How Archives Went From ‘National Treasure’ To Political Prey

How Archives Went From ‘National Treasure’ To Political Prey

How Archives Went From ‘National Treasure’ To Political Prey

WASHINGTON — It was the setting for “National Treasure,” the movie in which Nicolas Cage’s character tries to steal the Declaration of Independence. It has long been one of the most trafficked tourist destinations in the country’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.

But that’s exactly where the agency is after it sent a referral to the FBI saying that 15 boxes recovered in January from former President Donald Trump’s Florida home contained dozens of documents with secret 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 red lines for officials to respond to.”

Those government employees operate out of the public eye, behind the marble facade of the Archives building in downtown Washington. It’s there, off the Hollywood plotlines, where a critical piece of federal bureaucracy resides, with dozens of employees acting as the custodians of American history, preserving records that range from the mundane to the monumental.

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


The mission of the National Archives, which was established by Congress in 1934, sounds simple: to be the country’s record holder. It is a daunting task that has only become more complex over time.

While the Archives preserve precious national documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that is only the public face of their vast collection, which includes 13 billion pages of text and 10 million maps, charts and drawings. as tens of millions of photos, movies and other records.

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



The United States Archivist is responsible for running the agency. The last Senate-confirmed leader was David Ferriero, who resigned in April after serving 12 years under three presidents.

Ferriero, in an April interview with The Washington Post, recalled watching from the windows of the Archives Building on January 6, 2021 as the crowd of Trump supporters marched past on their way to breach the Capitol. He called it the worst day of his life.

More than a year later, he decided to retire, partly for fear of the country’s political course.

“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 it to be left to… the unknowns of the presidential election.”

His deputy, Debra Steidel Wall, serves as acting archivist, while President Joe Biden’s nominee, Colleen Joy Shogan, awaits Senate confirmation this fall. The archivist holds the position until he decides to retire.



The archive serves as the final resting place for the work of every White House.

After the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Congress passed a bill in 1978 to ensure that all presidential documents – written, electronic material sent by the president, vice president, or any other member of the executive branch in a official capacity – are kept and transferred to the Archives at the end of an administration. The law states that a president’s data does not belong to him or her, but belongs to the federal government and must be treated as such.

When a new administration begins, White House employees receive a brochure about the law and step-by-step instructions on how to retain records. The conservation requirements cover a wide variety of items, including gifts and letters from foreign leaders. “Memories don’t exist,” said Lee White, director of the National Coalition for History.

In addition, the law requires that the president or any member of that administration, even while in office, must first seek the advice of the archivist before destroying a record, a practice Trump and his aides reportedly ignored during his four years in office.

“Everything he writes down is essentially a presidential record. It’s not his property,” White said. “It’s so fundamental to the whole concept of why the Presidential Records Act was created.”

“At 12:00 on the day of the inauguration, the guardianship is transferred to the archivist. Period of time. There is no maybe. It’s the law,” he added.



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

After Trump left office, the archive found that data from his White House was missing. What followed was a year-long back and forth between the Archives’ legal counsel and Trump’s attorneys, resulting in the voluntary return of 15 boxes of presidential documents. Upon opening the boxes, the agency discovered that 14 of them contained classified documents and information.

The agency recognized a possible crime and made the unprecedented decision to refer the case to the Department of Justice. That move culminated in Trump’s search for the Mar-a-Lago resort in August. FBI agents recovered more than 100 classified documents, including some stashed among personal items in the former president’s office.

Since the August 8 search, the Archives and its staff have been bombarded with threats and accusations. The acting archivist noted in an email to agency staff that their work is impartial and urged them to remain steadfast to their mission.

“The National Archives have been under intense scrutiny for months, especially this week, with many people attributing political motivation to our actions,” Wall wrote in a letter dated August 24. “NARA has received reports from the public accusing us of corruption and conspiracy against the former president, or congratulating NARA for ‘taking it down’.”

“Neither is correct or welcome,” she added.

Wall has worked at the Archives for over three decades, starting as an intern archivist and progressing to second in line. She said in her letter that despite the political storm surrounding the agency, the staff must continue their work “without favor or fear, in the service of our democracy”.



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

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

Shogan faces a ratification process as Republicans demand answers about the Justice Department’s investigation and the records’ role in facilitating it. A hearing for this fall is not yet scheduled, but could become unusually controversial.

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

Rep. James Comer of Kentucky, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, sent a letter Thursday demanding that the Archives watchdog provide documents and communications about the case.

“Transparency is especially important in the post-pandemic era when Americans lack confidence in our institutions,” Comer wrote.

So far, the National Archives has rejected requests from both Democrats and Republicans on the committees overseeing the agency, instead referring it to the Department of Justice where the investigation is now taking place.


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