WASHINGTON (AP) — This was the setting for “National Treasure,” the movie in which Nicolas Cage’s character attempts to steal the Declaration of Independence. It has long been one of the nation’s capital’s busiest tourist destinations.
But what the National Archives and Records Administration has never been — until now — is the site of a criminal investigation into a former president.
Yet that’s exactly where the agency is after sending a referral to the FBI saying 15 boxes recovered from former President Donald Trump’s Florida home in January contained dozens of documents with classified marks.
“I don’t think Donald Trump politicized the National Archives,” said Tim Naftali, the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “I think what Donald Trump did was cross some red lines that officials had to respond to.”
These government employees operate out of sight of the public, behind the marble facade of the Archives building in downtown Washington. It is there, beyond Hollywood intrigue, that a crucial component of the federal bureaucracy resides, with dozens of employees acting as custodians of American history, preserving records ranging from the mundane to the monumental.
A closer look at the National Archives, its history and how it found itself in the middle of a political maelstrom:
A MASSIVE COLLECTION
The mission of the National Archives, founded by Congress in 1934, seems simple: to be the custodian of the nation’s records. It is an arduous task that has only become more complex over time.
While the Archives preserves valuable national documents such as the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights, this is only the public face of their sprawling collection, which spans 13 billion pages of text and 10 million maps, charts and drawings, as well as tens of millions of photographs, films and other documents.
In addition to its work in Washington, the Archives oversees 13 presidential libraries and 14 regional archives across the country.
ARCHIVIST FOR A NATION
The Archivist of the United States is responsible for the management of the agency. The last confirmed leader in the Senate was David Ferriero, who resigned in April after serving 12 years under three presidents.
Ferriero recalled in an April interview with The Washington Post how he watched from the windows of the Archives Building on Jan. 6, 2021, as throngs of Trump supporters marched on their way to break through the Capitol. He called it the worst day of his life.
More than a year later, he decided to retire, in part due to fears about the country’s political trajectory.
“It’s important to me that this administration replace me,” he told the Post. “I’m worried about what’s going to happen in 2024. I don’t want us to stay with the…unknowns of the presidential election.”
His deputy, Debra Steidel Wall, serves as acting archivist while President Joe Biden’s nominee Colleen Joy Shogan awaits a Senate confirmation process this fall. The Archivist holds this position until he decides to retire.
“NO SUCH THINGS AS MEMORIES”
The Archives serves as the final resting place for the work of each White House.
After the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Nixon, Congress passed a law in 1978 to ensure that all presidential documents – written and electronic documents created by the president, vice president or any other member of the executive in an official capacity – be retained and returned to the Archives at the end of an administration. The law states that a president’s records do not belong to him, but are the property of the federal government and must be treated as such.
When a new administration begins, White House staff receive a brochure about the law and step-by-step instructions on how to keep records. Retention requirements cover a wide range of items, including gifts and letters from foreign leaders. “Memories don’t exist,” said Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History.
Furthermore, the law requires that even while in office, the president or any member of that administration first seek the advice of the archivist before destroying any documents, a practice that Trump and his aides reportedly ignored throughout his tenure. his four years in office.
“Everything he writes is basically a presidential record. It’s not his property,” White said. “It’s so fundamental to the whole concept of why the Presidential Records Act was created. .”
“At noon on the day of the Inauguration, custody is transferred to the archivist. Period. There is no maybe. It is the law,” he added.
AN UNPRECEDENTED DECISION
The Presidential Records Act rules are central to the FBI’s investigation of Trump.
After Trump left, the Archives discovered that documents from his White House were missing. What followed was a year-long back-and-forth between the Archives’ legal counsel and Trump’s attorneys that resulted in the voluntary return of 15 boxes of presidential records. Upon opening the boxes, the agency discovered that 14 of them contained classified documents and information.
Recognizing a potential crime, the agency took the unprecedented step of referring the case to the Department of Justice. The move culminated in the search for Trump’s resort at Mar-a-Lago in August. FBI agents recovered more than 100 classified documents, some of which were hidden in the former president’s office among personal items.
Since the August 8 search, the Archives and its employees have been bombarded with threats and accusations. The Acting Archivist in an email to agency staff noted that their work was non-partisan and urged them to stay true to their mission.
“The National Archives has come under intense scrutiny for months, this week in particular, with many attributing political motivation to our actions,” Wall wrote in an Aug. 24 letter. “NARA has received messages from the public accusing us of corruption and conspiracy against the former president, or congratulating NARA for ‘taking him down’.”
“Neither is accurate or welcome,” she added.
Wall worked for more than three decades at the Archives, starting as a trainee archivist and rising to second. She said in her letter that despite the political storm surrounding the agency, staff must continue their work “without favor or fear, in the service of our democracy”.
AN ARCHIVIST CONFIRMATION BATTLE?
Five days before the Mar-a-Lago search, Biden announced he was appointing Shogan, a White House Historical Association executive who had previously spent a decade working at the Library of Congress, as the next archivist.
Nominees for the position are usually confirmed without controversy or fanfare. But it’s unlikely this time.
Shogan faces a busy confirmation process as Republicans demand answers about the Justice Department investigation and the Archives’ role in facilitating it. A confirmation hearing this fall has yet to be scheduled, but could end up being unusually contentious.
House and Senate Republicans have demanded more information about how the Archives made the decision to refer Trump’s case to federal investigators.
Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a letter Thursday asking that the Archives watchdog provide documents and communications about the case.
“Transparency is especially important in the post-pandemic era where Americans lack trust in our institutions,” Comer wrote.
So far, the National Archives has rejected requests from Democrats and Republicans on the committees that oversee the agency, instead referring them to the Justice Department where the investigation is currently taking place.
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