A central question involving the records former President Donald Trump stored at his Mar-a-Lago home is why he kept reams of government documents and classified material.
The criminal investigation now underway has elicited few answers so far. A lawyer for Trump “offered no explanation as to why boxes of government records” were being kept at the former president’s estate, the Department of Justice wrote in a court filing last week. But Trump himself invoked something that advisers say rarely comes up: his library.
At the tail end of an Aug. 22 statement, he suggested the records seized from Mar-a-Lago were bound for inclusion in a future “Donald J. Trump Presidential Library and Museum.” The Justice Department’s more detailed inventory of the documents, unsealed Friday, showed that Trump had held on to more than 10,000 government records, apart from those with classification markings. That he was keeping any at all confounds former National Archives and Records Administration officials who said that the material belongs to the U.S. government, no matter what Trump believed, and should have been turned over the moment he left office.
For Trumpworld, a library has been a little more than an afterthought, six past and present advisers say. As an ex-president bent on being a future president, Trump hasn’t wanted to leave an impression that his focus has shifted to his legacy. Erecting a library at this point would be the political equivalent of building a mausoleum: a sign that his career in elective politics was dead, some close to him said.
Advisers describe discussions about a Trump presidential library over the years as off and on. One ex-adviser recalled looking at Florida property maps during meetings in the small White House dining room near the Oval Office. A longtime Trump adviser said that Trump allies were “scouting locations” in the Palm Beach area, home to Mar-a-Lago. (A joke among those involved in the planning was that they would put the library in Greenland, the island that Trump entertained buying midway through his term, one person close to him said.)
Another person close to Trump who spoke briefly to him about a library earlier this year said, “He didn’t seem terribly interested. He wasn’t like, ‘I gotta get my library going.’ He’s more interested in being president again.”
One Trump confidant, who, as was the case with others, spoke on condition of anonymity to talk more freely, added: “Presidential libraries are for ex-presidents. He’s the next president. He’s coming back.”
A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about plans for a library. In a court appearance last week, Trump attorney Chris Kise said there was nothing nefarious about a former president holding records from his tenure. Rather, he said, the mix of material found at Mar-a-Lago “is what you would expect if you looked through a bunch of boxes that were moved in a hurry from a residence or an office. It contains all sorts of things.”
If Trump planned to route the records to a future library, he went about it the wrong way, former National Archives officials say.
All he needed to do is what he was supposed to have done in the first place: give every presidential record back to the U.S. government upon leaving office, as the Presidential Records Act of 1978 requires. Once his library was up and running, he could then have gone to the National Archives and asked for a loan of documents he wanted to exhibit, as past presidents have done. For example, former President Barack Obama’s presidential library expects to display his speeches and the gifts he received over his two terms — all loaned by the National Archives.
Robert Clark, a former National Archives official at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, said every president was entitled to build a library.
“But there is a process. He can’t just store the stuff in his garage until the library gets built. That’s not how it works,” Clark said.
One of Trump’s worries was that a library would end up showing material that painted him in an unflattering light, said a former senior White House official. The source added that he wanted some control over what the library would contain.