First, Donald Trump compared the FBI’s Aug. 8 search of his home for documents to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 emails. Then, he compared it to the Watergate break-in. By Aug. 12, he pointed the finger at former President Barack Obama to suggest that it was the Democrat who had walked away with millions of records.
“President Barack Hussein Obama kept 33 million pages of documents, much of them classified,” Trump said in an Aug. 12 statement sent to the media. “How many of them pertained to nuclear? Word is, lots!”
A day earlier, Trump asked whether federal agents would be “breaking into Obama’s ‘mansion’ in Martha’s Vineyard?”
Trump made these statements in the days after the FBI executed a search warrant on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in search of official documents. It is a federal crime to willfully remove or destroy official records.
Trump’s suggestion that Obama had personally kept millions of documents including classified materials is wrong. The National Archives and Records Administration, or NARA, said in response to Trump’s statement that “former President Obama has no control over where and how NARA stores the presidential records of his administration.”
The National Archives said it “assumed exclusive legal and physical custody of Obama presidential records when President Barack Obama left office in 2017.”
The agency said about 30 million pages of unclassified records went to a National Archives facility in the Chicago area. Classified Obama presidential records are in a facility in the Washington, D.C., area.
The National Archives oversees the Obama presidential records
The records agency’s statement is not a surprise, because the arrangement to preserve Obama’s records has been publicly known since 2016.
The Chicago Tribune reported in spring 2016 that the paperwork, electronic data and artifacts from Obama’s presidency would temporarily go to the old Plunkett Home Furnishings store on Golf Road in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. The Tribune wrote that the National Archives would bring in as many as 120 employees to sort through the material.
The records agency described the Hoffman Estates site as a “NARA-controlled facility.”
In May 2017, the Obama Foundation and National Archives announced that the foundation would fund the digitization of all of the unclassified presidential records created during Obama’s administration. Government facilities would house the original materials.
The Obama Presidential Center in Chicago won’t be in the library network operated by the National Archives, unlike other presidential libraries. The center will be privately operated and built by the Obama Foundation, which will raise money for the center. It remains under construction with an expected opening date of 2025.
But the National Archives continue to own and control the documents. During the digitization project, a memorandum of understanding between the National Archives and the foundation said, “NARA will not be transferring control, custody, or ownership over any of the Records to the Foundation, the Vendor, or any other third party.”
As recently as June 2022, the archives notified Obama’s lawyers that it had cleared the release of about 14,000 items requested through the Freedom of Information Act.
The Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 set into law the National Archives’ role in maintaining, operating, and protecting them as a presidential archival depository.
The National Archives said in 2021 that these digitization plans were on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the agency also said Obama’s presidential records would become subject to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on Jan. 20, 2022, and that the agency would process textual records.
FOIA requests are typically made by journalists and other researchers seeking access to presidential records.
The National Archives said in June that it intended to open Obama’s presidential records in response to the processing projects and FOIA requests and that some materials were restricted under exemptions. The plan to digitize the records remains in place.
NARA’s statements don’t specifically mention records about “nuclear” weapons or materials, but NARA wrote that “the classified records have been relocated to the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, to facilitate their review for declassification.”
As for the number of documents, Trump first said Obama had 30 million, and then said he had 33 million, which matched the number of Clinton emails. NARA said although “the vast majority of the material transferred into the custody of the National Archives from the Obama administration was ‘born digital’ (the 300 million emails are equivalent to over one billion pages), the 30 million pages of paper records are an integral part of the collection.”
Bradley Moss, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who works on national security cases, called Trump’s statement “complete and utter nonsense.”
“There are literal media reports from before the 2016 election outlining how the Obama White House had already begun sorting through and shipping everything to NARA,” Moss said, citing a 2016 CNN report about the transfer of records to the National Archives.
Benjamin Hufbauer, a University of Louisville associate professor of art history and an expert on presidential libraries, said Obama can look at his records, for example, for writing his memoirs, but “under controlled conditions and under the supervision of professional archivists.”
We emailed a Trump spokesperson to ask for his evidence and received no response.
Trump said, “President Barack Hussein Obama kept 33 million pages of documents, much of them classified. How many of them pertained to nuclear? Word is, lots!”
Trump is wrong. News reports starting in 2016 showed that the National Archives and Records Administration would oversee transfer of Obama’s presidential records. The agency announced it would digitize the records and that classified records were sent to a facility in College Park, Maryland.
Obama does not have them. We rate this statement Pants on Fire!
This article was originally published by PolitiFact, which is part of the Poynter Institute. It is republished here with permission. See the sources for these fact checks here and more of their fact checks here.