The Presidential Records Act mandates the preservation of all presidential records. At least in theory this means that the only Presidential communications immune from further scrutiny are phone calls (which are not recorded) and verbal in-person conversations. Presumably this might create a bit of a bias against written communication, as there's plenty of discussions that the White House might not want to be exposed in the future.

Has there been any academic research on the effects of this Act on communications within the White House since 1971?

  • 2
    You can find the legal definition of presidential materials/records here - archives.gov/about/laws/presidential-records.html, then narrow down your question to be more focused.
    – r13
    Commented Aug 11, 2022 at 21:36
  • Even though the White House doesn't record POTUS's phone calls, they can be recorded by others. That's how we all heard Trump's call to Brad Raffensperger where he asked him to "find 11,780 votes". Is this subject to the PRA?
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 20:01
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    @Barmar yes and it gives an incentive to not make any records whatsoever Commented Aug 12, 2022 at 20:35
  • @r13 question seems pretty focussed and looking up the definition of PRA doesn't enlighten us all that much on whether POTUSs have adapted to it by privileging communication channels that are off the record for PRA. I was wondering if similar studies had been carried out on how companies communicate internally given how often smoking guns are found during email discovery. But didn't see anything beyond a whole lot of provider solutions to perform that discovery. Still, it seems to me that "Don't recall those Pintos" or "Cheat that NO2 test" comms would be kept verbal nowadays. Commented Aug 13, 2022 at 1:13
  • 1
    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica You seem to have a good grab on the question the OP focused on, why not write something about it to lighten others?
    – r13
    Commented Aug 13, 2022 at 1:30

1 Answer 1


Has there been research on the effects of the Presidential Records Act on White House decision making?

Several academic research papers have examined the Presidential Records Act, although the way that it has impacted Presidential behavior, for example, by disfavoring written communications, has been addressed only tangentially or in passing.

For example, Bruce Montgomery, "Presidential Materials: Politics and the Presidential Records Act" 66(1) The American Archivist 102–138 (2003), the abstract of which states:

President George W. Bush's Executive Order No. 13,233, issued on 1 November 2001, marked the latest attempt by the executive branch to circumvent or otherwise nullify the key provisions of the Presidential Records Act. Congress passed the Presidential Records Act in 1978 in the wake of the Watergate scandals to assure public ownership and control over presidential materials. Nonetheless, starting with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who was the first president to be covered by the act, the executive branch has repeatedly attacked the statute through various regulatory schemes and overly broad claims of executive privilege. Indeed, with their historical reputations and legacies at stake, presidents have never fully accepted the concept of yielding control over their presidential materials. This article reviews the troubling history of the Presidential Records Act and the implications of the latest attempts to restrict access to presidential papers.

It is also examined in the Congressional Research Service report of Wendy Ginsberg, "The Presidential Records Act: Background and Recent Issues for Congress" (2014), although it largely focuses on official Executive Orders issued about this PRA rather than investigating in any depth the impact it has had on Presidential behavior. But it does establish that there is no indication that there has been a decline in the generation of written Presidential records:

Pursuant to the PRA, presidential records are provided to NARA at the end of each presidential administration. As a result, NARA has tracked the increasing volume and varied electronic formats employed by each administration.

According to NARA’s Report on Alternative Models for Presidential Libraries, “Presidential Libraries … experienced an explosive growth in the volume of electronic records, especially White House email.” The report continued:

Presidential Library holdings in electronic form are now much larger than the paper holdings. Indeed, the email system for the George W. Bush Administration alone is many times larger than the entire textual holdings of any other Presidential Library. These electronic holdings bring new challenges to processing and making available Presidential records. The sheer volume exponentially increases what archivists have to search and isolate as relevant to a request, a lengthy process in and of itself before the review begins. Once review begins, the more informal communication style embodied in Presidential record emails often blends personal and record information in the same email necessitating more redactions.

In that same report, NARA noted that the Administration of William J. Clinton provided NARA 20 million presidential record emails at the conclusion of the President’s eight-year tenure.

In June 2010, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) submitted testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives on “The Challenges of Managing Electronic Records.” GAO stated that the “[h]uge volumes of electronic information” were a “major challenge” in agency record management.

"Electronic information is increasingly being created in volumes that pose a significant technical challenge to our ability to organize it and make it accessible. An example of this growth is provided by the difference between the digital records of the George W. Bush administration and that of the Clinton administration: NARA has reported that the Bush administration transferred 77 terabytes of data to the [National] Archives [and Records Administration] on leaving office, which was about 35 times the amount of data transferred by the Clinton administration."

On April 25, 2013, a NARA blog post provided additional details on the records being transferred to the George W. Bush Library and Museum in Dallas, TX—“more than 70 million pages of textual records, 43,000 artifacts, 200 million emails (totaling roughly 1 billion pages), and 4 million digital photographs (the largest holding of electronic records of any of our libraries).” This amounts to a 3,500% increase in the volume of electronic records created when comparing one two-term administration to the next—an eight-year period.

The rapid increase in the volume of electronic presidential records does not present challenges in terms of demands on physical space for storage. Electronic records, however, may present challenges in terms of the collection of and perpetual access to the diverse and often ephemeral platforms used to create the records.

It is also examined tangentially in the book by GA Risetter, "Nixon's Ghost: The Impact of the Presidential Records Act on the National Archives and Records Administration" (2016), which looks at efforts by Presidents to have records classified a personal rather than Presidential, in the course of its larger review.

A law review note by Jessica L. Roberts, "#280 Characters of Legal Trouble: Trump, Twitter, and the Presidential Records Act" U. Ill. J.L. Tech. & Pol'y 489 (2019), focuses on the PRA as applied to Twitter activity by Presidents, and largely concludes that the PRA is ineffectual and an "Empty Promise."

Another relevant law review article is Kimberly Breedon, "Pandemics, Public Trust, and Presidential Records: Amending the Presidential Records Act to Minimize the Risk of Public Corruption during Times of National Crisis" 67 Wayne L. Rev. 1 (2021-2022). The body text of that article notes that:

This Article explores one such institutional weakness: the lack of oversight and enforcement mechanisms in the Presidential Records Act (PRA). More specifically, this Article seeks to fill a gap in the current literature by exploring whether Congress—to protect against the risk of increased government corruption during the next pandemic or other crisis—should consider amending the PRA to delineate additional requirements for presidential discretion regarding destruction of records, to include enforcement penalties for non-compliance, to provide broader scope for judicial intervention, to exercise greater oversight of records retention and management practices, or to adopt some combination thereof. The need for potential changes to the implementation of the PRA came to light, at least in part, because the White House’s response to the pandemic included forming a “shadow coronavirus task force” that used encrypted electronic messaging and unofficial email accounts, raising questions about whether task force members were complying with the requirements of the PRA.

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