Crime or not, trashing presidential records is a travesty

“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” – David McCullough, American historian

The current scandal over the looting and retention of presidential records at Mar-a-Lago may result in criminal prosecution. Former president Donald Trump’s initial “defense” to having purloined boxes of public records – “It’s not theirs; it’s mine” – sounds more like a playground squabble than a well-grounded legal argument.

Irrespective of any punishment imposed by the justice system, Trump’s cavalier handling of presidential records is without cure and the damage irreparable.

During 1980, I worked for Vice President Walter Mondale and, therefore, served in Jimmy Carter’s administration. That administration’s existence began to subside after Ronald Reagan cruised to an election victory in November.

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Despite a bruising campaign, both Carter and Mondale expected staff to engage in a graceful transition in the weeks leading up to the inauguration. There was work to do to ensure continuity of governmental functions and, importantly, preservation of the administration’s records.

In 1978, in the middle of Carter’s term, Congress passed the Presidential Records Act (PRA) establishing procedures for the preservation of presidential records. While PRA would not take formal effect until after Carter’s term ended, he committed to have his presidential records preserved in compliance with PRA when he signed the bill into law.

PRA makes clear the public’s ownership of presidential records, provides that the National Archives and Records Administration (the Archives) assume ownership of presidential records upon the departure of a president and requires presidential records to be preserved, allowing destruction of records only in consultation with the Archives.

Since enactment, the Archives has done a masterful job implementing PRA in coordination with former presidents. The Archives oversees the retention of more than 600 million pages of presidential papers at 13 presidential libraries and museums spread throughout the United States. Today, the end result of Carter’s commitment to preserve presidential records, as well as similar commitments by other past presidents, can be viewed online at

Presidential libraries educate us about our governance structure, where the country has been and attest to our country’s successes. Importantly, the libraries also show us where, as a nation, we could have done better. The content in these libraries belong to the American people, serve to promote greater civic education and are a critical resource to ensure the country’s on-going evolution.

Tragically, Trump’s record keeping practices while occupying the White House were abysmal. Documents were destroyed/allegedly flushed, visitor logs excised, briefing papers habitually torn to pieces (followed by occasional scotch tape repairs), materials intentionally misclassified for the purpose of concealing information and private cellphones and email addresses employed limiting the ability to even have records at all.

Robert Moilanen

Robert Moilanen

Now, we read about boxes of government documents squirreled away at Mar-a-Lago containing a mishmash of items including classified material. While none of the documents belong to Trump, the focus on mishandling classified documents belonging in a secure government facility is of concern. While disclosure of classified materials may threaten our nation’s security, classified material are also part of a historic record requiring preservation.

My position with the Carter administration did not require reviewing classified information. Despite that, I received a 14-page memorandum dated April 15, 1977, entitled “Security Program Directive” on the procedures for handling classified materials. It was required reading. The procedures included never removing classified material from the building, encasing classified material with cover sheets, never discussing classified information over the phone, retaining classified material in “a steel file cabinet equipped with a steel lock bar and dial-type padlock” with combinations being changed semi-annually and emphasizing the penalties for violations of the Espionage Act.

As the Supreme Court stated in Nixon v. Administrator of General Services Administration (1977), “An incumbent President should not be dependent on happenstance or the whims of a prior President when he seeks access to records of past decisions that define or channel current governmental obligations. Nor should the American people’s ability to reconstruct and come to terms with their history be truncated …”

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Trump’s purpose in taking boxes of government documents is unclear – personal gain, salve for a wounded ego, hiding something? What is clear is that neither the public nor the Biden administration has enjoyed access to the documents and, but for the search by the FBI, these documents would probably have been lost to history. What would have happened if Carter had adopted Trump’s approach and taken the documents generated from the Camp David Accords to Plains exclaiming “They’re mine?”

Trump’s careless conduct regarding presidential records infringes on the public’s ability to learn from its own history. Sadly, Trump’s presidential library will be a pothole in our country’s documentary trail of presidential history.

Robert Moilanen is a retired attorney living in Minnetonka who has visited the 13 official presidential libraries and museums.