In former President Donald Trump’s first extended response to Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Friday announcement that he had appointed a special counsel to oversee the criminal investigation into Trump’s retention of government documents after he left office, Trump defended himself with dishonesty – repeating his false and thoroughly debunked claims about how other ex-presidents handled official records.
Trump, speaking Friday night at a gala at his Mar-a-Lago resort and residence, asked why there is not an investigation into “all of the other presidents that preceded me,” including but not limited to Republicans George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. He claimed that these previous presidents “kept documents,” and he continued: “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 with them. President Obama took documents.”
Facts First: Trump’s claims are, again, false – and they have been debunked 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 had taken. Rather, NARA itself moved documents from the Obama administration to a NARA-managed facility in the Chicago area, near where Obama’s presidential library is being built. NARA similarly explained in a statement in October, after Trump added other past presidents to the baseless narrative, that neither of the Bushes took the documents Trump claimed they had taken. Again, it was NARA that took the Bushes’ presidential documents to facilities that NARA managed near the future locations of their presidential libraries.
In other words, there is no equivalence between Trump’s situation – in which he allegedly took hundreds of classified documents, plus numerous other presidential records, to the Mar-a-Lago resort and residence – and the situations, or really non-situations, of his predecessors.
Trump used the Friday speech to deliver a variety of other criticism of Garland’s decision to appoint the special counsel, veteran prosecutor Jack Smith. Smith will also oversee a second criminal investigation that involves Trump, that one into whether anybody “unlawfully interfered” with the transfer of power after the 2020 presidential election or with the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College “on or about” January 6, 2021. (Smith won’t oversee the investigations or prosecutions of people who physically breached the Capitol that day.)
Trump’s claim about a bowling alley and restaurant
Trump’s suggestion that past presidents’ documents were stored in an insecure manner is also false.
The facility where George H.W. Bush’s presidential documents were temporarily stored, in College Station, Texas, was indeed a former bowling alley connected to a former Chinese restaurant. But by the time Bush’s records arrived, the building had been turned by NARA into a professional archiving facility with extensive security measures and no more bowling lanes or equipment.
Though Trump has repeatedly claimed or suggested that the College Station facility was not secure – this time he said it had “broken windows” – this narrative is baseless, too. In its October statement, NARA said that all of the temporary facilities where it stored past presidents’ documents “met strict archival and security standards.” NARA said that “reports that indicate or imply that those Presidential records were in the possession of the former Presidents or their representatives, after they left office, or that the records were housed in substandard conditions, are false and misleading.”
You don’t have to take NARA’s recent word for it. 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.”
Finally, it is not a revelation that the facility had a colorful past as a restaurant and alley; NARA officials publicly joked about this at the time. It’s normal for NARA to lease large buildings that formerly had some other purpose. The Washington Post reported in 1993: “There aren’t any lanes anymore. No gutters, no pins, 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.”
Trump has continued making these false claims about his predecessors not only despite the NARA statements debunking them but despite numerous fact-checks from major media outlets. He also made the claim about Obama supposedly taking documents in the Tuesday speech in which he announced his 2024 presidential candidacy; CNN fact-checked it then, too.