On Wednesday, the agency’s head sent an email to the staff. Though academic and suffuse with legal references, the message from acting archivist Debra Steidel Wall was simple: Stay above the fray and stick to the mission.
“NARA has received messages from the public accusing us of corruption and conspiring against the former President, or congratulating NARA for ‘bringing him down,’ ” Steidel Wall wrote in the agencywide message, which was obtained by The Washington Post. “Neither is accurate or welcome.”
The email capped a year-long saga that has embroiled the Archives — widely known for being featured in the 2004 Nicolas Cage movie, “National Treasure” — in a protracted fight with Trump over classified documents and other records that were taken when he left office.
Archives officials have emailed, called and cajoled the former president and his representatives to follow the law and return the documents. When the Archives recovered 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago in January, agency officials found a mess of disorganized papers lacking any inventory. Highly classified material was mixed in with newspaper clippings and dinner menus. And Archives officials believed more items were still missing.
What happened next was an extraordinary step for America’s record keepers: they referred the matter to the Justice Department, opening a dramatic new chapter in what had been a quietly simmering dispute.
Following the Aug. 8 FBI search, Trump and his allies unleashed a torrent of attacks on one of the most apolitical arms of the federal bureaucracy. “They could have had it anytime they wanted — and that includes LONG ago,” Trump wrote Aug. 12 on his Truth Social website. “ALL THEY HAD TO DO IS ASK. The bigger problem is, what are they going to do with the 33 million pages of documents, many of which are classified, that President Obama took to Chicago?”
Trump was referring inaccurately to unclassified records stored at an Archives facility in suburban Chicago for potential use in Barack Obama’s future presidential library. On Friday, the Hoffman Estates, Ill., Police Department increased patrols around the building after a spike in online chatter regarding the facility, according to a person familiar with the situation. The police department declined to comment. Steidel Wall did not respond to requests for comment.
The political firestorm has revealed the machinations of a central but overlooked part of American democracy — pulling back the curtain on record-keeping practices enshrined into law in 1978 following the Watergate scandal.
“Without the preservation of the records of government, and without access to them, you can’t have an informed population, and without an informed population, you lack one of the basic tools to preserving democracy,” said former acting archivist Trudy Peterson, who expressed concern that Trump’s rhetoric is damaging the public perception of the Archives. “The system won’t work if the neutrality of the National Archives is not protected.”
This portrait of an agency under siege by a former president and his supporters is based on interviews with 14 current and former Archives employees, Trump advisers, historians and others familiar with the escalating dispute, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions.
Trump’s recent actions have whipped his followers into a fervor against the Archives, and he has empowered some of his most politically combative allies to represent him in negotiations with the agency. Former presidents’ representatives have typically been lawyers, historians or family members without clear political agendas. The representatives usually deal with issues such as negotiating privilege claims, setting up presidential libraries or researching presidential memoirs.
But this was yet another norm that Trump broke. In June, around the time the Justice Department stepped up its hunt for documents at Mar-a-Lago, Trump assigned two new Archives representatives who focused on publicizing documents they claimed would vindicate Trump and damage the FBI: Kash Patel and John Solomon.
Patel, a former White House and Pentagon aide, has sought for years to discredit the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian interference in the 2016 election. He recently has been promoting a children’s book about the scandal that features himself as a wizard who unravels a plot against “King Donald.” He also sells “K$H”-branded swag to raise money for a legal “offense” fund.
After the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago, Patel claimed in social media posts and right-wing media interviews that the search was part of an ongoing effort to cover up those materials.
“It’s always been all about Russia Gate,” Patel said on Trump’s Truth Social platform.
Solomon, who runs the JustTheNews conservative website, published Steidel Wall’s letter to Trump’s legal representatives notifying them of her decision to allow the FBI access to the boxes retrieved in January. He claimed the letter was proof of the White House’s “effort to facilitate a criminal probe of the man Joe Biden beat in the 2020 election.”
The Archives battle to secure records from Trump began while he was still president, according to records reviewed by The Post. Gary M. Stern, the agency’s top lawyer, began asking the former president’s attorneys to return two dozen boxes in the residency of the White House before he left. In an email Stern wrote to others, Trump’s counsel, Pat Cipollone, agreed with him. But Trump did not return them.
For months, Stern emailed and called Trump representatives, urging them to simply send them back, using a mix of pleading and an occasional threat. “We know things are very chaotic,” he wrote in one email in May, after describing all the items the Archives wanted back. “…But it is absolutely necessary that we obtain and account for all presidential records.”
Inside the Archives, the decision to provide the FBI access to the 15 boxes — uncharted territory for the 2,800-person agency — was not made lightly, officials said. Steidel Wall deliberated and consulted with the agency’s tightknit senior leadership team consisting of career civil servants. There are no political appointees currently in leadership. Steidel Wall started at the agency in 1991 as an archivist trainee, working on issues from establishing data standards to digitizing records on floppy disks.
The daughter of a police officer and a nursery schoolteacher on Long Island, she came to Washington to study history and government at Georgetown University, where she developed an interest in silent film, according to an interview with her hometown Suffolk Times. She eventually rose to become the agency’s chief of staff and deputy archivist.
“The people handling this … are career civil servants and have handled many sensitive issues, both for Democratic presidencies and Republican presidencies,” said one former Archives official. “We always tried to walk away from the politics of the situation and do our friggin’ job. … If records are alienated, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, we need to get them back into the government’s custody. And if there’s wayward classified material, materials are classified for a reason.”
On Saturday, the heads of the House oversight and intelligence committees released a statement saying that Avril Haines, director of national intelligence, had confirmed that the Justice Department and the intelligence community were working to assess the potential damage caused by the improper storage of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago. An affidavit unsealed Friday showed that 184 classified documents were found in the initial 15 boxes of Mar-a-Lago records reviewed by the FBI.
“The DOJ affidavit, partially unsealed yesterday, affirms our grave concern that among the documents stored at Mar-a-Lago were those that could endanger human sources,” Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said in a statement. “It is critical that the IC move swiftly to assess and, if necessary, to mitigate the damage done — a process that should proceed in parallel with DOJ’s criminal investigation.”
For most of American history, presidents kept their own papers and their personal ownership had never been challenged, according to a 2006 article co-written by Stern, NARA’s general counsel since 1998.
When Nixon resigned, he made plans to destroy White House records, including the Oval Office tapes that had become central to the Watergate scandal. Congress stepped in and passed the Presidential Records Act, which requires the White House to preserve all written communication related to a president’s official duties — memos, letters, notes, emails, faxes and other material — and turn it over to the Archives.
Disputes over the Nixon tapes continued into the 1990s, with lawsuits by former aides and Cabinet members seeking to block disclosure and from public-interest groups demanding access, according to the article. At the end of the Reagan administration, Stern, then with the American Civil Liberties Union, led a groundbreaking lawsuit seeking to preserve White House records related to the Iran-contra scandal.
Research by presidential representatives have in the past raised security risks. In 2005, former Clinton administration national security adviser Sandy Berger pleaded guilty to removing and destroying classified documents from the Archives related to the 9/11 Commission’s investigation. That case was overseen by Christopher A. Wray, then head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and now the Trump-appointed director of the FBI.
“This is not a sleepy agency — NARA staff are used to records-related controversies,” said Jason R. Baron, a professor at the University of Maryland and former director of litigation at NARA. “This matter, however, is unique. No piece of paper that’s a presidential record should be at Mar-a-Lago. It is clear that NARA staff made extraordinary efforts to recover presidential records and was rebuffed on numerous occasions.”
Trump’s disdain and disregard for the presidential record-keeping system he was legally bound to adhere to is well-documented. And while advisers repeatedly warned him about needing to follow the Presidential Records Act early in his presidency, his chaotic handling of the documents prevailed.
NARA’s motto, Littera Scripta Manet, translates from Latin to “the written word remains.” But in Trump’s White House, the written word was often torn, destroyed, misplaced or hoarded.
“Any documents that made it to the White House residence were these boxes Trump carried around with him,” explained Stephanie Grisham, a former senior White House staffer. “Usually the body man would have brought them upstairs for Trump or someone from the outer-Oval at the end of the day. They would get handed off to the residence and just disappear.”
Boxes of documents even came with Trump on foreign travel, following him to hotel rooms around the world — including countries considered foreign adversaries of the United States.
“There was no rhyme or reason — it was classified documents on top of newspapers on top of papers people printed out of things they wanted him to read. The boxes were never organized,” Grisham said. “He’d want to get work done on long trips so he’d just rummage through the boxes. That was our filing system.”
Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in refusing to turn over documents, at times suggesting that the records are his and should not be given back to the Archives.
However, not even some of Trump’s closest advisers anticipated that what they viewed as a bureaucratic dust-up with archivists would snowball into a serious FBI investigation for potentially violating federal law in removing and retaining classified documents without authorization — a felony punishable by five years in prison.
Archives official John Laster told one Trump adviser late last year that since the Presidential Records Act came into existence, someone had accidentally taken things with them at the end of every presidency.
So when Trump finally agreed to return the 15 boxes to the Archives in January, one adviser involved in the process said: “I really thought that was the end of the story. We assumed he’d given the boxes back.”
Trump’s advisers only realized it was ballooning into a bigger issue when the Archives said that they suspected even more items were missing. “But they wouldn’t tell us what, they said they weren’t entirely sure — they just thought everything hadn’t been given back,” this person added. “No one saw the Archives referring anything to the FBI.”
But the Archive’s work may not yet be done: Some NARA officials believe that there might still be more records missing, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“Our fundamental interest is always in ensuring that government records are properly managed, preserved, and protected to ensure access to them for the life of the Republic,” Steidel Wall told her staff in her email. “We will continue to do our work, without favor or fear, in the service of our democracy.”