Terry H. Schwadron
Dec. 2, 2019
Throughout four-plus decades as a journalist, I saw a burgeoning category of stories that took an enormous amount of work to prove what we all knew. “Knowing” was not enough, the thought went, unless you could find evidence through hard analysis and, well, fact.
But increasingly, we don’t like accepting fact. It’s why we still have arguments about Climate Change, for example, because too many people “know” what they are pre-determined to recognize as fact. Or now, whether the July 25 phone call between Donald Trump and the Ukrainian leader and the voluminous testimony about a months-long campaign at Trump’s direction show s enough proof of unlawful demands for foreign help against a political foe in return for military aid to justify impeachment.
The New York Times’ detailed recent review of Trump’s 11,000 tweets is just such a journalistic effort to go through the hard work of actual review, to come up with evidence that Trump’s tweets are inordinately self-flattering, represent personal attacks on perceived enemies, or have become a communications weapon in running a chaotic White House administration.
Actually the story is well worth the time to read it –more so that the actual tweets themselves — but all in an effort to underscore what we “know” about a narcissistic personality who wants to bypass any controls, oversight or protocol.
But he happens to be president, and as such, although not noted in the Times presentation, all these tweets, which Trump regularly enhances or deletes, need to be preserved under federal law. At the risk of running into parodies by late night comedians, the Trump presidential library ought to be in the shape of an iphone that is a constant loop of his late night and early morning rants by tweet.
Actually, presidents used to be able to keep or destroy whatever they wanted. This was also historically true for many American presidents, who often destroyed diaries, letters and other records. Many intentionally destroyed their record to protect their personal privacy or national security interests. Cavin Coolidge destroyed most of his personal papers, leaving his private secretary scrambling to preserve whatever he could. Even some of Abraham Lincoln’s papers were destroyed by his son.
But after Richard Nixon’s presidency, Congress created the Presidential Records Act of 1978 out of concern that former President Nixon would destroy the tapes that led to his resignation. It The sets rules for presidential records created during a president’s term to include material related to “constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.” Accounts say that includes records created on electronic platforms like email, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Under the law, the federal government must maintain ownership and control of all presidential records, including records created by the president’s staff. Once a president leaves office, all presidential records must be transferred to the archivist of the United States, who makes them available to the public over time.
The Presidential and Federal Records Amendments of 2014 expanded the PRA’s definition of records to include electronic content, which Johnson said has been interpreted as an umbrella term encompassing text messages, emails, social media and the like
A US National Archives spokesperson has said that posted tweets are considered presidential records. The National Archives has since requested that the White House save deleted or altered tweets, but has not stated a position on whether they are definitely presidential records.
The White House has indicated that they are archiving tweets, but hasn’t said how.
Barack Obama was the first to tweet as @POTUS published a searchable archive of Obama’s tweets shortly before he left office. He used his named account as well as a White House name, but wrote and initialed his own tweets.
Donald Trump joined Twitter as @realDonaldTrump in 2009, well before he officially entered politics. And though he inherited the @POTUS account upon inauguration, the president has continued to tweet from his own account, so the official record consists mostly of retweets from his personal account. Then-White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in 2017 that Trump’s tweets should be considered official statements. Kelly Love, then a White House spokeswoman, told CNN that same year that the administration had “systems in place to capture all tweets and preserve them as presidential records; even if they have been deleted,” but it did not elaborate on whether those systems applied equally to both accounts.
In 2017, Senators Claire McCaskill and Tom Carper voiced concerns about the Trump administration’s compliance with the Records Act in a letter to Archivist of the United States David Ferriero. They specifically asked whether the National Archives and Records Administration had determined if Trump’s altered or deleted tweets constituted presidential records. Ferriero replied that “records management authority is vested in the president” and that the agency does not make such determinations but rather “provides advice and guidance concerning the Records Act upon the request of the White House.”
When asked about preserving the president’s tweets, including deleted tweets, the White House told National Public Radio in a statement, “The White House complies with the relevant records laws, including as they apply to social media platforms.”
Official guidance on presidential records preservation says records are automatically transferred to the legal custody of NARA and the Archivist of the United States at the end of each administration. The Records Act permits public access to these records after five years, and they will ultimately be preserved and housed in a presidential library.
This means the extent of the Trump administration’s records preservation may not be apparent for some time.
In the meantime, several non-governmental entities have taken it upon themselves to document Trump’s tweets. Websites such as Trump Twitter Archive and Factba.se have archived the president’s Twitter account in its entirety, and the Politwoops database, which is maintained by ProPublica and the Sunlight Foundation, preserves the deleted tweets of Trump and other politicians.
Eventually, someone besides Trump will want to read his tweets.