Working for the National Archives and Records Administration isn’t usually thought of as a risky job — unless you have a preternatural fear of being crushed by a falling tower of document boxes. However, since it was revealed that the FBI search of ex-president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort was precipitated by National Archives officials — who realized that scores of classified documents were never delivered to them at the end of the Trump administration and notified the Justice Department about the problem — violent threats from MAGA supporters have become an everyday occurrence.
Debra Steidel Wall, the acting head of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), noted the sudden political vitriol being directed at the agency in an email sent to the dedicated civil servants who work there, urging them to ignore the controversy and stay focused on their daily activities.
“NARA has received messages from the public accusing us of corruption and conspiring against the former President, or congratulating NARA for ‘bringing him down,’ ” Steidel Wall wrote in the agencywide message, according to The Washington Post. “Neither is accurate or welcome.”
As has become apparent in the wake of the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago, Trump was indeed hoarding top secret documents that he had purloined from the White House.
And NARA officials had been unsuccessfully negotiating with Trump’s representatives over the return of the documents for an extended period of time before recovering 15 boxes from Mar-a-Lago back in January.
According to The Washington Post:
“Agency officials found a mess of disorganized papers lacking any inventory. Highly classified material was mixed in with newspaper clippings and dinner menus. And Archives officials believed more items were still missing.”
It was only after this extraordinary effort to reclaim the missing documents that NARA officials finally resorted to reporting the problem to the Justice Department.
Once the FBI was forced to obtain a search warrant and executed their search, Trump and his allies launched a vicious propaganda attack on not just the FBI and DOJ, but on the National Archives as well, apparently because implementing the mandates of the Presidential Records Act is a sure sign that your agency is a poisonous arm of the “Deep State.”
“They could have had it anytime they wanted — and that includes LONG ago,” Trump wrote Aug. 12 on his Truth Social website. “ALL THEY HAD TO DO IS ASK. The bigger problem is, what are they going to do with the 33 million pages of documents, many of which are classified, that President Obama took to Chicago?”
The problem with Trump’s social media retort is that NARA DID ASK for the documents a LONG time ago, and Trump refused to comply with their requests as the boxes of documents found by the FBI prove. Plus, Trump’s attacks on Obama are disingenuous considering that the documents that Obama requested for use in his memoirs and for his presidential library are both unclassified and securely stored at a National Archives facility in suburban Chicago.
Former acting archivist Trudy Peterson expressed dismay over the politicization of what was formerly considered a mundane form of record keeping.
“Without the preservation of the records of government, and without access to them, you can’t have an informed population, and without an informed population, you lack one of the basic tools to preserving democracy,” Peterson said. “The system won’t work if the neutrality of the National Archives is not protected.”
Another former NARA official explained the non-partisan orientation of Archives staffers to The Washington Post.
“The people handling this … are career civil servants and have handled many sensitive issues, both for Democratic presidencies and Republican presidencies,” said one former Archives official.“We always tried to walk away from the politics of the situation and do our friggin’ job. … If records are alienated, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, we need to get them back into the government’s custody. And if there’s wayward classified material, materials are classified for a reason.”
It was a sentiment echoed by NARA head Debra Steidel Wall in her email to the agency’s staff.
“Our fundamental interest is always in ensuring that government records are properly managed, preserved, and protected to ensure access to them for the life of the Republic,” Steidel Wall told her staff in her email. “We will continue to do our work, without favor or fear, in the service of our democracy.”
Neither Trump supporters tweeting threats against the agency nor progressives congratulating NARA for its integrity will affect the way the agency completes its mission according to Steidel Wall.
And that’s exactly the way it should be.
Original reporting by Jacqueline Alemany, Isaac Arnsdorf, and Josh Dawsey at The Washington Post.