the toilet.
talked about Trump, or put on twitter Sensitive material that was considered classified. Like this The material was reportedly also shared with those who did not have the rights to read it.
Before Trump, outgoing presidents have been reported to fully ally with the record process, experts told NPR. Barron said he was only aware of small incidents where a former president might be asked to turn over a small gift he received while in office.
There have been some cases related to the aides of the former President. In one instance, Sandy Berger, who served as National Security Advisor to President Bill Clinton, was accused of smuggling classified documents from the National Archives in his pants. He was eventually fined $50,000.