Preserving Digital History in the Time of Trump

A Primer on the Presidential Records Act

President Barack Obama takes notes during a video conference with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan in the Situation Room
President Barack Obama takes notes during a video conference with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan in the Situation Room
President Barack Obama takes notes during a video conference with President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan in the Situation Room of the White House, Oct. 22, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

What is the Presidential Records Act?

Public Law 95–591 via GovTrack
A handwritten note regarding the Second Amendment to a supporter is a presidential record.
The first tweet sent from the Obama White House on May 1, 2009 is a presidential record.
  • Those records given over to the Archivist may not be disclosed during a sitting president’s current term without presidential approval (as they are technically in custody of them until their term ends)
  • Only at the end of a president’s term in office does the Archivist become responsible for custody of the records and control access to them and ultimate disclosure of them.
  • Once the Archivist takes custody of documents after a President leaves office, various timers begin that require public disclosure and access to the records in a timely manner (44 U.S.C. §§ 2203).

Technology Challenges Presented by the PRA

Right away, the PRA presents some interesting technology challenges unique to the highest office in the land. For example, in most cases system architects can rely on storage clean-up and reclamation on databases and file systems with regular certainty. Most organizations have policies that only allow for limited total sizes on company mailboxes for employees, or yearly audits of file systems are performed that keep storage sizes — and costs — manageable. Most databases journal transactions to temporary files and then purge them when processing is completed…etc. Disk space and cloud storage in the year 2020 is a relative commodity item, but historically disk space was costly, precious and not a resource to be squandered with unnecessary files.

As a system admin, there are few better ways to ruin your entire day than a full disk drive on a database server! (Source)
The first letter printed from the newly minted Salesforce system we implemented to process Presidential Correspondence in 2013 was archived along with every other letter processed by the system.

Ethical and Custody Concerns Presented by the PRA

The Presidential Records Act also raises interesting ethical concerns and custody discussions around how to adapt old laws to new technologies.

#44's and #45’s respective “personal” Twitter accounts.
Twitter rotated official #44 handles on 1/20/2017 and instantly preserved all the Obama White House accounts.
One of Nixon’s tape recorders — which resulted in a missing 18-minutes of presidential records that changed history. (Source: Wikipedia, NARA, and Ford Presidential Library)
While much less consequential but still of concern — deleted presidential tweets are still likely considered presidential records. (Source: Politifact)

Twitter is fun, but what about emails?

Butter Emails 🙄
I’ll be just fine if I never, ever have to use one of these relics again. No really, you can keep it. (Source: Wikipedia)
Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Who will be the new poster-child of warning against using personal email accounts for official use? (Source: WikiLeaks Twitter)

Political Challenges and High Profile Examples

The PRA is also front-and-center of some of the most explosive political bombshells we as a country have ever seen. Exhibit A for this was the Watergate tapes — and the reason the PRA statute exists in the first place. But we also have other examples of where the PRA has been a key consideration within the politics and lawsuits around major issues in our national discourse:

  • Bush 43 also very unwisely allowed the co-mingling Republican National Committee systems and accounts alongside EOP accounts and many other emails that were never produced around investigations into the dismissal of several US attorneys.
  • While John Podesta’s personal emails weren’t explicitly subject to the PRA as he wasn’t serving in an official capacity at the time, his personal accounts being hacked due to his high profile and visibility after leaving the Obama White House and serving as Chairman for the Hillary Clinton Campaign arguably changed the course of history.
  • It has been reported that in July of 2017, while President Trump was meeting with Vladimir Putin for over three hours at the G-20, he confiscated the notes taken by the interpreter. Those notes are de facto presidential records, and wouldn’t it be fascinating to know what was discussed?

Takeaways:

  • The PRA presents unique legal, technological, and political challenges that we’ve only begun to explore in this rapidly expanding technology climate
  • These records belong to the American people — to whom our elected officials are ultimately accountable
  • There is likely much more left undecided that the courts may take up in the coming years as we unwind the Trump administration’s own historical record
  • Preserving presidential records gives us a fascinating glimpse into the decision making environment of some of the most historical presidential decisions our executives make
  • No amount of regulation or training can overcome a bad actor intent on disregarding proper record-keeping or security
President Donald Trump signs a bill in the Oval Office on June 5, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

EDIT 2/6/20 regarding the State of the Union and Speaker Pelosi:

Speaker Pelosi literally rips up a copy of Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech. (Source: NYT)

#Geek using my powers of technology for better government. Founder of @580Strategies - Former @ObamaWhiteHouse and @StateDept

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