Why all of Trump's tweets and other social media posts must be archived for future historians
There is no doubt that Donald Trump's reach as president has been magnified by Twitter. WIth the suspension of his account, it's critical that the National Archives preserve the content of all his postings.
Back in 2017, just barely a week after Donald Trump took office as the 45th President of the United States, I recommended the following to the nascent Trump Administration:
I strongly recommend supporting President Trump's use of Twitter. We've never had the opportunity for a president to speak, unfiltered, to the American people at will, and this could be an amazing experiment in democracy (and a source of never-ending good material for us pundits).
From March 18, 2009, the day Donald Trump starting tweeting (and way before he was president), until January 8, 2021, the day President Trump's account was suspended by Twitter, he tweeted 59,553 times. Wikipedia reports that he posted more than 34,000 tweets since he declared his candidacy in June of 2015.
This was a huge blow to Trump's ability to reach out directly to his base. He had roughly 88 million followers on Twitter. Think about that for a second. What other leader in human history has been able to dash off a stream-of-consciousness opinion or comment and have it instantly reach 88 million people at no cost and with no gatekeepers?
As a citizen and politics nerd, I've been watching all the events of this election season with a mix of horror and fascination. But as a presidential scholar, I've had a deeper concern: what happens to the president's tweets if his account is disabled?
I've done a lot of thinking and writing about presidential records for many years now, ever since I wrote the book Where Have All The Emails Gone?, which took a forensic look at the issue of presidential records and digital communication through the lens of the George W. Bush administration's missing email scandal.
I also did a deep dive into Hillary Clinton's email server scandal in a series of articles for ZDNet. It has always been my belief that it is necessary to take an analytical, evidence-based, non-partisan approach when it comes to the preservation of presidential records.
It is important to think of this as a historical issue and not a political one. Electronic records are still rather new to our history as a nation, couldn't even have been conceived of by our founders, and aren't represented fully in many of our older but still-active laws. But now that digital messages are so relevant to our lives, and have become the chief way we communicate, we need to make sure we don't delete them, allow them to conveniently slip through loopholes, or let them be consumed by bit rot.
The proper preservation and curation of presidential records is of critical concern to historians and those who will want to look back at the second half of the 21st century's first decade. President Trump's tweets are a modern-day equivalent of the Jefferson/Adams letters. While those letters were mostly written after both presidents' terms of office, the cache of historical documents provided invaluable insight into the beliefs, concerns, prejudices, decision-making methodology, and personalities of two of America's founders.
President Trump's tweets
President Trump's tweets may provide historians with an even deeper insight. These were the in-the-moment representations of the 45th president's internal thoughts. As time goes on, the heat of the moment will dissipate, but historians will still want to understand motivations and character. Those tweets will, at least in part, provide those insights.
Fortunately, it appears those tweets will be preserved. The National Archives, on Sunday January 10, disclosed (through a tweet, naturally) that they will archive President Trump's social media content. This makes sense, because the NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) is tasked with curating presidential records.
The gotcha, of course, is whether tweets constitute presidential records. According to Press Secretary Sean Spicer back at the beginning of Trump's term, tweets did constitute presidential records.
Back in 2017, Spicer didn't specify whether @realDonaldTrump, in addition to @POTUS, was considered official records. But now, in 2021, NARA has explicitly included @realDonaldTrump in the accounts it's planning to archive.
The second issue is the nature of official presidential records. Let's say the president makes a list of McDonald's treats he wants for lunch, and writes that list on a note which is handed to an aide. That paper note, if it contains no other information, is not considered a presidential record and need not be archived. On the other hand, if he makes a similar note about senators he wants to call about a piece of legislation, that piece of paper is considered a presidential record and must be presented to the Archives.
My question (and I sent a request into NARA, but haven't heard back) is whether all of Trump's tweets will be archived, or only those that fit the somewhat narrow definition of Presidential Records Act records.
To that end, I'm openly reaching out to David S. Ferriero, Tenth Archivist of the United States, with my strong recommendation that all tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media posts by Donald Trump be archived in perpetuity for the benefit of future historians and researchers.
Stay tuned. I'll update this article if I get an official answer from Ferriero or a NARA spokesperson.