David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. He teaches at McGill University’s Max Bell School of Public Policy in Montreal.
The hardest job in America is not being president of the United States. The hardest job in America is being an archivist for a library holding the papers of a president of the United States.
That hard job just got harder. The other day the U.S. government quietly put out a call for a candidate to become a supervisory archivist for the library of former president Donald J. Trump.
It would be a difficult job for any candidate. Now throw in the element that Mr. Trump himself is essentially a self-proclaimed candidate for supervisory archivist himself, because he believes he has the right and the power to edit his own papers – as evidenced by a lawsuit against the National Archives he filed last Monday that would block the release of some of them.
At the same time, he is a likely candidate for another White House term. He is hoping to be the only president besides Grover Cleveland to serve non-consecutive terms – and the only person besides Mr. Cleveland, William Jennings Bryan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Richard Nixon to win the presidential nomination of a major political party three times.
The fact that Mr. Trump likely will be playing a major role in American politics after he has left the White House only complicates the job of an archivist, which is to preserve, curate and presumably make public documents related to his 2017-2021 presidency. The salary for the open position is a maximum of US$134,798.
In those documents, including presidential tweets and e-mails, are the raw materials of the historical accounts of the future, ordinarily a vital resource. But with fresh questions about the nature and survival of democratic values and institutions in the United States, those documents – detailing, for example, Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his role in the insurrection at the Capitol in January – will be indispensable to future historians, political scientists, even scholars of culture and values. Moreover, they will be indispensable to American citizens contemplating whether they want a reprise of the Trump presidency three years from now.
Whether in West Branch, Iowa, the home of Herbert Hoover library, or in College Station, Texas, where George H.W. Bush planted his library, commemorative presidential tributes and official presidential papers customarily are housed in the same physical structure.
But the stewards of the commemorative museums and the archivists of the presidential papers are different people, with different outlooks, different training, different backgrounds and vastly different remits. Retired chief executives or their families often have an important role in the displays, and those museum exhibits often possess the air of hagiography. The archivists are government employees appointed by the National Archives and Records Administration, and they are intended to be objective. One group consists of commemorators, the other group consists of collectors. Former presidents, however, do have some ability to delay or prevent the release of documents.
There the Trump clash begins. By inclination and self-interest, Mr. Trump is more into commemoration than collection, and indeed he doesn’t want materials relating to Jan. 6 made public. Defiant, or ignorant, of post-Watergate government rules that render presidential papers public property, he is resisting the disclosure of his papers to a Capitol Hill committee examining the insurrection at the Capitol and to the public – a precursor to a broader struggle, both political and legal, about access to his presidential papers.
A lengthy battle between Capitol lawmakers and the Trump team almost certainly will follow, but the intention of the law, which has been updated to include digital material, is clear, and so is the principle behind it. “The truth behind a president’s actions,” said Harry Truman in 1949, while he still was president, “can be only found in his official papers, and every presidential paper is official.”
That has not stopped American presidents, including Mr. Truman, from trying to shield some papers from the public. The champion in this derby was Richard M. Nixon, but others have done so as well; some papers remain classified for national-security reasons, and there are provisions in the law to allow presidents, for six specific reasons – including the protection of trade secrets and the privacy of those being considered for presidential appointments – to keep some documents from the public eye for as many as a dozen years.
One of those exclusions – “confidential communications requesting or submitting advice between the president and his advisers or between such advisers” – is likely to be the fulcrum of debate in the Trump case. Generally the current president stands by the former president’s wishes, but in this case, President Joe Biden is showing little sympathy for Mr. Trump’s inclinations.
Thus the first contests of the presidential campaign of 2024 may not be in Iowa and New Hampshire, but rather in the archivist’s office – and in the courts.
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