President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, during their meeting in the Oval Office, 18 March 2018. Photographer: Shealah Craighead

Fighting for the Historical Record in the Age of Trump

A group of organizations, the National Security Archive (NSA), Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) have filed a lawsuit aimed at requiring the Trump Administration to record and preserve transcripts of high-level diplomatic meetings. History PhD candidate Nayree Mardirian spoke to SHAFR’s President Professor Barbara Keys about this lawsuit and why preserving documents is vital for historical inquiry.

The Trump presidency has marked an unprecedented break with tradition when it comes to diplomatic recordkeeping practices. It has always been standard practice for high-level international meetings to be recorded, transcribed, and preserved. But for the last three years, President Trump and his advisors, most notably his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have systematically avoided having their meetings with foreign officials recorded. In a striking departure from established practice, President Trump’s five private meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly took place without the presence of scribes, as did Jared Kushner’s meetings with Saudi officials.

An administration failing to record such meetings would be in breach of the Presidential Records Act (1978) and the Federal Records Act (1950). These laws are designed in part to help facilitate a smoother transition between administrations. They also have the aim of ensuring the future work of historians and other researchers. The lawsuit initiated by NSA-CREW-SHAFR seeks to require the Trump Administration to adhere to these laws.

Would you say that Trump’s presidency has changed your thinking on your practice and responsibilities as a historian and an educator? If so, in what ways?

The 2016 election and its aftermath have made many historians much more active in the present than they used to be. Even as basic an issue as preserving records for future historians requires activism now and, of course, it is important for us to combat the widespread misuse of history in public debates. Populist movements gain sustenance from a distorted view of the past. Many of us have a sense that the stakes around understanding history are very, very high right now.

What are you and the organisation hoping to achieve with this lawsuit? 

We’re hoping to achieve exactly what we say we want in the lawsuit: we want the President and his advisers to create and to retain records of meetings with foreign officials in accordance with U.S. law.

We have just received the government’s response to the lawsuit, and it is very hard-hitting. One of the weaknesses in our case is that we were forced to rely on media reports about what Trump and his key advisers are doing with documents; we don’t have first-hand evidence. The government’s response hits on this weakness. It’s possible the lawsuit will be dismissed on those grounds. If so, we’ll take the fight to Congress.

Has anything similar ever taken place in U.S. history before that you know of? 

No. It defies common sense not to take and then keep records of top-level meetings. It has been done routinely for centuries. It’s of crucial importance to know exactly what was said, in exactly which words; not only so that the president and his advisers can refer back to the record when preparing for the next meeting but also so that trained experts can review the record to discern all the shades of meaning in what was said. For example, with regard to Trump’s meetings with Putin, where media reporting indicates that Trump destroyed notes, the normal process would be for the transcript to be sent to Russia experts in the CIA, the State Department, the National Security Council, and elsewhere to parse what Putin said and to advise on what was significant: did he seem to be indicating a subtle shift in position? Was he staking out a new position? Effective negotiation at the top levels requires mastery of every detail, and there is a lot of reading between the lines that only experts have the knowledge to do.

President Donald J. Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin during the G20 Japan Summit, Osaka, 28 June 2019. Photographer: Shealah Craighead via Flickr

Are you worried that the organisation will be labeled as being partisan and politically motivated? 

Keeping records is not a partisan issue. Every American has an interest in having major events documented. It’s the essence of democratic accountability that leaders keep records of important events so that the people they represent have a means of learning what those leaders said and did.

Have you received any moral or financial support from other historical or governmental organisations? 

The Washington-based non-profit National Security Archive (NSA) took the lead on this case. The NSA has spent many years working primarily on trying to declassify the public record, often going to court to force reluctant government agencies to finally come clean on episodes that don’t reflect well on what the government did in the past. The not-for-profit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which focuses on fighting for responsible and ethical government via the courts, did the actual legal legwork.

Is there anything that has shocked you over the process so far? 

If an earlier presidential administration had torn up records or refused to take notes of high-level meetings, there would have been a public outcry. But, as we all know, Trump flouts norms, ethics, common sense, decency, and the law routinely, and virtually without consequence. Destroying records of such significance is dangerous: it diminishes U.S. national security. And yet this crime is lost in a sea of other outrages.

Could you provide an example of how diplomatic records have been beneficial to your work? What insights have you gained through using such materials? 

For one of my research projects, a major source is the documentary record of the discussions between U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. The two of them built the Sino-American rapprochement of the early 1970s that turned two former enemies into almost de facto allies. The documents I use include transcripts of all their conversations, as well as reports by Kissinger to Nixon on topics like the ‘atmospherics’ of his visits. Similar transcripts are available for Nixon’s talks with Mao and Zhou. Ceremonial and social occasions where leaders engage in small talk are not fully documented but, even then, if any important information came up, it made its way into written reports that historians can now access.

L to R: Henry Kissinger, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in Beijing, early 1970s via Wikimedia

Transcripts of conversations lack some of the indicators that audiotapes would provide (like emphasis and tone) but they are extremely rich sources. They make it possible to trace exactly how specific outcomes were achieved, because you can see how agreements were negotiated word by word. In the case of the Shanghai Communique that Kissinger and Zhou negotiated, for example, you can see the precise wording about the status of Taiwan that Kissinger proposed and how he changed it. This detailed record makes it possible to answer important questions about whether he compromised more than was necessary and what his intentions about Taiwan were.

Lastly, how would you summarise the importance of records for the historian and for ensuring that the truth-telling traditions of historical scholarship endure? 

We can’t understand what happened in the past without records. We need records – it’s that simple.


UPDATE: On 7 September 2019, Ara updated Forum with the latest news on the case. The Washington Post reported that:

Justice Department attorneys promised a federal judge Wednesday that the White House will not destroy records of President Trump’s calls and meetings with foreign leaders while the court weighs a lawsuit brought by historians and watchdog groups.

For the latest on this story, read the full article on the Washington Post website.

Feature image: President Donald Trump speaks with Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, during their meeting in the Oval Office, 18 March 2018. Photographer: Shealah Craighead via Flickr