First, former President Donald Trump tried a false claim about the document-handling practices of former President Barack Obama. Now, Trump is making the same false claim about other former presidents.
In August, after the FBI recovered classified documents and numerous other presidential records from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence and resort in Florida, Trump declared that Obama had taken millions of presidential documents in Chicago. The National Archives and Records Administration quickly debunked his assertion, explaining it was NARA itself, not Obama, that took the documents to a NARA-managed facility in the Chicago area.
Then, at a rally in Arizona on Sunday, Trump not only repeated the false claim about Obama but added near-identical dishonesty about previous presidents George HW Bush, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Most dramatically, Trump said, “George HW Bush took millions of documents to form a bowling alley and a form Chinese restaurant; where they combined them. So they’re in a bowling alley slash Chinese restaurant.” Trump added, “A Chinese restaurant and a bowling alley. With no security and a broken front door.”
Trump also claimed that “Bill Clinton took millions of documents from the White House to a former car dealership in Arkansas” and that “George W. Bush stored 68 million pages in a warehouse in Texas.”
FactsFirst: All of these Trump claims are false. George HW Bush did not take millions of documents to a former bowling alley and Chinese restaurant. Rather, the National Archives and Records Administration took Bush’s presidential documents to this facility prior to the opening of the Bush presidential library in the same city. Trump’s claims about Clinton and George W. Bush are inaccurate in precisely the same way: NARA, not the former presidents themselves, put the documents in temporary storage at NARA-managed facilities at the former car dealership in Arkansas and the warehouse in Texas. And Trump was also wrong that there was “no security” at the facility where the elder Bush’s documents were housed: the facility was heavily secured, according to a news report at the time.
So there is no equivalence between Trump’s handling of presidential documents and those of his predecessors. In the others’ cases, the presidential documents were in NARA’s possession and stored securely and professionally. In Trump’s case, the presidential documents found in haphazard amateur storage at Mar-a-Lago were in Trump’s own possession, despite numerous attempts by both NARA and the Justice Department to get them back.
At the Sunday rally, Trump urged the authorities to “look into what took place” with George HW Bush and presidential documents. But there is nothing of substance to investigate: the National Archives and Records Administration has been forthright since the 1990s about where it temporarily stored Bush documents before his permanent library opened. In fact, the NARA official who was in charge of the transition of the Bush documents to the permanent library publicly joked about the temporary facility at the time.
“I’ve told reporters this for the last four years: It’s not just a bowling alley; it’s a bowling alley and a Chinese restaurant,” David Alsobrook said.
While the temporary College Station, Texas, location made for a fun story, there was nothing unusual about NARA’s use of such a building. NARA needs lots of space to house presidential documents before presidents’ permanent libraries are built, so it finds and modifies large nearby facilities that often have formerly housed other activities.
Someone listening to Trump’s rally comments might have pictured documents from the first Bush administration being scattered carelessly in bowling lanes. But that’s not what happened. The Washington Post reported in 1993: “There aren’t any lanes anymore. No gutters, no pines, no beer. Thanks to a rush remodeling job after last November’s election, there are a few simple offices, a massive, fire-resistant vault and row after row of steel shelves filled with cardboard boxes and wooden crates.”
There was also extensive security. The Associated Press reported in 1994: “Uniformed guards patrol the premises. There are closed-circuit television monitors and sophisticated electronic detectors along walls and doors. Some printed material is classified and will remain so for years; it is open only to those with top-secret clearances.”
Robert Holzweiss, who began working on the George HW Bush library in 1996 and is now deputy director, told People magazine for an article in early 2022: “When I got involved the temporary facility for the Bush museum was in College Station, Texas, in an old bowling alley. Without the alleys it was perfect, it was like a warehouse. They just built a secure space within to house the classified material.”
Bush died in 2018. His son Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who ran against Trump in 2016 for the Republican presidential nomination, wrote on Twitter in response to Trump’s Sunday claim about the late president: “I am so confused. My dad enjoyed a good Chinese meal and enjoyed the challenge of 7 10 split. What the heck is up with you?”
Trump’s claims at the rally about former presidents Clinton and George W. Bush are false for the exact same reason as Trump’s claims about Obama and the elder Bush are false.
That former Balch Motor Company building in Little Rock, Arkansas, where millions of Clinton presidential documents were stored? Again, it was the National Archives and Records Administration that took the documents to this facility, which NARA managed, in advance of the opening of Clinton’s library in the same city.
That warehouse in Lewisville, Texas where millions of the younger Bush’s presidential documents were stored? It was a NARA-managed facility, used to store documents while Bush’s permanent library was being readied in nearby Dallas.