My life as a journalist has been one long series of itches that I’ve tried to scratch. Like the title character of my favorite children’s book, “Harriet the Spy,” I’m curious and want to understand things. In other words, nosy.

So when former President Trump sued the National Archives and the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection to prevent his papers from being divulged to the panel, I wanted to know what role the archives played in Trump’s battle – itch, scratch.

I contacted University of Texas, Austin, political scientist Shannon Bow O’Brien, who is a scholar of presidential speeches. I figured she would be familiar with the role of the archives and could provide readers (and me!) with both a pocket history of the archives and how they’ve handled conflicts over public access to presidential papers. I wanted to know: Was this the first time the archives had found themselves in the middle of a political tug-of-war over presidential papers?

“At the center of the current conflict between Trump and the congressional committee is the status of presidential papers: Are they public or private?” asks O’Brien in the story she wrote for us. “In 1974, the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act was enacted to prevent the destruction of President Richard Nixon’s materials in the wake of the Watergate scandal. In 1978, passage of the Presidential Records Act settled the question of ownership over presidential records: They were the property of the American public.”

Itch: scratched.

Naomi Schalit

Senior Editor, Politics + Society

Nixon resigned after tapes he had fought making public incriminated him in the Watergate coverup. Bettmann/Getty

Trump wants the National Archives to keep his papers away from investigators – post-Watergate laws and executive orders may not let him

Shannon Bow O'Brien, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts

Donald Trump’s lawsuit to stop the release to Congress of potentially embarrassing or incriminating documents puts the National Archives in the middle of an old legal conflict.

Pope John Paul II met with President Ronald Reagan in Miami in 1987. AP Photo/Arturo Mari, File

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Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court on December 3, 2018, in Washington. Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images

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