Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Presidential Records and the Presidential Records Act
Media Alert · Friday, June 9, 2023

Washington, DC

Recent media reports have generated a large number of queries about Presidential records and the Presidential Records Act (PRA), 44 U.S.C. 2201-2209. The PRA requires that all records created by Presidents (and Vice-Presidents) be turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) at the end of their administrations. Below is additional information about how NARA carries out its responsibilities under the PRA. Please note that the PRA treats the records of the President and those of the Vice President in almost the same manner such that, in most cases below, President and Vice President can be used interchangeably. 


How much time do outgoing Presidents have to go through their papers to determine what to retain as personal documents?   

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) requires the President to separate personal documents from Presidential records before leaving office. 44 U.S.C. 2203(b). The PRA makes clear that, upon the conclusion of the President’s term in office, NARA assumes responsibility for the custody, control, preservation of, and access to the records of a President. 44 U.S.C. 2203(g)(1). The PRA makes the legal status of Presidential records clear and unambiguous, providing that the United States reserves and retains “complete ownership, possession, and control of Presidential records.” 44 U.S.C. 2202. There is no history, practice, or provision in law for presidents to take official records with them when they leave office to sort through, such as for a two-year period as described in some reports. If a former President or Vice President finds Presidential records among personal materials, he or she is expected to contact NARA in a timely manner to secure the transfer of those Presidential records to NARA. 


How does NARA store the records of an outgoing President after the end of an administration?

In the past, and in accordance with the Presidential Libraries Act (44 U.S.C. 2112), former Presidents would fund, build, endow, and donate to NARA a traditional Presidential Library (NARA-operated traditional Presidential Libraries exist from Presidents Hoover through George W. Bush). Accordingly, NARA would arrange to move the Presidential records to a temporary NARA facility near the designated location of the forthcoming Library – e.g., Hoffman Estates, IL, for the records of President Obama (who subsequently decided not to build a Presidential Library for NARA, see below); Dallas, TX, for President George W. Bush; Little Rock, AR, for President Clinton. In each case, the facility was modified to meet NARA requirements for records storage and security, NARA had physical and legal custody of the records from the end of the Administration, and the temporary facility was under the exclusive control of NARA.

NARA no longer expects to move Presidential records to a temporary facility outside of Washington, DC, given the relatively small volume of paper Presidential records created by recent administrations, as compared to the huge volume of electronic records and the strong interest in the digitization of paper records. In addition, the increased endowment requirements first applicable to President Obama under the Presidential Libraries Act may impact decisions by former Presidents concerning whether to build a traditional Presidential Library for NARA. 

Prior to the end of his administration, President Trump did not communicate any intent to NARA with regard to funding, building, endowing, and donating a Presidential Library to NARA under the Presidential Libraries Act. Accordingly, the Trump Presidential records have been and continue to be maintained by NARA in the Washington, DC, area, and there was no reason for NARA to consider a temporary facility in Florida or elsewhere. 


How are documents in the White House determined to be an official Presidential record or a personal record?

The Presidential Records Act (PRA) defines what constitutes “Presidential records” and what are “personal records.” 44 U.S.C. 2201. Personal records include “diaries, journals, or other personal notes serving as the functional equivalent of a diary or journal which are not prepared or utilized for, or circulated or communicated in the course of, transacting Government business.”     

The PRA also requires that all documentary materials “be categorized as Presidential records or personal records upon their creation or receipt and be filed separately.” 44 U.S.C. 2203(b). The President does not have discretion to categorize a Presidential record as a personal record. 


Did President Obama take Presidential records to Chicago after he left office? 

No. When President Obama left office in 2017, NARA took physical and legal custody of the records of his administration in accordance with the Presidential Records Act. NARA made arrangements to move the roughly 30 million pages of paper Presidential records of the Obama administration to a federally acquired, modified, and secured temporary facility that NARA leased in Hoffman Estates, IL, which meets NARA’s requirements for records storage and security. NARA moved the records to Hoffman Estates because of the intention of President Obama to build a Presidential Library in the Chicago area.

Subsequently, former President Obama decided not to fund, build, endow, and donate a physical Presidential Library to NARA (his foundation is building a privately operated Presidential Center that will not have archival storage for any Presidential records). Instead, the Obama Foundation agreed to help pay for the cost of digitizing the unclassified paper records and for the cost of moving the classified and unclassified records from NARA’s temporary facility in Hoffman Estates to other NARA-controlled facilities (for which NARA otherwise would have to pay). A September 2018 Letter of Intent from the Obama Foundation to the Archivist of the United States addresses Obama’s commitment to paying for these costs; but it in no way suggests that Obama had physical custody of any Presidential records. As NARA stated in September 2022, neither former President Obama nor his foundation “had possession or control over the [Presidential] records” of his administration. 


Are photocopies of original records, either classified or unclassified, still covered under PRA?

The definition of Presidential records in PRA excludes “extra copies of documents produced only for convenience of reference, when such copies are clearly so identified.” 44 U.S.C. 2201(2)(B). However, multiple copies, to include photocopies, of the same document can all be Presidential records, depending on how they are used and maintained in the White House. 

The PRA provides very specific requirements should a President seek to dispose of Presidential records that they determine “no longer have administrative, historical, informational, or evidentiary value.” 44 U.S.C. 2203(c)-(e). This must be done while they are in office, and they must first obtain the views of the Archivist of the U.S. in writing.


Did Presidents before Nixon have total control over their records? 

Prior to the Presidential Records Act of 1978, which first applied to President Reagan, all of the official records of the White House were considered the personal property of the President (from Presidents Washington to Carter). Presidents Hoover through Carter chose to donate their records to NARA, along with the Presidential Library buildings where they are stored. 

While these Presidents had control over their personal papers, they lacked control over the classification status of any records that were classified. The classification status of the information in the papers remained under the control of the U.S. Government. 

The Nixon records, including the Watergate tapes, were seized and transferred to NARA in 1974 by a federal law, known as the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act (PRMPA), 44 U.S.C. 2111, note. In response to the Nixon issue, Congress enacted the Presidential Records Act in 1978 to change legal ownership of Presidential records from the President to the United States Government, which took effect at the beginning of the Reagan administration.


Did NARA provide archival assistance to the Trump Administration during the transition of records at the end of his administration? 

Yes.  As explained in NARA’s April 23, 2023, press statement, NARA’s General Counsel sent a letter on February 10, 2023, to the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, clarifying a prior response he had given to the Committee. The letter explained that NARA did send staff members to the White House in the final weeks of the Trump Administration to assist with the move of the physical records (including artifacts), which was similar to the assistance that NARA had provided to the White House during the three previous Presidential transitions. 


What are “personal records” under the Presidential Records Act (PRA)?

Under the PRA, "’personal records’ means all documentary materials of a purely private or nonpublic character which do not relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.”   This includes


(A) diaries, journals, or other personal notes serving as the functional equivalent of a diary or journal which are not prepared or utilized for, or circulated or communicated in the course of, transacting Government business;


(B) materials relating to private political associations, and having no relation to or direct effect upon the carrying out of constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President; and


(C) materials relating exclusively to the President’s own election to the office of the Presidency; and materials directly relating to the election of a particular individual or individuals to Federal, State, or local office, which have no relation to or direct effect upon the carrying out of constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.


What are “Presidential records” under the Presidential Records Act (PRA)?

"’Presidential records’ means documentary materials created or received by the President, the President’s immediate staff, or a unit or individual of the Executive Office of the President whose function is to advise or assist the President, in the course of conducting activities which relate to or have an effect upon the carrying out of the constitutional, statutory, or other official or ceremonial duties of the President.” 

Prior press statements in response to media queries about Presidential records are available online at


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This page was last reviewed on June 9, 2023.
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