Records Transfer from the Trump White House is a Work in Progress
Watchdog groups and Democratic lawmakers have raised concerns about Trump officials’ records management.
The National Archives and Records Administration is still completing the transfer of records from the Trump White House amid concerns that officials did not adequately preserve them.
The agency said it received approximately 4,700 cubic feet of textual records (roughly 11.8 million pages) and expects to take in up to 500 terabytes of electronic records for documents that fall under the Presidential Records Act. For comparison, the George W. Bush White House had about 29,000 cubic feet of textual records and about 80 terabytes of electronic records and Obama had about 15,000 cubic feet of textual records and about 250 terabytes of electronic ones. Documents can start to be made public five years after a president leaves office and will eventually be housed in a presidential library.
“As NARA anticipated, the process of completing the transfer of Trump presidential records into NARA’s physical custody is still ongoing,” an agency spokesperson told Government Executive on Friday. “Necessary funding from [the Office of Management and Budget] was delayed for many weeks after the election, which caused delays in arranging for the transfer of the Trump presidential records into NARA's custody. Even though the transfer of these records is ongoing, NARA assumed legal custody of them on January 20, 2021, in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.”
The delay was because the General Services Administration did not ascertain Joe Biden as the apparent winner of the presidential election (thus letting the formal transition begin) until November 23, which was 16 days after news outlets called it.
When asked what it noticed about the quality of the records, NARA said the agency usually doesn’t make statements on quality, “but rather preserves [records] for discovery and use.” Also, “as with any body of records received by the National Archives, it takes a significant period of time for NARA to establish intellectual control and an understanding of the records.” NARA preserved all records under the Presidential Records Act, with few exceptions, such as holds for White House parking passes.
According to Judd Deere, White House spokesman under President Trump, “Contesting the election did not cause the delay in getting the president’s records transferred to the archives and that guidance was available to staffers on how to pack up their materials,” The Associated Press reported. “One person familiar with the transition said guidance typically emailed to executive branch employees explaining how to turn in equipment and pack up their offices was sent out in December, but quickly rescinded because Trump insisted on contesting the election. With little guidance, some staffers in the White House started quietly calling records workers to find out what to do.”
Archivist of the United States David Ferriero noted in a 2017 blog post “because the Archivist reports to the President, NARA provides advice and assistance to the White House on records management practices upon request.”
Documents collected under the Presidential Records Act come from the White House Office, Office of the Vice President, Office of Policy Development, Council of Economic Advisors, National Security Council, President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, President’s Intelligence Oversight Board, National Economic Council and Office of Administration.
There is also the Federal Records Act, which oversees record keeping in the executive and legislative agencies and the judiciary. The following executive offices also fall under this law: Office of Management and Budget, Office of the United States Trade Representative, Council on Environmental Quality, Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of National Drug Control Policy, as outlined in guidance from NARA.
“There is no deadline for transferring records to NARA in the Federal Records Act context that is comparable to the Jan. 20 deadline contemplated by the Presidential Records Act,” Nikhel Sus, senior counsel at the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Government Executive. “Under the [Presidential Records Act], NARA assumes custody of a former president's records at the end of his/her term, and is responsible for making those records available to the public in accordance with the [Presidential Records Act] and [Freedom of Information Act.] Under the [Federal Records Act], by contrast, the originating agency (not NARA) retains custody of federal records even after a president's term ends, and is responsible for making those records available to the public through FOIA.”
Sus continued: Federal Records Act “records are eventually transferred to NARA's custody only if NARA determines they have sufficient archival value to be permanently retained in the National Archives (this is only a fraction of FRA records; by contrast, presidential records are presumptively deemed worthy of permanent retention).”
As a result of this situation, NARA doesn’t have estimates of the number of records per administration.
Before and during the transition, lawmakers and watchdog groups raised concerns that both the White House and federal agencies would not sufficiently preserve their records.
“Reportedly, President Trump rips up his papers and had concealed documents detailing meetings with foreign leaders,” a coalition of 12 organizations, led by Open the Government, wrote to the Archivist of the United States on October 8. “Agency leaders have shown similar disregard for records creation and preservation. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo refused to recover and preserve records from a meeting between President Trump and President Putin in 2017. Former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt systematically prevented the EPA from creating or releasing records.”
CREW, one the letter’s co-signers of the letter, filed a lawsuit with several other groups on December 1 aimed at preventing the White House from destroying records.
“CREW and other good government transparency groups have consistently raised the alarm on record keeping concerns from the Trump White House,” Sus said. “Those concerns continued unabated throughout his presidency and the delay in the presidential transition, stemming from GSA’s delay in ascertaining President Biden as the likely winner of the election, resulted in further delays in the transition of records to NARA prior to January 20. And the extent to which Trump administration records are fully and properly in the custody of NARA remains an open question.”
The chairs of 21 House committees sent letters to over 50 federal agencies, collectively, on November 10 reminding them of their statutory duties to preserve records. Then on December 21, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a letter to the Archivist of the United States, with a list of questions about the White House’s records preservation process and said she was “also concerned that our existing laws may need review and revision to strengthen oversight and compliance.”