This week, news has emerged about an increasingly serious confrontation between former President Trump and the National Archives and Records Administration about so-called Presidential records carried off to Mar-a-Lago at the end of his term. Since the reforms that followed the Watergate Era, those records have been deemed the public’s property and required by law to be turned over from the White House to the Archives when a president leaves office.
First, on Monday, the Washington Post broke the news that the Archives had “retrieved 15 boxes of documents” from the former President’s Florida resort property in January. That story reported that the boxes included some sentimental mementos—Trump’s “love letters” with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the letter left by former President Obama for Trump on the day of his sullen, poorly-attended inauguration.
The New York Times followed with its own report largely matching the WaPo story. The Times added two specific items to the known contents of the boxes: the infamous NOAA hurricane map on which Trump drew his own line with a Sharpie marker in a vain attempt to expand the hurricane’s forecasted impact zone to match his own tweets and a somewhat mysterious article of clothing.
Subtle variations in language between the two papers showed a difference in their approaches. WaPo’s headline—“National Archives had to retrieve Trump White House records from Mar-a-Lago”—and lede cast the Archives in an active role. This language echoed the statement issued by the Archives, which said:
“In mid-January 2022, NARA arranged for the transport from the Trump Mar-a-Lago property in Florida to the National Archives of 15 boxes that contained Presidential records, following discussions with President Trump’s representatives in 2021.”
Trump’s own role, in WaPo’s account, is passive, at most submitting without quarrel to having the boxes taken from his Palm Beach Xanadu by diligent agents of the Archives. By contrast, NYT’s headline—“Trump Gives Documents Improperly Taken From White House to Archives”—and lede put the former president in an active role, with Trump affirmatively “handing over” the purloined boxes of documents. The NYT coverage omits entirely the Archives’ pointed public reference to arranging for the boxes’ transportation.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Washington Post again broke the story that the Archives had referred Trump’s handling of Presidential records to the Department of Justice for a possible criminal investigation, potentially including the mishandling of classified records. WaPo wrote at the end of the story’s second paragraph:
“Archives officials suspected Trump had possibly violated laws concerning the handling of government documents — including those that might be considered classified — and reached out to the Justice Department, the people familiar with the matter said.”
However, WaPo’s headline—“National Archives asks Justice Dept. to investigate Trump’s handling of White House records”—and lede focused on the potential investigation, citing two sources, and did not dwell on possibly classified content.
Then on Wednesday evening, NYT again followed in WaPo’s footsteps on this development, matching its reporting, albeit with only a single source. But the paper cannily rearranged the elements of the story to change its focus. The result—“Archives Found Possible Classified Material in Boxes Returned by Trump”—put the potential mishandling of secret documents front and center. This approach accentuated the parallels with the Clinton email matter—in which the irresistible possibility that Hillary Clinton had kept classified email records on a lightly secured server at her home in Chappaqua, NY consumed a huge share of the media’s attention during the 2016 presidential campaign—and NYT’s evening story landed with a considerably larger splash than WaPo’s, prompting some cryptically frustrated tweets from the WaPo reporting team.
NYT included a line crediting WaPo with breaking the story of the DOJ referral, but coyly omitted that WaPo had also reported the central element of its own story earlier in the day and with less fanfare.
The print paper didn’t take too far, though. The report is slated to run deep in the A section, on page 15, this morning.
Neither newspaper described how securely the boxes and the potentially classified documents inside were stored at Mar-a-Lago during their yearlong sojourn there.