Authored by Michael Bekesha, op-ed via The Wall Street Journal,
Although the indictment against Donald Trump doesn’t cite the Presidential Records Act, the charges are predicated on the law. The indictment came about only because the government thought Mr. Trump took records that didn’t belong to him, and the government raided his house to find any such records.
This should never have happened.
The Presidential Records Act allows the president to decide what records to return and what records to keep at the end of his presidency. And the National Archives and Records Administration can’t do anything about it.
I know because I’m the lawyer who lost the “Clinton sock drawer” case.
In 2009, historian Taylor Branch published “The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History With the President.” The book is based on recordings of Mr. Branch’s 79 meetings with Bill Clinton between Jan. 20, 1993, and Jan. 20, 2001. According to Mr. Branch, the audiotapes preserved not only Mr. Clinton’s thoughts on issues he faced while president, but also some actual events, such as phone conversations. Among them:
Mr. Clinton calling several U.S. senators and trying to persuade them to vote against an amendment by Sen. John McCain requiring the immediate withdrawal of troops from Somalia
Mr. Clinton’s side of a phone call with Rep. William Natcher (D., Ky.) in which the president explained that his reasoning for joining the North American Free Trade Agreement was based on technical forecasts in his presidential briefings.
Mr. Clinton’s side of a phone conversation with Secretary of State Warren Christopher about a diplomatic impasse over Bosnia.
Mr. Clinton seeking advice from Mr. Branch on pending foreign-policy decisions such as military involvement in Haiti and possibly easing the embargo of Cuba.
The White House made the audiotapes. Nancy Hernreich, then director of Oval Office operations, set up the meetings between Messrs. Clinton and Branch and was involved in the logistics of the recordings. Did that make them presidential records?
The National Archives and Records Administration was never given the recordings. As Mr. Branch tells it, Mr. Clinton hid them in his sock drawer to keep them away from the public and took them with him when he left office.
My organization, Judicial Watch, sent a Freedom of Information Act request to NARA for the audiotapes. The agency responded that the tapes were Mr. Clinton’s personal records and therefore not subject to the Presidential Records Act or the Freedom of Information Act.
We sued in federal court and asked the judge to declare the audiotapes to be presidential records and, because they weren’t currently in NARA’s possession, compel the government to get them.
In defending NARA, the Justice Department argued that NARA doesn’t have “a duty to engage in a never-ending search for potential presidential records” that weren’t provided to NARA by the president at the end of his term. Nor, the department asserted, does the Presidential Records Act require NARA to appropriate potential presidential records forcibly. The government’s position was that Congress had decided that the president and the president alone decides what is a presidential record and what isn’t. He may take with him whatever records he chooses at the end of his term.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson agreed:
“Since the President is completely entrusted with the management and even the disposal of Presidential records during his time in office,” she held, “it would be difficult for this Court to conclude that Congress intended that he would have less authority to do what he pleases with what he considers to be his personal records.”
Judge Jackson added that “the PRA contains no provision obligating or even permitting the Archivist to assume control over records that the President ‘categorized’ and ‘filed separately’ as personal records. At the conclusion of the President’s term, the Archivist only ‘assumes responsibility for the Presidential records.’ . . . PRA does not confer any mandatory or even discretionary authority on the Archivist to classify records. Under the statute, this responsibility is left solely to the President.”
I lost because Judge Jackson concluded the government’s hands were tied.
Mr. Clinton took the tapes, and no one could do anything about it.
The same is true with Mr. Trump. Although he didn’t keep records in his sock drawer, he gathered newspapers, press clippings, letters, notes, cards, photographs, documents and other materials in cardboard boxes. Then Mr. Trump, like Mr. Clinton, took those boxes with him when he left office. As of noon on Jan. 20, 2021, whatever remained at the White House was presidential records. Whatever was taken by Mr. Trump wasn’t. That was the position of the Justice Department in 2010 and the ruling by Judge Jackson in 2012.
A decade later, the government should never have gone searching for potential presidential records. Nor should it have forcibly taken records from Mr. Trump. The government should lose U.S. v. Trump. If the courts decide otherwise, I want those Clinton tapes.
Mr. Bekesha is a senior attorney at Judicial Watch.