Trump Can’t Just Erase History Like Nixon Did

The seven-hour gap in the record of January 6 should still be knowable, despite efforts to suppress it.

C-SPAN; Bettmann / Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Tim Naftali is a clinical associate professor of history at NYU. He was the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

A major presidential scandal isn’t complete without missing evidence, though Donald Trump seems to have been the first president to swallow his own words, literally. The former president had a habit of tearing drafts and signed documents into small pieces to be thrown away—or flushing them down a toilet. And there have even been reports that, on occasion, he consumed them.

Now a seven-hour gap has appeared in Trump’s official daily White House diary, part of the documentation that the congressional January 6 committee requested for its investigation into all aspects of the country’s 2021 insurrection. The diary has no evidence of Trump making the calls that others have admitted receiving from him during the height of the violence in the Capitol. Nor does it document any meetings during that time, when the president was thought to be under pressure from aides to calm the situation on the Hill.

The comparisons to Richard Nixon were immediate and inevitable—but they missed a key difference: What happened in those seven hours should ultimately be knowable, at least at some level. The Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tweeted that the gap in the record made “the infamous 18-minute gap in Nixon’s tapes look like nothing in comparison.” While that brazen presidential manipulation of the historical record ultimately didn’t help Nixon stave off the collapse of his presidency—indeed it likely backfired by creating skepticism toward the president among elite Republicans after its revelation—the gap in a crucial White House tape to this day remains stubbornly difficult to fill in. By contrast, the newly reported Trumpian gap may actually be easier to fill in, and therefore less of a threat to the historical record than Nixon’s.

In November 1973, Judge John J. Sirica revealed that a subpoenaed recording handed over to the Watergate grand jury had an 18-and-a-half-minute stretch where the conversation had been replaced by a hum or buzz. Although Nixon created an ocean of taped words—approximately 3,700 hours of conversation during his time in office—this gap in the record held unusual significance.

A year earlier, on June 17, 1972, five members of a secret espionage team supervised and paid by Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President had been arrested inside the Democratic National Committee Headquarters in D.C.’s prestigious Watergate Office Complex. Nixon, who was at the time visiting Grand Cay in the Bahamas and then his compound at Key Biscayne, returned to Washington on June 19, 1972, at 8 p.m. The recording in question was of a meeting the next day, starting at 11:26 a.m. and lasting nearly an hour and 20 minutes, with his chief of staff, H. R. “Bob” Haldeman, in his hideaway office in the Old Executive Office Building. Haldeman and Nixon had had a nearly hour-long conversation on Air Force One, but this was the first conversation after the Watergate break-in that took place in a room with a taping system.

Nixon tended to ramble in meetings with Haldeman, who’d developed a habit of taking notes at each of these meetings of presidential decisions and desires. The subjects listed in the notes from the June 20, 1972, meeting showed that the missing portion on the tape correlated exactly with the section where the two men discussed the Watergate break-in and its implications. That wasn’t the result of a convenient mechanical failure; the gap was intentional.

Although no one in the Nixon White House, including the president himself, ever produced a plausible theory for what happened, no one was indicted for the erasure. The Sirica court’s experts concluded in 1974 that five to nine parts of the tape had been erased, as if the perpetrator had started and stopped erasing until all of the most damning information was gone. Given the available audio technology at the time, none of the erased words were recoverable. In 1975, Nixon was asked about the gap in a grand-jury testimony, which was unsealed in 2011. He denied a role but in so doing admitted that he and his second chief of staff, Alexander Haig, had discussed how grateful they were that the erasure had been done accidentally by his loyal secretary, Rose Mary Woods, and not on a subpoenaed tape. (He was wrong on both counts. Woods never admitted to accidentally erasing any more than a five-minute section, and the Watergate Special Prosecution Force had asked for Nixon’s meeting with Haldeman that morning.)

Public interest in the gap didn’t end with Nixon’s pardon and the sentencing of his henchmen. No evidence ever emerged that settled the question of whether Nixon knew in advance the details of the illegal espionage done on his behalf, and it remained plausible that the missing minutes had once contained a recap of the project. In 2003, nearly a decade after Nixon’s death, the National Archives invited five companies and individuals to use blank tapes and the original recording machines to reexamine the process by which the original might have been erased, to see whether changes in audio technology might allow for the recovery of more intelligible sound. The effort ended with no results.

With the tape not yielding any new data, the National Archives sponsored a different approach to recover history. At the suggestion of the independent scholar Phil Mellinger, the archives supervised a forensic review of Haldeman’s notes. Mellinger pointed out multiple staple impressions on the corner. This, combined with the fact that the number of pages was quite small given the length of the meeting, suggested the possibility that Haldeman or someone else might have removed an intervening page or pages once Watergate came under intense scrutiny by investigators. In that case, page “2” might contain indentations from the potentially missing intervening pages.

It was a long shot. A search for latent or indented words began, drawing upon the expertise of the forensic-science laboratories of the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives as well as of the Library of Congress Preservation Research and Testing Division to perform hyperspectral imaging, electrostatic-detection analysis, and video-spectral comparison. Besides evidence of indented, slanted writing on page “2,” which the experts concluded was likely an unintelligible signature, nothing pertaining to the substance of the meeting was found. The experts did conclude that the date on page 1 and the number 2 on the second page were written by Haldeman in a different ink, suggesting that this was done at a different time than the notes were made; when or for what reason remained unknown.

The Nixon gap wasn’t the first suspicious gap in presidential records. Before Nixon, presidents or their heirs traditionally owned their White House records. Only approximately eight hours survived of the recordings by the first taper in chief, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Dwight Eisenhower’s records indicate when he requested that a telephone call be recorded, yet very few of those recordings ended up in his presidential library. And some tapes produced by John F. Kennedy were never turned over to the National Archives by the Kennedy family. Perhaps these gaps were accidental. But Nixon’s gap was directly linked to an active criminal investigation, making it the holiest of holes.

Now some are saying that Trump, the only president ever to be impeached twice, has found a way to out-Nixon Nixon yet again. But the current gold standard is actually quite safe. The January 6 investigation isn’t facing as daunting a gap, despite assertions to the contrary. It is harder for a president to erase history now than it was in Nixon’s time.

The record turned over to the January 6 committee, which was presumably created by the Trump presidential diarist, doesn’t indicate any omissions, but given everything we know about January 6, it is incomplete. According to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, the most recent of the presidential libraries to open, “The Daily Diary is the official log that reflects the exact timing of planned events as well as impromptu moments such as staff member drop-ins and telephone calls.”

A minute-by-minute accounting of the president’s actions on January 6 is essential to determining the president’s role in the escalating violence in and around the Capitol that day. The presidential daily diary can’t directly answer questions about the president’s state of mind, the way a private recording might have, but it could establish the list of people who met or spoke with him that day.

At 1 p.m., Vice President Mike Pence gavels in the session to count the electoral votes—and at that moment his team tweets a letter explaining that he will not overturn the results of the election. Trump is still speaking at the Ellipse, encouraging his supporters to take their protest to the Capitol. By 1:50 p.m., a riot is declared at the Capitol. At 2:11, the rioters break into the west side of the Capitol and are at the steps of the Senate two minutes later, at which point the Senate goes into sudden recess. Just a few minutes after that, following a second breach of the building, the House goes into recess. At 2:31 p.m., D.C. officials ask for Pentagon assistance. At about the same time, Trump exhorts his followers on Twitter to support police and law enforcement and stay peaceful. He doesn’t tell them, however, to leave the Capitol.

At 2:44 p.m, Ashli Babbitt is shot trying to break into the secure area where the guards are trying to evacuate House members. Almost an hour later, at 3:36 p.m., White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany announces that Trump has ordered the National Guard to the Capitol and wants peace. Again there is no call for people to leave the premises and allow the legislators to get back to their constitutional duty. At 4:17 p.m., 11 minutes after President-elect Biden speaks to the nation, Trump releases a video repeating the lie that the election was stolen but, professing his love of the insurrectionists, finally asks people to go home.

Yet according to the official log of his day, Trump was in the Oval Office from 1:19 p.m., when he returned from the Ellipse, until he went to the Rose Garden to tape his video message at 4:03 p.m. With the exception of a visit from the White House valet at 1:21, he was ostensibly alone the entire time and was not receiving or making any calls. Senator Tommy Tuberville has, however, admitted to speaking with the former president during those crucial three hours. So, too, has Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. And there are numerous reports that members of his family tried to intervene to get him to stop the attack on the Capitol. Just as suspicious is the fact that the diary, which notes the presence of the White House staffer Stephen Miller, among others, in a meeting just before Trump’s speech at the Ellipse, contains no mention of any staffer around him after he returns—as if Trump arranged the Rose Garden video all by himself.

Fortunately, unlike in the Nixon case, the gap in the official daily diary doesn’t reflect the erasure of a unique, irreplaceable record. Tuberville’s and McCarthy’s telephone records, which are not White House records, would reveal not only the time and duration of their calls but the number on the other end. Although these two Trump allies can attempt to deny these records to investigators, they can’t erase them. And, unless they knew ahead of time that Trump would use a disposable phone, it is implausible that they would have answered a call in the heat of the insurrection from an unrecognized or unrecognizable number, making Trump’s use of a “burner phone” unlikely. If investigators can get the number Trump actually used to call Tuberville and McCarthy, they should be able to find out the other calls made on that telephone on January 6. Trump might have borrowed Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’s phone, whose number would have been recognized by Tuberville and McCarthy, for example. Or another key aide might have handed over his or her phone for presidential use. If there were text messages or emails coordinating the 4:17 p.m. statement, they might still be recoverable on the retired Trump White House server, which is in the possession of the National Archives. Miller and McEnany are unlikely to help, but their electronic records may.

Although this gap is potentially not as serious a blow to history as Nixon’s, it is a problem for investigators and will complicate their work. It is also, potentially, a sign of a cover-up, but one lacking a central Rose Mary Woods–like character. As a matter of modern practice, the presidential diarist, the person who produced the official daily diary, is employed by the National Archives.

This is a distinction with significance. In the Kennedy era, for example, it was his longtime secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, who supervised keeping the records of his meetings and telephone calls. As career archivists, the current presidential diarists are not only professionally trained in preserving materials; they are nonpartisan, staying behind in federal service when presidents and their coteries leave Washington. They are not receptionists or individuals following the president around the White House, however. According to the Bush Library, “The Diarist uses documents provided by various White House units that include the President’s schedule, press briefings, pool reports, speeches, and notes from White House staff members.” In the Bush administration, the materials collated by the diarist, “as well as drafts of the final Daily Diary, are found in the Presidential Daily Diary Backup.” Unlike Nixon’s 18-and-a-half-minute gap, which Al Haig sarcastically blamed on “a sinister force,” there should be a paper trail that explains the official diary that was turned over.

The system isn’t perfect. If someone handed their phone to Trump, the White House switchboard wouldn’t know about it and thus it would be up to the staffer or Trump himself to report that fact. But if people came into the Oval Office in those crucial three hours, someone likely made a note of it. If they came from outside the building and did not have a White House pass, the Secret Service log would have recorded it. These materials might still be in the Trump daily-diary backup and should be subpoenaed, if they haven’t been already.

The investigation continues, as does the pattern of Trump duplicity. There are potentially fruitful places still to look for notes and records, let alone people to interview, to fill the gap. The fact that the official, finished record was incomplete doesn’t mean the relevant, supporting data are erased. If there was an attempt to thwart the presidential diarist as part of a cover-up, the Trumpists have likely missed something.

Whereas the country still lacks the means to unlock the final secrets of June 20, more history may yet be recoverable from January 6.