Yes, probably, Timothy Naftali told me, but there’s a catch. Naftali, a historian at NYU, was the director of the Nixon Library from 2006 to 2011. Trump won’t likely leave behind a trove as rich as Nixon did, he said, because nobody has.
Posterity, Naftali explained, benefited from unreproducible circumstances in Nixon’s case:
1) Nixon kept meticulous records (including those famous audiotapes) because he was a dedicated student of history. Trump is not.
2) Nixon presumed, mistakenly, that he could weed appalling things out of the official record because the law gave him ownership and control over his presidential records.
What Nixon couldn’t know was that a series of court decisions and legislative changes in response to Watergate would change the existing rules. In essence, the government decided that presidential records were the property not of ex-presidents, as they’d always been judged before, but of the public. Henceforth, they would be controlled, with certain allowances for personal correspondence, by the National Archives. Every president since Nixon has been mindful, as Nixon was not, that posterity was listening in. Though it’s hard to imagine right now, there will one day be a Trump Library, and it will be administered not by Trump and his descendants but by the National Archives.
Trump’s presumed understanding of the way the game is now played doesn’t mean we won’t have some capacity to eavesdrop on his administration. In recent years, voice-recognition software has made it easier to create near-verbatim transcripts of “memcons,” or memorandums of presidential telephone conversations made by duty officers in the Situation Room. It was a memcon of Trump’s July 2019 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about investigating Hunter Biden (“I would like you to do us a favor though”) that led to his impeachment.
Eventually we’ll get to see other Trump memcons, though their release will likely be slowed by national-security claims. With some luck we’ll also get to see raw transcripts produced by the voice-recognition software. But those won’t be equivalent to the transcripts of the Nixon tapes, because the voice recognition captures not the president’s voice but that of the duty officer repeating what he’s just heard. Besides, a former staffer on the National Security Council told The Washington Post in September 2019 that Trump’s political appointees on the NSC, departing from previous practice, routinely edited out glaringly erroneous or offensive things that the president blurted out in conversations with foreign leaders.
Access to the documentary record will be limited by other considerations too. Under the 1978 Presidential Records Act, the National Archives may not grant the public access to presidential documents for a period of five years. Ex-presidents are given considerable latitude—too much, really—to restrict access to certain types of records, including those related to national-security and medical matters. This means that it may be a while before we find out what prompted Trump’s unexplained Saturday-afternoon visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in November 2019. (The White House said it was part of his “routine annual physical exam,” an explanation that the press immediately concluded was a lie.)