The system to protect White House records has a president-sized hole

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The White House system to protect secret records has a president-sized hole

The federal probe into the trove of highly sensitive documents held at former president Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort has raised some unique questions about the security of the United States’ most sensitive government records.

How did a former president apparently walk out of the White House with boxes of sensitive records, including some of the nation’s most valuable secrets? How does the White House control access to such documents? What is to prevent other White House employees from doing the same?

The White House’s procedures are extensive and strict, experts explained to Grid. While they can fail, such failures are rare. If one attempted to map the weak points in White House security that would allow dozens of boxes of controlled documents to end up at Trump’s resort, they say it would look less like spider cracks in a sidewalk and more like one big president-shaped sinkhole.

The chances a presidential aide could walk out with top secret documents are very low, experts told Grid. Most White House staffers have to adhere to rigorous document-control processes, at least for classified material. Those include requirements to sign out records when staffers move or review documents, and other processes that create a paper trail and ensure accountability regarding the movement of records.

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The rules that govern removing classified records without authority to an unauthorized location are basically the same for White House officials and staff as they are for employees at the CIA or any federal agency, said Jason Baron, former director of litigation at the National Archives.

“It’s presumed that everybody who has been briefed on security procedures knows that you can’t walk out of a federal building and store a classified document in your place of residence,” he said.

Trump seems to have found a way to avoid those controls.

Federal agents executing the warrant to search the ex-president’s Florida estate last month discovered at least 72 government records marked “secret” or “top secret,” 31 “confidential” documents, and 90 empty folders marked “CLASSIFIED” or “Return to Staff Secretary/Military Aide,” according to court records. The FBI identified nearly 200 classified documents in a separate batch of records recovered from Mar-a-Lago earlier this year.

The president is in a unique position regarding sensitive documents — and that’s largely by design. With a few exceptions pertaining to nuclear weapons systems and the military secrets of other nations, the president has the power to unilaterally classify and declassify records. And the president is the only person who can bring classified documents from his White House office to his attached residence in the East Wing.

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Although the White House has record-keeping processes to track which documents are circulated, whose hands they pass through and when — all of the people within that process report to the president.

Lauren Harper, director of public policy and open government affairs at the nonpartisan National Security Archive in Washington, D.C., said the path that sensitive documents take in the White House usually generates its own paper trail, ensuring accountability for their movement and location.

“There are controls in place. They’re supposed to be signed out,” she said of the White House’s top secret records. “There are supposed to be regular audits to make sure that they’re accounted for.”

Generally it’s up to each president to establish processes governing presidential records, said Anne Weismann, a Washington attorney who sued the Trump administration on behalf of groups including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington in an effort to compel the preservation of records at the end of the administration.

“This hasn’t been a big problem in the past, but we are seeing what happens when a president ignores and outright flouts his record-keeping responsibilities,” Weismann told Grid.

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Staff secretaries play key role

Key to maintaining the control of documents is the White House staff secretary, whose job includes keeping track of documents circulating within the White House. Among the empty folders found by FBI agents when they executed the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago last month were 42 empty folders marked “Return to Staff Secretary/Military Aide.”

Trump’s first staff secretary, Rob Porter, never obtained a permanent security clearance and resigned in February 2018 amid reports of alleged domestic abuse, which he has denied.

“I’m shocked that someone with that kind of background could have held this position for over a year,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who served as staff secretary in 1999 and 2000, said in a statement at the time. “It’s absolutely unacceptable that someone so easily compromised would only now be stepping down.”

Following Porter’s departure, White House attorney Derek Lyons stepped into the role. But Lyons stepped down on Dec. 18, 2020, and it is not clear who, if anyone, assumed responsibility for tracking the movement of documents at the White House during the final, chaotic weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Although little is publicly known about when and how the boxes of sensitive material were transported from the White House to Mar-a-Lago, the unsealed search warrant affidavit indicates they may have been moved during Trump’s final week in office.


Immediately under a heading titled “Boxes Containing Documents Were Transported from the White House to Mar-a-Lago,” the affidavit states: “According to a CBS Miami article titled ‘’Moving Trucks Spotted At Mar-a-Lago,” published Monday, January 18, 2021, at least two moving trucks were observed at the PREMISES on January 18, 2021.”

“Uniquely large hole”

While the federal investigation into sensitive and classified records at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort appears primarily concerned with violations a portion of the Espionage Act and two other laws dealing with the handling of sensitive records — the Presidential Records Act — is meant to preserve presidential records when the Oval Office changes hands.

The idea that presidential records belong to the people of the United States — and not to former presidents — is a relatively new one. For the first two centuries of the nation’s history, presidential records were considered the personal property of the president once he left office.

Congress enacted the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act in 1974 following the Watergate scandal. That law allowed the government to seize former president Richard Nixon’s tapes. Presidential records in general were not considered government property until 1978 when Congress passed the Presidential Records Act, according to the National Archives.

The Presidential Records Act states that upon the conclusion of a president’s term, “the Archivist of the United States shall assume responsibility for the custody, control, and preservation of, and access to, the Presidential records of that President.”

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However, the Presidential Records Act includes no enforcement mechanism. Experts and advocacy groups have argued for years that this needs to change.

Harper, of the National Security Archive, said she hopes the renewed attention to document preservation surrounding the Mar-a-Lago case might help spur lasting reforms.

One is to eliminate a provision in the Presidential Records Act that allows the president to decide what’s personal and what is government information. Another is real-time reporting from the White House to the National Archives regarding an administration’s preservation policies.

Weismann argued in recent congressional testimony that the gap in our historical record will continue to widen, and government officials — including those at the highest levels — will feel empowered to ignore their record-keeping obligations without legislative efforts to bolster record-keeping laws.

“There are holes in the process for the president and staff alike,” she told Grid, “but with respect to Trump, it is a gaping and uniquely large hole.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Steve Reilly
    Steve Reilly

    Investigative Reporter

    Steve Reilly is an investigative reporter for Grid focusing on threats to democracy.