Washington — The agency in charge of the National Archives in the United States was the setting for the movie “National Treasure” almost two decades ago, in which the character played by Nicolas Cage tries to steal the Declaration of Independence. It has long been one of the most visited tourist destinations in the nation’s capital, but the National Archives and Records Administration has never been implicated in a criminal investigation into a former president, until now.
That is exactly what has happened now, after the agency sent a notification to the FBI in which it assured that 15 boxes recovered in January from the estate of former President Donald Trump in Florida, contained dozens of documents with classified information.
“I don’t think Donald Trump has politicized the National Archives,” said Tim Naftali, first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “I think Donald Trump crossed lines that public servants had to respond to.”RELATED
Those government employees regularly operated out of public view, behind the marble facade of the Archives building in downtown Washington. It is there, beyond the Hollywood scripts, that a crucial component of the federal bureaucracy resides, with dozens of employees working as custodians of American history, preserving documents that range from the mundane to the monumental.
Here’s a look at the National Archives, its history, and how it came to be caught in the eye of a political whirlwind.
a huge collection
The mission of the National Archives, founded by Congress in 1934, sounds clear: guardian of the nation’s records. It is a colossal task that has grown and become more complex over time.
Although the Archives safeguard precious national documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, that is just the public face of its vast collection, which encompasses 13 billion pages of text and 10 million maps, charts, and drawings. plus tens of millions of photos, movies, and other documents.
In addition to its work in Washington, the Archives oversees 13 presidential libraries and 14 regional archives across the country.
Archivist of a Nation
The so-called archivist of the United States is responsible for running the agency. Its last boss confirmed by the Senate was David Ferriero, who stepped down in April after 12 years under three presidents.
In an interview with the Washington Post in April, Ferriero recalled watching from the windows of the Archives building on Jan. 6, 2021, as a crowd of Trump supporters marched before storming the Capitol. He said it was the worst day of his life.
More than a year later, he decided to withdraw, in part because of fears about the country’s political trajectory.
“It is important to me that this government replaces me,” he told the Post. “I’m worried about what’s going to happen in 2024. I don’t want to leave it to… the unknown factors of the presidential election.”
His second-in-command, Debra Steidel Wall, now serves as interim archivist while President Joe Biden’s nominee, Colleen Joy Shogan, awaits Senate confirmation this fall. The archivist serves in the position until she decides to retire.
“There are no memories”
The Archives serve as the final destination for each administration’s work in the White House.
Following the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed legislation in 1978 to ensure that all presidential documents—written, electronic, created by the president, vice president, and any other member of the executive branch in an official capacity— be preserved and delivered to the Archives at the end of an administration. The law indicates that the documents of a president are not his, but the property of the federal government and must be treated as such.
When a new administration begins, White House staff receive a pamphlet on the law and detailed instructions on how to preserve documents. The requirements cover a wide range of things, including gifts and letters from foreign leaders. “There are no memories,” said Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History.
In addition, the law requires that even when in office, the president and any member of his government must seek the advice of the archivist before destroying any document, something that Trump and his aides repeatedly ignored in their four years in the White House.
“Anything he writes is essentially a presidential document. It is not owned by him,” White added. “It’s very basic to the whole concept of why the Presidential Documents Act was enacted.”
“At noon on Inauguration Day, custody passes to the archivist. Spot. There is no maybe. It is the law,” he asserted.
An unprecedented decision
The rules of the Presidential Documents Act are central to the FBI’s investigation of Trump.
When Trump left office, the Archives discovered that several White House documents from his tenure were missing. What followed was a year of exchanges between the Archives’ and Trump’s legal team that resulted in the voluntary return of 15 boxes of presidential documents. Upon opening the boxes, the agency discovered that 14 of them contained classified information and documents.
Recognizing the potential existence of a crime, the agency made the unprecedented decision to refer the matter to the Department of Justice. That culminated in the break-in at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in August. FBI agents recovered more than 100 secret documents, including some that had been kept in the former president’s office among personal belongings.
Since the August 8 raid, the Archives (NARA) and its employees have been bombarded with threats and accusations. The acting archivist pointed out in an email to agency staff that her mission is nonpartisan and called on them to stay resolute in their work.
“The National Archives has been the focus of intense scrutiny for months now, especially this week, with many people attributing political motivations to our actions,” Wall wrote in an Aug. 24 letter.
“NARA has received messages from people, accusing us of corruption and conspiring against the former president or congratulating us for ‘overthrowing him.'”
“Neither of the two concepts is true or well received,” he added.
Wall has worked for more than three decades in the NARA, starting as a trainee and then working her way up to second-in-command. In her letter, she said that despite the political storm around the agency, staff must continue to work “without favor or fear, in the service of our democracy.”
A battle for archivist confirmation?
Five days before the Mar-a-Lago raid, Bien announced the nomination as archivist of Shogan, a White House Historical Association executive who previously spent 10 years at the Library of Congress.
Nominees for the job are usually confirmed without controversy or fuss, but that’s unlikely to happen this time.
Shogan faces a complicated confirmation process, with Republicans demanding answers about the Justice Department investigation and the Archives’ role in facilitating it. A confirmation hearing in the fall has not yet been scheduled, but it could end up being unusually contentious.
Republicans in both houses of Congress have pushed for more information about how the Archives made the decision to refer Trump’s case to federal investigators.
Representative James Comer, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter Thursday demanding that the NARA monitor turn over documents and communications on the case.
“Transparency is especially important in the post-pandemic era, when Americans lack confidence in our institutions,” he wrote.
So far, the National Archives has rejected requests from Democrats and Republicans on committees that oversee the agency, referring them to the Justice Department, where the investigation is taking place.