President Obama's War with the National Archives
The untold story of the fight to control the former president's legacy as memorialized by 30 million paper documents stored in a former furniture showroom.
In the early days of Trump’s presidency, he was well aware of his predecessor’s fight with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) over control of his presidential papers and more importantly—his legacy. It is in this context former President Trump has viewed his own conflict over a few dozen boxes of records NARA has been hounding him about for months.
Trump reminded reporters of Obama’s decision to transport 30 million pages of his presidential records on 40 tractor trailers out of Washington DC prior to the end of his presidency—much to the chagrin of NARA. Trump pointed out that hundreds of the 30 million pages declassified by Obama included so-called “nuclear documents”—as reported by NARA after he took office. As usual the mainstream media ‘fact-checked’ the former president ruling his claims FALSE allowing social media to flag Trump’s statements as ‘dangerous misinformation’. Unsurprisingly the mainstream media forgot about their critical coverage of Obama’s nasty fight with NARA replete with charges of improper removal and retention of classified presidential records.
The first signs that President Obama wouldn’t willingly trust his legacy to a future president’s National Archives became apparent in the early days of 2014. With just two years left in his presidency, Obama tasked Marty Nesbitt1, Julianna Smoot2, and J. Kevin Poorman3 with the creation of The Barack Obama Foundation (BOF) to oversee the planning process for his presidential library.4
Traditionally former presidents have raised the money to build their libraries only to turn them over to NARA where relatively low-wage bureaucrats are trusted with the stewardship of their legacies—the BOF set about to ensure that Obama would maintain total control of his legacy by maintaining control of his library and its contents. Historians inside and outside of NARA were not pleased and began sounding alarm bells in the media and in government—the incoming Trump administration was well aware of the fight.
With President Trump set to move into the White House in less than two months, Obama made the unprecedented and controversial decision to transport approximately 30 million physical documents and artifacts related to his presidency in 40 tractor trailers out of the capital to a shuttered furniture showroom located in the Chicago suburbs. Obama’s team worried that Trump would appoint an Archivist of the United States disrespectful of the former president’s legacy and by moving the records away from NARA’s base of operations in Washington DC they could maintain greater control. Robbin Cohen repeatedly told donors she was certain that President Trump would force the National Archives to include an exhibit on Obama’s birth certificate complete with critical videos from the former president’s impoverished brother in Kenya.
At Obama’s direction, NARA signed a lease for the former Plunket Furniture showroom in Hoffman Estates where his presidential records would be stored until they could be scanned and digitized for inclusion in his library and museum. Moving the presidential records from a secure and environmentally controlled storage facility in the National Archives made ZERO sense to NARA’s rank and file - especially since they already had the equipment and manpower necessary to digitize the records in the capital for their eventual release five years after Obama left office.
Complaints from NARA began in earnest almost immediately. Officials confirmed that almost none of the documents transported out of the National Archives to the Plunket facility had ever been reviewed. They feared that thousands of the documents might include classified information and none had gone through any sort of redaction process for basic privacy issues. Other NARA staffers reported that the Plunket Furniture showroom did not have satisfactory air handling capabilities to ensure the documents were held at the correct humidity and temperature. They reported, in shock, that the facility used a sprinkler system for fire suppression and if that wasn’t bad enough, it wasn’t a pre-action system. Finally, officials were concerned about an utter lack of physical security pointing out that most of the doors to the facility were simple thumb turn locks that had not been rekeyed since the space was occupied by the prior tenant.
Worries that President Trump would bring in a hostile Archivist were unfounded as the new president never bothered to replace Obama’s Archivist David Ferriero. Despite this stroke of luck, the battle between the National Archives and Records Administration and Barack Obama Foundation turned increasingly toxic. BOF rightly assumed NARA would have no interest in improving, staffing, and operating a facility in a furniture showroom in a sleepy suburb of Chicago leaving them in de facto control of the former president’s records. NARA loudly voiced complaints to then-President Obama that the 30 million pages transported to Chicago included various sensitive and classified documents. In response, President Obama informed them that he had declassified the files BEFORE they were transported to the Plunket facility. Once Trump took office NARA officials warned his administration that some of the documents Obama sent to Chicago were highly classified national secrets but Trump made it clear he wasn’t willing to get involved in their dispute with the former president. NARA was forced to accept the fact that they would have to play the hand they were dealt and attempt to make the best of a bad situation.
While NARA had federal law on its side Obama’s team had the upper hand because A. the documents were already in Chicago, B. the former president was beloved, and C. the current president wasn’t willing to enforce the law and forcibly return the presidential records to the capital. Eventually, NARA and BOF were able to come to a general agreement that was eventually outlined in a ten-page document titled “Memorandum of Understanding Between The Barack Obama Foundation And National Archives and Records Administration Regarding the Digitization of Obama Presidential Records.”5
The MOU memorialized NARA’s agreement to allow BOF to have its own vendor handle the archival of the 30 million presidential records located in the Plunket facility. It also outlined various other issues including BOF’s agreement to return each paper document in acid-free file folders and boxes when they were surrendered to NARA staff after digitization. In return, BOF agreed to cover the cost of facility improvements, security, and the eventual transportation of the records to their final home. BOF also agreed to ensure that every member of the vendor’s team passed a Tier One background check and sign various confidentiality and national security agreements in order to handle the sensitive and potentially classified documents contained in the Plunket facility.
Perhaps the most important concession NARA made was agreeing that Obama’s ‘Presidential Center’ would NOT be turned over to NARA to manage upon completion. Instead, Obama’s facility will remain entirely under the former president’s control through The Barack Obama Foundation. The agreement makes it clear NARA will not be permitted to have ANY library or staff presence in the facility, and no NARA-led education or public program functions will be allowed on property controlled by BOF. President Obama and his foundation will maintain 100% control of the portrayal of the former president’s legacy.
BOF agreed that any classified records discovered in the Plunket facility will be returned to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland to facilitate their review for declassification by the National Declassification Center. NARA agreed to make digitized versions of each declassified document available to BOF as they are declassified. All told BOF turned over 250 terabytes of “born digital” electronic records including 300 million emails to NARA - once these are combined with the digital versions of the 30 million paper documents it will represent the single largest digital archive of a president.
According to sources familiar with the settlement, much of the animosity between the parties stemmed from the perception that the team from The Barack Obama Foundation had a complete lack of respect for the career bureaucrats that run the National Archives. At some point during the negotiations, it was pointed out that United States Archivist David Ferriero was earning less than $170,000 a year to manage the 2,848 employees who maintain the nation’s archives accumulated over 245 years along with thirteen presidential libraries, while Robbin Cohen the executive director of the Barack Obama Foundation has earned more than $4.3 million in her short tenure. In fact, each of her ten lieutenants earns more than the nation’s Archivist and yet they have yet to build a single library. At the end of the day, BOF was telling NARA they didn’t trust them to run Obama’s presidential library and that pissed a lot of people off.
In fact, The Barack Obama Foundation seems to have quite a knack for pissing people off—here are just a few of the controversies they’ve generated:6
Rahm Emanuel, the Mayor of Chicago and President Obama’s former Chief of Staff agreed to lease his former boss the land to build his presidential library for 99 years at a cost of $10 and agreed to provide millions in improvement and maintenance much to the frustration of Chicago’s taxpayers.
Jackson Park, a historic urban park, despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places was selected to serve as the location for President Obama’s library. The Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and was the site for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 making it one of the most historically significant parks in America.
To build the 19.3-acre library more than 1,000 hardwood trees will need to be removed. Jackson Park is home to a sensitive ecosystem that is home to over 800 species of animals, plants, and fungi. Most worrisome to environmentalists are the 300 species of migratory birds—some of which are endangered—that rely on the trees for their habitat.
When the community agreed to allow the president to remove their wooded public parkland they were NEVER told that it would require the closure of their primary thoroughfare - Cornell Drive. Without notice or consultation, Rahm Emanuel passed an ordinance agreeing to plow under the six-lane road between 59th Street to Hayes Drive effectively cutting off residents from the vast majority of employers in the area.
At the end of the day, many people in Chicago believe that The Barack Obama Foundation is guilty of an “institutional bait and switch, a short con shell game, and a corrupt scheme to deceive and seemingly legitimize an illegal land grab—appropriating a historic public park for a Presidential Center that will NOT operate as a true presidential library as it won’t house ANY of President Obama’s physical documents, archives, or artifacts.”7
The truth is that Obama’s Presidential Center will not be a presidential library—plain and simple. Starting with President Hoover every presidential library and museum has been run but the National Archives and Records Administration—President Obama has unilaterally decided to end that tradition. Former presidential library director, Timothy Naftali told the New York Times, “It was astounding to me that a good president would do this.” After NARA took over management of President Nixon’s library Naftali famously revamped the Watergate exhibits to remove their pro-Nixon message.8 Naftali worries that Obama's Presidential Center will simply be a partisan shrine designed for the enrichment of the former president's sycophants. Presidential scholars who hoped they'd find a research library or set of presidential archives on site will be disappointed—neither of which will be part of Obama's Presidential Center. On the bright side, NOT running a presidential library has its perks—The Barack Obama Foundation offers some of the highest-paid jobs in the world:
DAVID SIMAS (CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER) $575,839
VALERIE GARRETT (PRESIDENT) $540,000
ROBBIN COHEN (EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR)$518,282
GLENN BROWN (CHIEF DIGITAL OFFICER) $472,218
RALPH LESLIE (CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER) $357,241
ADDAR LEVI (GENERAL COUNSEL) $333,228
ANNE FILIPIC (CHIEF PROGRAM OFFICER) $322,931
JORDAN KAPLAN (CHIEF DEVELOPMENT OFFICER) $322,612
BERNADETTE MEEHAN (CHIEF INTERNATIONAL OFFICER) $311,431
MICHAEL STRAUTMANIS (CHIEF ENGAGEMENT OFFICER) $299,694
CLARISSA PETERSON (INTERIM DIRECTOR OF PEOPLE) $280,900
ROARK FRANKEL (DIR. OF PLAN. AND CONSTRUCTION) $257,427
LOUISE BERNARD (MUSEUM DIRECTOR) $253,134
MARY ELIZABETH CISNEROS (DEPUTY GENERAL COUNSEL) $243,264
MICHAEL SMITH (DIR, MBK ALLIANCE & YOUTH OPP) $220,329
ELISABETH SICILIANO (DIR, OFFICE OF CEO & CORP COUNSEL) $211,082
So was Trump right? He said there were 33 million records—there were only 30 million. He said that Obama ‘kept’ the records—in reality, Obama retained ‘control’ of his records by placing them in a Chicago furniture store he ordered NARA to lease. He said that the records contained classified documents—in reality, Obama waived his presidential wand and ‘declassified’ the records (NARA’s settlement with BOF allows them to ‘reclassify’ records as necessary).
As usual, the mainstream media is interpreting Trump ‘literally’ and missing the fact that he’s WAY ahead of them in pointing out that former President Obama had FAR more issues with NARA regarding his records and their classification than he has had. Like Obama, Trump declassified the documents his team stored at Mar-a-Lago, and like Obama, he was negotiating with NARA—the only difference is that the Department of Justice is not acting in good faith.
Remember, the president’s power to classify/declassify does not come from Congress or an executive agency—instead, it flows from Article II of the Constitution. Laws, orders, rules, and regulations pertaining to the classification and declassification of documents are for everyone BUT the chief classifier—the President of the United States constitutional classification power is not up for debate or regulation. If you don’t like this all you need to do is amend the constitution.
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If you’ve been wondering what the FBI was REALLY looking for in former President Trump’s home, according to people familiar with the investigation, wonder no more—they were looking for the Crossfire Hurricane Binders. Attorney General Merrick Garland believed that if the DOJ revealed its true objective (to seize the binders preventing their release) the former president would release them to the public or at the very least make another copy. Garland believed the only way he could prevent the release of the Crossfire Hurricane binders was an FBI Raid. READ MORE:
Martin Hughes Nesbitt is a close personal friend of former President Barack Obama serving as his campaign treasurer during the 2008 presidential campaign and as Chairman of the Obama Foundation today. Nesbit is co-CEO of the Vistria Group, a Chicago-based private equity firm, and sits on the boards of CenterPoint Energy, Norfolk Southern Corporation, and American Airlines Group. Nesbitt was the founder and former CEO of The Parking Spot, an airport parking company.
Julianna Smoot was national finance director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Deputy Manager of his 2012 presidential reelection campaign, and served as White House Social Secretary and Deputy Assistant to President Obama. Smoot raised more money for Obama’s campaign than any presidential campaign in American history.