WASHINGTON — As a novelist, Colleen Shogan has imagined the most vivid of Washington dramas.
Larceny at the Library of Congress. A homicide in the House of Representatives. A stabbing in the U.S. Senate.
But Shogan is about to become a protagonist in a storyline too fantastical for fiction — the criminal investigation of a former president — as the 1993 Norwin graduate prepares to appear before a Senate panel that is considering her nomination to lead the National Archives.
The traditionally staid and low-profile National Archives has been thrust into the public arena by the FBI search of Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, intertwined with a criminal investigation that is testing the nation’s system of justice and raising unprecedented questions about accountability for a former president.
Shogan’s path to confirmation could be rocky as Republicans demand more information from the Justice Department. It was the National Archives that set the probe in motion earlier this year with a referral to the FBI after Trump returned 15 boxes of documents that contained dozens of records with classified markings.
GOP Sen. Rick Scott, a member of the panel vetting Shogan’s nomination, told Bloomberg he “absolutely will demand answers” about the FBI search as part of her confirmation hearing Wednesday. Other panelists, like Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, have chastised Attorney General Merrick Garland over the investigation and questioned the administration’s motives.
It’s a contentious backdrop for an archivist nomination, a position often filled by academics and historians that typically moves through the Senate with little fanfare.
“It’s my understanding that it’s never been a political issue before and it’s not a partisan job,” said Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, one of the Republicans on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs panel that is handling the nomination. Sen. Gary Peters, the Democratic chairman of the committee, said he’s supportive of Shogan’s nomination, but concerned for how his colleagues across the aisle may respond.
“Hopefully, she’ll be received warmly by folks but you never know until the actual day of the hearing,” Peters added.
Shogan declined to be interviewed for this story. But interviews with half a dozen current and former colleagues paint a picture of a respected historian and serious-minded political scientist who is not easily fazed and has long been careful to avoid partisan politics.
“You’re looking for someone who can sail through the Congress, and not become a lightning rod of controversy. That’s Colleen,” said Anita McBride, a former assistant to President George W. Bush, who works with Shogan at the White House Historical Association.
“I think she’s an ideal leader for really such a time as this is,” said Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association and Shogan’s boss. “I am not aware of a partisan bone in her body.”
“I still to this day do not know her politics,” said Susan Combs, who served at the Department of the Interior during the Trump administration and chaired the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commission with Shogan.
Shogan will be introduced at her confirmation hearing by a friend and senator, Republican Shelley Moore Capito. The West Virginia lawmaker said she has great respect for Shogan but cautioned that she doesn’t know how her nomination will shake out.
“In these tough times, I don’t think anything’s predictable,” Capito said.
Biden nominated Shogan to lead the National Archives in August, just days before the FBI search of Trump’s Florida club. The last archivist, David Ferriero, announced his retirement in April, citing fears about the nation’s political trajectory after the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Shogan’s roots in official Washington run deep. She began her career as a congressional aide for former Sen. Joe Lieberman, then worked her way up to a position with the Congressional Research Service, a scholarly operation that churns out nonpartisan analysis for lawmakers and their staff. Shogan also worked for a time at the Library of Congress.
Now Shogan is an executive at the White House Historical Association, where she has worked under both the Trump and Biden administrations.
As the archivist, Shogan would take the helm of an agency that goes to great lengths to preserve the nation’s records, including treasured documents like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Their sprawling collection spans 13 billion pages of text and 10 million maps, charts and drawings, as well as tens of millions of photographs, films and other records.
Beyond its work in Washington, the Archives oversees 13 presidential libraries and 14 regional archives across the country. But despite the ever-growing volume of government documents since the Archives’ founding in 1934, the agency’s budget has remained stagnant over the years.
“The Archives do not have enough money to do their work. And I have to assume that is because Congress does not fully understand what its job is,” Grossman said. “Perhaps the visibility of these confirmation hearings and the recent attention will help more Americans appreciate the role.”
Shogan has written a series of Washington-based whodunits, with titles like “Homicide in the House” and “Stabbing in the Senate.” Beyond her work as an author, scholar and historian, she serves as the chair of the board of directors at the Women’s Suffrage National Monument Foundation.
Congress has given that foundation a weighty task: building the first memorial in the nation’s capital for the pioneering suffragists who fought for women’s right to vote.
Shogan has a chance to do a little trailblazing of her own. If confirmed, she’ll be the first woman to serve as the archivist.
“She’s been a champion for the story of women and their record in our national story, and to be a part of that history too is really special,” McBride said.