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Papers and Presidencies: Encouraging Adherence to the Presidential Records Act

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Daniel P. Boden and Patrick C. Exmeyer
February 12, 2021

The United States’ 2020 general election cycle has shown, once again, the importance of responsible and effective administration.

Amidst a global pandemic, across the country, election officials successfully administered an election with the largest voter turnout in more than 100 years, culminating in more than 155 million registered voters casting their ballots to determine future leadership of the country. Importantly, considerable attention has been paid to the effects the Trump campaign’s legal challenges to Mr. Biden’s electoral victory—and President Trump’s unwillingness to conceded the election—would have on a smooth and effective transition to the Biden administration. There also has been speculation on key personnel changes between the administrations. However, there is much still to be said about the critical role of preserving and archiving records from outgoing presidential administrations. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) serves as the vanguard of historical record preservation and plays a key role in maintenance and promotion of presidential legacies. The lynchpin of this process, the Presidential Records Act (PRA) of 1978, outlines statutory requirements for document and record retention by outgoing presidential administrations.

For most of the nation’s history the presidential records of a specific administration were considered private property. This tradition began with George Washington and continued, largely unchallenged, until Richard Nixon left office. Under the PRA, at the conclusion of a president’s final term in office, the Archivist of the United States has the legal responsibility for maintaining and preserving all official records pertaining to that administration. NARA’s legal mandate to remove and preserve presidential records is particularly challenging at the end of a one-term presidency. (It is unsurprising that an incumbent president running for re-election generally is not interested in coordinating with NARA to remove and preserve records, should the reelection campaign prove unsuccessful.) However, NARA plays an important role in transitioning between one administration to another.

Preserving documents created during a given presidential administration serves a critical role in retaining historical facts and fostering greater transparency and accessibility to official governmental records. While previous administrations have largely adhered to the guidance set forth in the PRA, scholars and practitioners alike have voiced concerns over the Trump administration’s compliance to retain and preserve integral documents. Historians and activists note the Trump administration’s failure to comply with the PRA—either destroying documents or failing to document key actions, including those related to events such as the enactment of specific domestic policies and diplomatic relations. Central to these critiques is the concern that such actions undermine efforts to catalog historical events and jeopardize effective transparency. Stories of career records management officials scrambling to reassemble official documents torn or shredded with tape to ensure compliance with PRA and NARA retention policies represents a stark contrast to previous administrations that exhibited a more proactive and inclusive approach to official record retention. Similarly, questions concerning the legality of removed or deleted electronic communications, including use of digitally encrypted messaging applications among White House officials, has prompted speculation as to whether the documents retained by the Trump administration will reflect the full scope of documents accumulated by the administration accurately. Absent stronger statutory language enforcing compliance, adherence to the PRA by future administrations will be dictated by each administration’s approach to historical precedent.

It is not known publicly if President Trump will choose to construct a presidential library to archive the official records created while in office. Under the Presidential Libraries Act, if he chooses to build such a facility, he has the option of donating it to the federal government to be administered by NARA or follow the path of his immediate predecessor and construct a private facility independent of the federal government. Regardless of his choice, NARA will be responsible to preserve and make available the records produced during the Trump administration.

President Biden is no stranger to the requirements of the PRA. As vice president under President Obama, his official records fell under the PRA. Under the Biden administration, NARA will continue the work of preserving presidential records. At its core, the PRA is about accountability. The value of such records is not found solely in the fact that they chronicle significant events in a presidency or in the nation’s history. The public nature of these records underscores their importance in developing and maintaining public trust in our institutions. Public access to presidential records is an important resource in attempts to hold former presidents to account for decisions made during their time in office and a vital tool for promoting transparency to the public.


Authors:

Daniel P. Boden is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Toledo. His research focuses on politics and history, interdisciplinary graduate education and public organizations. He can be reached at [email protected].

 Patrick C. Exmeyer is assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Louisiana Monroe. His research interests include public sector whistleblowing, public personnel management, organizational ethics and public administration in popular culture. He can be contacted at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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