The recent Republican primary election in Alabama produced a lot of drama and ideological clashing, as well as talk about the future of the Republican Party. One of the most striking elements of the campaign was Donald Trump’s endorsement of sitting Senator Luther Strange, who lost the nomination to archconservative and radical Christian Roy Moore. Trump had endorsed Strange via both in-person visits to Alabama as well as his characteristic and increasingly tiresome tweeting, and Strange’s defeat was seen by many as a sign of Trump’s weak political influence. After Strange’s loss to Moore on September 26, 2017, a number of Trump’s most recent tweets touting his support for Strange were deleted from his verified Twitter account. Although many of those tweets were archived by and remain accessible by ProPublica, the fact that Trump deleted them in the first place is yet another link in the chain of troubling behavior by Trump on the subject of public information and on ensuring the integrity of his record. (This behavior, of course, was a large part of the inspiration for the Concerned Archivists Alliance in the first place.)
Trump’s periodic deleting (and correcting) of tweets has raised questions about his administration’s commitment to obeying the Presidential Records Act, which requires all the records of presidential administrations to be preserved for the future and for eventual public release. It strikes me, in addition, as part of Trump’s disdain for facts, evidence, and proof in general.
I contacted the National Archives and Records Administration on this matter, wondering whether they had plans to issue a statement about this very public violence done to the historical record. On September 28th, I received a reply from a member of NARA’s Public and Media Communications Staff, which read:
We received your email asking about the recent deletion of Tweets on an official White House account. Under the Presidential Records Act, records management authority is vested in the President, and the National Archives does not make determinations with respect to whether something is or is not a Presidential record. Rather, the National Archives provides advice and guidance concerning the PRA upon the request of the White House.
The National Archives has advised the White House that it should capture and preserve all tweets that the President posts in the course of his official duties, including those that are subsequently deleted, as Presidential records, and the National Archives has been informed by White House officials that they are, in fact, doing so.
NARA’s guidance about Presidential tweets is online at https://www.archives.gov/press/press-releases/2017/nr-43
Questions about the current Administration’s policies and practices under the PRA should be addressed directly to the White House press office, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This response struck me as a frustrating act of bureaucratic buck-passing. I used to work for NARA once upon a time, and I am well aware that NARA has no real enforcement authority to compel a federal agency or employee to do anything. (As I heard often from NARA staff, “we’re not the records police.”) What NARA has, though, is a moral authority and an appeal to truth and accuracy, which may not have the strength or force of law or federal regulation but which is not nothing. The response I received suggested to me that NARA is content to rest on its position as an advisory body to the White House (we all know how well this particular White House welcomes advice from experts), and to ignore its higher duty to the American historical record. I wrote back to NARA on September 29th:
So, then, as I understand it, NARA will make no statement about Donald Trump’s blatant disregard for the preservation of the documentary record, and it will continue to rely on the moral sense and integrity of an administration that has demonstrated neither of these. Do you have any evidence that Trump is, in fact, preserving the tweets he later deletes? And even if he is, NARA has no opinion on the issue of access to Trump’s tweets? If Trump deletes these, the public has lost access to them for the foreseeable future, and this is dangerous for government accountability to the public.
As a former employee of NARA, I am deeply saddened by NARA’s apparent supine attitude towards the Trump Administration and its willingness to rest the future of the record of this administration on the willingness of Donald Trump to follow federal records laws. When this is combined with NARA’s acceptance of ICE’s request to destroy records relating to the deaths of people in its custody after 20 years (rather than retain these permanently), I see a troubling slide in NARA’s support of its own mission and its commitment to democracy.
I received, unsurprisingly, no response to this.
NARA is charged with the weighty responsibility of preserving the record of the activities of our government. In a democracy, the right of the people to know what their government has done and is doing is paramount if we are to ensure electoral, legal, and historical accountability. And when we are faced, as we have been since January 20, 2017, with a President who eschews accuracy and truth, who in the face of the nation he supposedly leads tries to blatantly remove evidence of a political blunder, and who has shown in the past clear disrespect for the integrity of information, it is more and more incumbent on NARA to stand up as our national records authority. (Even if that authority carries little to no enforcement mechanism.) In contentious times, when the foundations of our government are at risk, it behooves those bodies vested with the protection of government institutions (in this case, our very history) to rise above the dull language of statute and tradition and business-as-usual and remember what it is they are charged with: the stability and integrity of democracy. NARA, to my mind, is failing in this, both in its non-response to Trump’s deleted tweets and in its acceptance of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s request to delete certain groups of records [see previous blog entries].
We can only hope that NARA will come to realize that because it is, as it likes to term itself, “the nation’s record keeper”, it owes the nation a commitment to fulfilling that role and to doing what it can – via lobbying for legislative action, public messaging, or other actions – to make evident the danger that history and democracy face in this presidential administration.