Trump suggests that the Mar-a-Lago papers were bound for his library. But advisers say he rarely talks about it.

A central question surrounding the files former President Donald Trump stored at his Mar-a-Lago home is why he kept reams of government documents and classified material.

The criminal investigation now underway has yielded few answers so far. A lawyer for Trump has “provided no explanation as to why boxes of government records were kept” at the former president’s estate, the Justice Department wrote in a court filing last week. But Trump himself invoked something that advisers say rarely comes up: his library.

At the end of an Aug. 22 statement, he suggested that the records seized from Mar-a-Lago should be included in a future “Donald J. Trump”. The most detailed inventory of Justice Department documents, which was unsealed on Friday, showed that Trump had kept more than 10,000 government records, in addition to those marked classified. That he kept it at all baffled former National Archives and Records Administration officials who said the material belonged to the US government, regardless of what Trump believed, and should have been turned over the moment he left office.

For Trumpworld, a library was little more than an afterthought, say six past and present advisers. As a former president who wants to be a future president, Trump did not want to give the impression that his focus has shifted to his legacy. Building a library at the site would be the political equivalent of building a mausoleum: a sign that his career in electoral politics was dead, some close to him said.

Advisers describe discussions of a Trump presidential library over the years as closed and back-and-forth. One former adviser recalled looking at Florida real estate maps during meetings in the small White House dining room near the Oval Office. A longtime Trump adviser said Trump allies are “scouting locations” in the Palm Beach area, where Mar-a-Lago is located. (A running joke among those involved in the planning was that they would put the library in Greenland, the island Trump had fun buying in mid-term, a person close to him said.)

Another person close to Trump who spoke to him briefly about a library earlier this year said, “He didn’t seem terribly interested. He didn’t say to him “I have to open my library”. He’s more interested in becoming president again.”

A Trump confidante, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to speak more freely, added: “Presidential libraries are for former presidents. He is the next president. Returns.”

A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on plans for a library. In a court appearance last week, Trump’s lawyer, Chris Keys, said there is nothing wrong with a former president holding records from his time in office. Rather, he said, the mix of material found at Mar-a-Lago “is what you’d expect if you were looking through a pile of boxes being rushed from a residence or an office. It contains all kinds of things.”

If Trump’s plan was to funnel the files to a future library, he went about it the wrong way, former National Archives officials say.

All he needed to do was what he was supposed to do in the first place: return every presidential record to the U.S. government upon leaving office, as required by the Presidential Records Act of 1978. Once his library was up and running, he would he could then have gone to the National Archives and requested a loan of the documents he wanted to exhibit, as past presidents have done. Former President Barack Obama’s presidential library, for example, expects to display his speeches and gifts he received during his two terms — all on loan from the National Archives.

Robert Clark, a former National Archives employee at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, said every president has the right to build a library.

“But there is a process. He can’t just store things in his garage until the library is built. It doesn’t work that way,” Clark said.

One of Trump’s concerns was that a library would end up showing material that painted him in an unflattering light, a former senior White House official said. He wanted some control over what the library would contain, the source added.

Modern presidential libraries have two main components: a treasury of presidential records overseen by the National Archives and a museum open to the public. Former presidents should not control the records the library collects.

Museums are a different case. Privately funded, they have often evolved into shrines to the former president. A former Trump spokesman recalled talking to a Madame Tussauds museum about donating a wax figure of Trump to a future library. Another idea Trump’s advisers have considered is to see if they can acquire and display Air Force One once the plane is replaced by a new model later in the decade, one of the people close to him said.

“I’m tempted to remark that given Trump’s limited interest in much else than himself, I’m not sure what a Trump library would contain,” said Tom Ratt, a former senior adviser to five Republican presidential campaigns. “You can have as many copies of ‘The Art of the Deal’.”

Trump would not be unique in wanting to control his image.

“One of the big knocks on the presidential library system has been that it’s actually very difficult to get critical material into the museum,” said Paul Musgrave, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts who worked on Richard Nixon’s presidency. library.

What makes Trump an outlier is that most of his predecessors in the modern era willingly parted with their records, even when given the option to withhold them in their entirety.

The Records Act shifted ownership and control of documents from a former president to the US government beginning with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. However, Franklin D. Roosevelt had voluntarily surrendered his records to the National Archives, as had his successors Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. When he resigned, Nixon wanted to destroy the secret tapes he had made in office, but Congress passed a law in 1974 that kept them in the government’s possession.

Nixon showed he was “not interested in following precedent,” Clark said. “And we’re at one of those crossroads moments now.”

There’s no guarantee Trump could raise the huge sums needed to build a library, anyway. The Obama Presidential Center in Chicago is expected to cost more than $830 million, and Obama began fundraising before leaving office. Raising funds for a library is especially difficult for former presidents, who have little to offer prospective donors. Out of power, they cannot reward donors with the embassies and state dinner invitations that are often enticements to give money. As president, the focus of Trump’s fundraising has been his re-election bid.

During Trump’s tenure, advisers have at times pondered whether the price had risen so high that the Obama library might be the last library ever built. But a person close to Trump suggested he could lower costs if he were to form a partnership with a university.

If Trump ever follows through and raises the money, the end product would inevitably be a celebration of his record, despite the two impeachments.

However, self-respect is not what worries some historians. If the files in Trump’s possession are lost or thrown out, this material will potentially be lost to history. The National Archives was clearly concerned about the state in which Trump was keeping the documents. In the 15 boxes Trump handed over in January, archivists found “numerous classified files” mixed in with newspapers, photos and mail, the FBI’s coordinated affidavit used in the search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home showed. FBI agents who seized records from the property last month found classified material in a desk drawer along with Trump’s passports.

At issue is whether the United States will risk leaving gaps in the historical record that distort the public’s understanding of Trump’s presidency.

“President Trump’s decision to keep or take material with him directly affected the public’s ability to know the truth about his administration,” said Tim Naftali, director of the undergraduate public policy program at NYU Wagner and former director of the presidential library. of Nixon. .

“Our democracy depends on transparency,” he added. “It’s not perfect by any means. But it’s a goal we’re trying to achieve.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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