How Archives went from ‘National Treasure’ to political prey


WASHINGTON – It was the setting for “National Treasure,” the film in which Nicolas Cage’s character tries to steal the Declaration of Independence. It has long been among the busiest tourist destinations in the nation’s capital.

But what the National Archives and Records Administration has never been – until now – is the site of a criminal investigation into a former president.

Yet this is precisely where the agency is located after sending a referral to the FBI claiming that 15 boxes recovered from former President Donald Trump’s Florida home in January contained dozens of documents with confidential markings.

“I don’t think Donald Trump has politicized the national archives,” said Tim Naftali, the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. “I think what Donald Trump did was cross the red lines that civil servants had to respond to.”

Those government employees operate out of the public eye, behind the marble facade of the Archives building in downtown Washington. It is there, beyond the plots of Hollywood, that a crucial component of the federal bureaucracy resides, with dozens of employees acting as custodians of American history, keeping documents ranging from the mundane to the monumental.

A closer look at the National Archive, its history and how it ended up in the middle of a political vortex:

The mission of the National Archives, founded by Congress in 1934, seems simple: to be the record holder of the nation. It’s a tall order that has only gotten more complex over time.

Although the Archive protects valuable national documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Charter of Rights, this is only the public face of their vast collection, which includes 13 billion pages of text and 10 million maps, maps and drawings. , as well as like tens of millions of photographs, films and other documents.

In addition to his work in Washington, the Archives oversee 13 presidential libraries and 14 regional archives across the country.

The US archivist is responsible for managing the agency. The last confirmed leader in the Senate was David Ferriero, who resigned in April after serving 12 years under three presidents.

Ferriero recalled in an April interview with the Washington Post how he watched from the windows of the Archives building on January 6, 2021, as crowds of Trump supporters marched towards the Capitol. He called it the worst day of his life.

More than a year later he decided to retire, also due to fears about the nation’s political trajectory.

“It is important to me that this administration replaces me,” he told the Post. “I’m worried about what will happen in 2024. I don’t want it to be left … to the unknowns of the presidential elections.”

His deputy, Debra Steidel Wall, serves as interim archivist as President Joe Biden’s candidate Colleen Joy Shogan awaits a Senate confirmation trial this fall. The archivist holds the role until she decides to retire.


The Archive serves as the ultimate resting place for the work of each White House.

Following the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed a law in 1978 to ensure that all presidential documents – written and electronic material created by the president, vice president, or any other executive branch member in an official capacity – are preserved. and delivered to the Archives at the end of an administration. The law states that a president’s records are not his, but are owned by the federal government and should be treated as such.

When a new administration begins, White House staff receive a booklet on the law and detailed instructions on how to keep the documents. Retention requirements cover a wide range of items, including gifts and letters from foreign leaders. “There are no such things as memories,” said Lee White, executive director of the National Coalition for History.

Furthermore, the law requires that even while in office, the president or any member of that administration must first seek the opinion of the archivist before destroying any documents, a practice that Trump and his associates would have ignored during his four years in office. .

“Everything he writes is essentially a presidential record. It’s not owned by him, “White said.” It’s so central to the whole concept of why the Presidential Records Act was created. “

“At noon on the day of the inauguration, the custody is transferred to the archivist. Period. There maybe isn’t. It’s the law, ”he added.


The rules of the Presidential Records Act are central to the FBI’s investigation of Trump.

After Trump left office, the archives found his White House documents were missing. What followed was a back-and-forth year between Archives’ legal counsel and Trump’s attorneys that resulted in the voluntary return of 15 boxes of presidential documents. After opening the boxes, the agency found that 14 of them contained confidential documents and information.

Recognizing a potential crime, the agency made the unprecedented decision to refer the matter to the Justice Department. That move culminated in the search for Trump’s resort in Mar-a-Lago in August. FBI agents recovered more than 100 confidential documents, including some that had been hidden in the former president’s office among personal items.

Since the search on 8 August, the Archive and its employees have been bombarded with threats and accusations. The interim archivist in an email to agency staff noted that their work is not biased and urged them to remain steadfast in their mission.

“The national archives have been the focus of intense scrutiny for months, especially this week, with many people attributing political motivation to our actions,” Wall wrote in an August 24 letter. “NARA has received messages from the public accusing us of bribery and conspiracy against the former president, or congratulating NARA for ‘shooting him down’.”

“It is neither accurate nor welcome,” he added.

Wall worked for more than three decades at the Archives, starting as an apprentice archivist and moving up to second in line. In his letter, he stated that, despite the political storm surrounding the agency, staff must continue their work “without favor or fear, in the service of our democracy”.


Five days before the Mar-a-Lago search, Biden announced that he would appoint Shogan, a White House Historical Association executive who had previously worked for a decade at the Library of Congress, as the next archivist.

Candidates for the post are typically confirmed without controversy or fanfare. But this time it’s unlikely.

Shogan faces an accused confirmation trial as Republicans demand answers on the Department of Justice investigations and the Archives’ role in facilitating them. A confirmation hearing for this fall has not yet been scheduled, but it could end up being unusually controversial.

Republicans in the House and Senate have pushed for more information on how the Archives made the decision to refer Trump’s case to federal investigators.

Representative James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a letter Thursday requesting the Archives Watchdog to provide documents and communications on the case.

“Transparency is especially important in the post-pandemic era, when Americans have no faith in our institutions,” Comer wrote.

So far, the National Archives have rejected requests from both Democrats and Republicans in the committees that oversee the agency, referring them instead to the Justice Department where the investigation is taking place.

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