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Here's how Nixon's downfall forever changed the rules around presidential documents

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The FBI is now examining documents that were at the Florida residence of former President Donald Trump. For the first two centuries of U.S. history, this kind of controversy never came up. That is because an outgoing president was free to take his papers when he left the White House. That tradition ended abruptly with President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

For more, I'm joined by NPR's Greg Myre. Hey, Greg.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right, situate this in some slightly more recent history, Trump's handling of documents when he was president, when he was in the White House because there was plenty of controversy then, too.

MYRE: Absolutely. There was a stream of evidence and anecdotes throughout his presidency. We know he didn't like to read documents in the first place, and there were lots of reports he would tear them up in anger or that he even flushed them down the toilet. The president spoke sometimes or put on Twitter sensitive material that was believed to be classified. There were reports that secret material was being shared widely with people who weren't authorized to read it. So I guess it's not really surprising that a president who busted so many norms while in office has apparently broken some more now that he's an ex-president by taking some documents out of the White House when he left.

KELLY: How is it supposed to work? What are the rules for ex-presidents and the documents, the millions of documents they would create or see while they're in office?

MYRE: Well, as we noted, for about 200 years, there really were no rules. Presidents simply took what they wanted. It was considered their personal property. And before Franklin Roosevelt, there were no presidential libraries. So it really was up to an outgoing president as to how his documents were handled. Here's how presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky puts it.

LINDSAY CHERVINSKY: Early on, presidents like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were very attuned to their place in history and their legacy. And so they were very thoughtful about maintaining their documents, cataloging their documents and then, of course, sort of making sure that what remained was what they wanted to remain. So that also includes some erasure.

KELLY: So, Greg, this system worked for nearly 200 years, right up until President Nixon and Watergate?

MYRE: Yeah, that's right. And when President Nixon resigned in 1974, he wanted to take his documents and his infamous tape recordings with him. But Congress said, hold on, we want to see those documents and recordings, and we certainly don't want them destroyed. They swiftly passed a law in '74 that made Nixon's material public property in effect, and then Congress passed a more sweeping Presidential Records Act in 1978. I spoke about this with Jason Baron. He's a former senior official at the National Archives. He explains what this law means.

JASON BARON: Every president, when they leave office, those records that have been created by the president and his staff are presidential records that go to the National Archives. The owner is the American people.

MYRE: And to be clear, this includes all presidential material - doesn't matter whether it's doodles on a notepad or top-secret national security documents.

KELLY: So to what degree have presidents followed this law since then?

MYRE: Well, generally, there have only been a few episodes with presidential aides. In one prominent case, Sandy Berger, who'd worked for President Clinton, was caught smuggling classified documents out of the National Archives in his pants. He was eventually fined $50,000. The people I spoke with said all the former presidents were very cooperative; just a few minor instances where a president may have received a small gift and was later asked to return it.

KELLY: NPR's Greg Myre. Thank you, Greg.

MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.