June 22, 2018—The Society of American Archivists is deeply concerned about a recent report of the alleged ongoing destruction of presidential records by President Donald Trump, in direct contravention of the Presidential Records Act of 1978 (PRA) and its 2014 amendment. The PRA, which governs the official records of U.S. presidents and vice presidents that were created or received after January 20, 1981, stipulates that legal ownership of presidential records is with the public. Presidential records under the law consist of documentary material in any format created or received by the president, his immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President who advises or assists the president in the course of conducting the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the president. Under the PRA, all presidential records are passed on to the Archivist of the United States who, five years after the end of the Administration, makes the material available to the public unless the PRA specifies a different length of time. Under no circumstances may records simply be destroyed.
Professional archivists, who labor in the nation’s archives, are entrusted with ensuring that citizens and scholars have access to the records of human society and culture, as well as to the important records of our government which protect the rights of individuals in the United States and provide accountability to the people on the actions of their government. The guarantee of such access is a cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution. Destruction of presidential records is illegal and in violation of federal records management regulations and policies.
SAA calls upon the Archivist of the United States to review this matter and report publicly on the results of his review. Should the destruction of presidential records be evident, SAA urges the National Archives and Records Administration to take appropriate steps to halt said destruction.
Update received from NARA on June 25:
NARA’s Guidance on Presidential Records, which we have prepared for every incoming Administration since 2000, gives a generalized background on the Presidential Records Act, how NARA implements the PRA, and how we assist the White House. The PRA states that the incumbent President must obtain the views in writing of the Archivist before disposing of any Presidential records “that no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value.” This authority is routinely used to dispose of the extremely large volumes of public mail that the President and Vice President receive on a daily basis and other types of administrative records. The only authority NARA has under the PRA regarding a proposed disposal is to seek the advice of Congress whenever “the Archivist considers that (1) these particular records may be of special interest to the Congress; or (2) consultation with the Congress regarding the disposal of these particular records is in the public interest.”
As the PRA guidance also states, “Although NARA has limited records management authority over incumbent Presidential records, NARA routinely provides records management guidance based on its institutional knowledge and expertise to the incumbent Administration upon request.” As we have done with every prior Administration, NARA provides such guidance on a confidential basis, which means that we generally are not able to discuss details concerning the Presidential records of the current Administration. However, in consultation with the White House, we have over the past year been able to release some information about PRA issues in the Trump Administration, which can be found on NARA’s FOIA electronic reading room, at this link: www.archives.gov/foia/pra-trump-admin.