A central question involving the records former President Donald Trump stored at his Mar-a-Lago home is why he was keeping reams of government documents and classified material.
The criminal investigation now underway has elicited few answers so far. A lawyer for Trump “offered no explanation as to why boxes of government records” were being kept at the former president’s estate, the Department of Justice wrote in a court filing last week. But Trump himself invoked something that advisers say rarely comes up: his library.
At the tail end of an Aug. 22 statement, he suggested the records seized from Mar-a-Lago were bound for inclusion in a future “Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Museum.” The Justice Department’s more detailed inventory of the documents, unsealed Friday, showed that Trump had held on to more than 10,000 government records, apart from those with classification markings. That he was keeping any at all confounds former National Archives and Records Administration officials who said that the material belongs to the U.S. government, no matter what Trump believed, and should have been turned over the moment he left office.
For Trumpworld, a library has been a little more than an afterthought, six past and present advisers say. As an ex-president bent on being a future president, Trump hasn’t wanted to leave an impression that his focus has shifted to his legacy. Erecting a library at this point would be the political equivalent of building a mausoleum: a sign that his career in elective politics was dead, some close to him said.
Advisers describe discussions about a Trump presidential library over the years as off and on. One ex-adviser recalled looking at Florida property maps during meetings in the small White House dining room near the Oval Office. A longtime Trump adviser said that Trump allies were “scouting locations” in the Palm Beach area, home to Mar-a-Lago. (A joke among those involved in the planning was that they would put the library in Greenland, the island that Trump entertained buying midway through his term, one person close to him said.)
Another person close to Trump who spoke briefly to him about a library earlier this year said, “He didn’t seem terribly interested. He wasn’t like, ‘I gotta get my library going.’ He’s more interested in being president again.”
One Trump confidant, who, as was the case with others, spoke on condition of anonymity to talk more freely, added: “Presidential libraries are for ex-presidents. He’s a next president. He’s coming back.”
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about plans for a library. In a court appearance last week, Trump attorney Chris Kise said there was nothing nefarious about a former president holding records from his tenure. Rather, he said, the mix of material found at Mar-a-Lago “is what you would expect if you looked through a bunch of boxes that were moved in a hurry from a residence or an office. It contains all sorts of things.”
If Trump’s plan was to route the records to a future library, he went about it the wrong way, former National Archives officials say.
All he needed to do is what he was supposed to have done in the first place: give every presidential record back to the U.S. government upon leaving office, as the Presidential Records Act of 1978 requires. Once his library was up and running, he could then have gone to the National Archives and asked for a loan of documents he wanted to exhibit, as past presidents have done. Former President Barack Obama’s presidential library, for example, expects to display his speeches and the gifts he received over his two terms — all loaned by the National Archives.
Robert Clark, a former National Archives official at the Franklin D. Roosevelt library in Hyde Park, New York, said every president was entitled to build a library.
“But there is a process. He can’t just store the stuff in his garage until the library gets built. That’s not how it works,” Clark said.
One of Trump’s worries was that a library would end up showing material that painted him in an unflattering light, said a former senior White House official. He wanted some control over what the library would contain, the source added.
Modern presidential libraries have two main components: a trove of presidential records overseen by the National Archives, and a museum open to the public. Ex-presidents aren’t supposed to control the records that the library collects.
Museums are a different case. Privately funded, they’ve often evolved into shrines to the ex-president. One former Trump representative recalled speaking to a Madame Tussauds museum about donating a wax figure of Trump to a future library. Another idea that Trump advisers have considered is seeing if they can acquire and display Air Force One once the aircraft is replaced by a new model later in the decade, one of the people close to him said.
“I am tempted to observe that given Trump’s limited interest in much else than himself, I am not sure what a Trump library would contain,” said Tom Rath, a former senior adviser to five Republican presidential campaigns. “You can only have so many copies of ‘The Art of the Deal.’”
Trump wouldn’t be unique in wanting to control his image.
“One of the great knocks on the presidential library system has been that it is, in fact, very difficult to get critical materials into the museum,” said Paul Musgrave, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts who worked at Richard Nixon’s presidential library.
What makes Trump an outlier is that most of his predecessors in the modern era willingly parted with their records, even when they had a choice to withhold them in their entirety.
The records act shifted ownership and control of papers from an ex-president to the U.S. government beginning with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. Yet, Franklin D. Roosevelt had voluntarily turned over his records to the National Archives, as did his successors Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. When he resigned, Nixon wanted to destroy the secret tape recordings that he’d made in office, but Congress passed a law in 1974 that kept them in the government’s possession.
Nixon showed “he wasn’t interested in following precedent,” Clark said. “And we’re in one of those crossroads moments now.”
There’s no guarantee that Trump could raise the gargantuan sums needed to build a library, in any case. The Obama Presidential Center in Chicago is expected to clock in at more than $830 million, and Obama began fundraising before he left office. Raising funds for a library is especially difficult for ex-presidents, who have little to offer prospective donors. Out of power, they can’t reward donors with the ambassadorships and state dinner invitations that are often enticements to give money. As president, Trump’s fundraising focus was his re-election bid.
During Trump’s tenure, advisers mused on occasion about whether the price tag had risen so high that Obama’s might be the last library that’s ever built. But one person close to Trump suggested he could reduce the cost if he were to forge a partnership with a university.
If Trump follows through at some point and raises the money, the end product would inevitably be a celebration of his record, two impeachments notwithstanding.
Self-veneration isn’t what worries some historians, though. If records in Trump’s care were to go missing or get thrown out, that material is potentially lost to history. The National Archives was plainly worried about the condition in which Trump kept the documents. In the 15 boxes that Trump handed over in January, archivists found “a lot of classified records” jumbled with newspapers, photos and correspondence, the redacted FBI affidavit used to search Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home showed. FBI agents who seized records from the property last month found classified material in a desk drawer along with Trump’s passports.
At issue is whether the United States will risk leaving omissions in the historical record that warp the public’s understanding of Trump’s presidency.
“President Trump’s decision to withhold or take material with him struck directly at the public’s ability to know the truth about his administration,” said Tim Naftali, head of the undergraduate public policy program at NYU Wagner, and the former director of the Nixon presidential library.
“Our republic depends on transparency,” he added. “It’s not perfect by any stretch. But it’s a goal we try to achieve.”
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