In former President Donald Trump’s first comprehensive response to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s announcement on Friday that he had appointed special counsel to oversee the criminal investigation into Trump’s custody of government documents after he left office, Trump defended himself with dishonesty – and repeated his false and thoroughly debunked claims about how other ex-presidents handled official documents.
Speaking Friday night at a gala at his resort and residence in Mar-a-Lago, Trump asked why “all the other presidents who came before me” have not been investigated, including but not limited to Republicans George HW Bush and George W .Bush. He claimed that these past presidents “kept records,” continuing, “In one case, they had it in a Chinese restaurant with broken windows. And in another case, they had a Chinese restaurant connected to a bowling alley. This is where the documents were kept. They took documents. President Obama took documents.”
Facts First: Trump’s claims are again false — and they have been refuted by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) itself. As NARA explained in an August statement, Barack Obama did not take the presidential documents Trump claimed Obama took. Instead, NARA itself moved Obama administration documents to a NARA-operated facility in the Chicago area, near where Obama’s presidential library is being built. NARA explained in the same way a statement in October, after Trump added other former presidents to the baseless narrative, that none of the Bushes took the documents Trump claimed they took. Again, it was NARA that moved the Bushes’ presidential documents to facilities that NARA maintained near the future locations of their presidential libraries.
In other words, there is no equivalence between Trump’s situation — in which he reportedly took hundreds of classified documents, plus numerous other presidential documents, to the Mar-a-Lago resort and residence — and the situations, if not situations, of its predecessors.
Trump used Friday’s speech to issue several other criticisms of Garland’s decision to appoint special counsel, veteran prosecutor Jack Smith. Smith will also oversee a second criminal investigation involving Trump, that investigation into whether someone “illegitimately interfered” with the transfer of power following the 2020 presidential election or with Congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College “on or about” January 6, 2021. (Smith will not oversee the investigations or prosecutions of people who physically violated the Capitol that day.)
Trump’s suggestion that past presidents’ documents were stored in an insecure manner is also false.
Indeed, the facility where George HW Bush’s presidential documents were temporarily stored, in College Station, Texas, was a former bowling alley connected to a former Chinese restaurant. But by the time Bush’s data arrived, the building had been converted by NARA into a professional records room with extensive security measures and no more bowling alleys or equipment.
While Trump has repeatedly claimed or suggested that the College Station facility was not safe — this time saying it had “broken windows” — this story is also baseless. In its October statement, NARA said all of the temporary facilities where it stored the president’s documents “complied with strict record-keeping and security standards.” NARA said that “reports indicating or implying that those presidential documents were in the possession of the former presidents or their representatives after they left office, or that the documents were housed in substandard conditions, are false and misleading.”
You don’t have to believe the recent word from NARA. The Associated Press reported in 1994: “Uniformed guards patrol the premises. There are closed circuit TV and sophisticated electronic detectors along walls and doors. Some printed matter is classified and remains so for years; it can only be accessed by people with top secret permissions.
Finally, it’s no revelation that the facility had a colorful past as a restaurant and alley; NARA officials publicly joked about this at the time. It is normal for NARA to rent large buildings that used to have a different purpose. The Washington Post reported in 1993: “There are no more lanes. No gutters, no pins, no beer. Thanks to a hasty renovation after last November’s elections, there are a few basic offices, a huge fireproof safe and row after row of steel shelves filled with cardboard boxes and wooden crates.”
Trump has continued to make these false claims about his predecessors, not only despite NARA’s statements debunking them, but despite numerous fact-checks from major media outlets. He also made the claim that Obama allegedly seized documents in Tuesday’s speech announcing his 2024 presidential candidacy; CNN then also fact-checked it.