Like many Americans his age, Donald Trump shared an interest in the mysterious assassination of President John F. Kennedy. So much so that soon after taking office he pledged, as a Washington outsider, to order the release of all related documents kept secret in government vaults.
Now weeks away from leaving office, it appears he’ll leave that task of historical interest and significance to President-elect Joe Biden.
Trump came to office with a flair for television and how to build audience suspense. And given the numerous documentaries and the hit 1991 movie “JFK” by director Oliver Stone, the promised release of decades-old secret documents had all the makings of a suspense thriller. It portended critical information for historians and could quench a thirst for interested baby boomers.
“Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened,” Trump announced with fanfare in an unexpected tweet on Oct. 21, 2017, just nine months into his term.
But soon after the bombshell, Trump partially retreated.
Roughly 35,000 documents were declassified but many were still partially redacted, meaning the entire document was not released for public view. At the request of the CIA and FBI, Trump delayed full declassification for another six months. More than five decades after an assassin’s bullet felled a president full of promise, government infighting continued to keep from the light information long shrouded in mystery.
Then in April 2018, the declassification fell short of promise again. Some 19,045 documents were released, but 15,584 had some information that could be withheld through 2021. In a statement,Trump left the door open for earlier release of complete information.
“I agree with the Archivist’s recommendation that the continued withholdings are necessary to protect against identifiable harm to national security, law enforcement, or foreign affairs that is of such gravity that it outweighs the public interest in immediate disclosure,” the president said. “I am also ordering agencies to re-review each of those redactions over the next 3 years. At any time during that review period, and no later than the end of that period, agencies shall disclose information that no longer warrants continued withholding.”
There is nothing to prevent an earlier release, but the National Archives have added no new public documents since April 2018.
The Kennedy assassination documents must be fully declassified by Oct. 26, 2021. That would allow the incoming Biden administration to be the one that boasts it made the JFK files completely open to the public more than 57 years after the fateful day in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963.
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“The Trump staff is scouring for last-minute decisions and regulations and executive orders that could polish Trump’s legacy. This would be one,” said Larry J. Sabato, author of “The Kennedy Half Century” and an analyst who follows the Kennedy records as director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “After all, Trump would probably enjoy doing it. It would upset the CIA and some other agencies if he did it. That would play to Trump’s personality_ a final wave going out, and of course sometimes waves are a single finger.”
Asked about the possibility, the White House was mum.
“We don’t comment on internal deliberations,” said Judd Deere, deputy White House press secretary.
McClatchy and the Miami Herald are not alone in wondering if Trump will leave it to his successor to complete the release of documents.
“Will Joe Biden Release the JFK Assassination Records?” asked the headline of a Nov. 23 blog post by the website JFKFacts.org, a website dedicated to research into a complicated period in American history.
In a statement in April 2018, the National Archives cautioned that another 520 files remained secret because they involved sealed court matters that can only be opened under a judge’s order; were personal papers from former administration officials; or came from presidential libraries under stipulation that they remain secret for specified periods of time.
In all, the National Archives now has in the JFK assassination records more than 300,000 documents, which include more than five million pages. The revelations in recent years have filled in some gaps in knowledge but also raised questions about the role of South Florida in the saga.
For example, a former leader of Alpha 66, a Miami-based group opposed to the Castro regime in Cuba, insisted he saw a top-level CIA official training Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate Fidel Castro before Oswald was accused of killing Kennedy. Oswald himself was killed as he was escorted by by Dallas police officers shortly afterward, ensuring he could never discuss his motives or whether he acted in concert with others.
The documents released in recent years also shed more light on Oswald’s movements in Mexico shortly before the assassination. One document sent by an unidentified foreign intelligence agency highlighted how it was likely Oswald spoke by phone in Mexico to a leader of a special Soviet assassination team called Department 13.
McClatchy White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.