- Trump presidential-library talk is heating up among historians and Washington insiders.
- People close to Trump say he hasn’t been focused on the library yet, but expect that will soon change as supporters look to build a monument to his presidency.
- Historians are worried that any Trump library or museum will be used to glorify the ex-president and to burnish his legacy after two impeachments and a possible Senate vote to bar him from federal office forever.
- “It will be ostentatious. It will be like Trump Tower. It’ll be like everything he does — over the top and not very subtle,” Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University, said.
- Trump and his backers can portray his administration any way they’d like inside a monument to his legacy. But it’s more complicated if they want it to be an official presidential library with federal support.
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Historians and presidential-library buffs say they’re worried that any sort of Donald Trump presidential library or museum will be used entirely to glorify the ex-commander in chief while promoting lies about his administration and attacking his critics.
Construction of a Trump library could wind up being a major battleground over the legacy of the twice-impeached president. Historians and Washington insiders are already speculating about whether Trump’s kids might lead the effort, where a library would be located, and whether the federal government might withhold its support.
“It will be ostentatious. It will be like Trump Tower. It’ll be like everything he does — over the top and not very subtle,” said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. “I think he’ll use it to promote his memory or his understanding of what’s happened. Not only the things he accomplished, but the people he doesn’t like.”
Sources close to Trump say it hasn’t been a central focus for the president in the waning days of his administration, partly because of his reluctance to admit he lost.
Sean Spicer, Trump’s former White House press secretary and communications director, told Insider he was unaware of any plans that Trump or his associates had for a presidential library.
But an ex-President Trump and his allies are expected to turn their attention to the issue soon as they look to burnish his reputation after he became the first president to be impeached twice by the US House and could be the first president ever to be convicted by the Senate, not to mention permanently barred from holding federal office.
Political insiders are chattering about whether Trump might look to a conservative college or university to house a presidential center or museum, or if his family might run the effort. Trump himself could design the exhibits to excoriate his enemies.
“I’d assume the kids take charge” of any library planning, a former senior Trump administration official told Insider. “Maybe Ivanka or Don Jr.”
Zelizer predicted a whole wing packed with exhibits about Trump’s perceived opponents, like the media, Democrats, and “socialists.” He said he expected that Trump’s friends and donors would happily shell out cash to bolster the effort.
Finding a home for a Trump library
Ex-presidents often want their museums and libraries in their hometowns or affiliated with the prestigious universities they attended.
The Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library is on the campus of his alma mater, the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum covers 30 acres at The University of Texas campus in Austin.
It’s unclear whether either university Trump attended would want to house a Trump library. The press offices at Fordham University and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania did not respond to requests for comment about whether they’d be interested.
Other possibilities include Trump’s native New York City or his adopted home of Palm Beach, Florida. Insiders are skeptical about a Trump museum in liberal New York, and they see the Sunshine State or the campus of a pro-Trump conservative university as more likely options. Given the animosity toward the president as he leaves office after four tumultuous years, it might be a tough sell.
“I’m not convinced that it’ll be an easy task for him to find a place,” said Anthony Clark, a former congressional staffer and the author of a book about the history of presidential libraries.
Stanford University rejected plans for a Ronald Reagan presidential library in 1984 after a revolt by liberal students and faculty, according to a CBS report. President John Kennedy picked a spot for his presidential library near Harvard, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a month before his assassination. But those plans were scuttled because of opposition from residents about traffic, and the site was moved to Boston. Duke University refused plans for a Nixon library.
Fake libraries for the ‘Commander-in-Tweet’
Trump’s critics love to talk trash about the contents of a future presidential library.
Comedy Central’s “Daily Show With Trevor Noah” made a farce pop-up Trump presidential-library exhibit. The traveling exhibit allowed visitors to mock some of Trump’s most outrageous tweets and visit a fake Oval Office for the “Commander-in-Tweet” featuring a golden toilet for tweeting and with a blond toupee and plush bathrobe hanging nearby.
Jim Manley, a public-affairs consultant who worked as former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s senior communications advisor, said he expects Trump will build some kind of gaudy facility dedicated to his presidency — and find “incompetent, wealthy, gauche Mar-a-Lago denizens” who haven’t abandoned Trump to pay for it.
“I actually made a crack when he was first elected he’d probably put his library over a casino,” said John Dean, the former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon often seen on cable TV sizing up the latest presidential scandal.
White House spokesman Judd Deere did not respond to a request for comment about whether Trump has begun making any plans for a library.
A glitzy ‘MAGA’ museum?
Trump and his backers are entitled to portray his life and administration any way they’d like inside a monument to his legacy. That could be a glitzy “MAGA” museum housed inside a casino in Florida or a glowing Trump exhibit inside a new wing of a conservative university.
But things get a lot more complicated if they want it to be an official presidential library with the logistical support of the National Archives and the legitimacy that comes with it.
Presidents dating back to Herbert Hoover have presidential libraries. The latest addition for President Barack Obama is in the works, and it will be run under a new model where there’s no on-site research facility — but the Obama Foundation is paying to digitize official White House records.
Such a “virtual presidential library” model, where research-worthy material that is administered in part by the National Archives is stored in a low-profile facility and publicly presented online, could appeal to Trump, said Mark Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation and former director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Austin.
That way Trump could erect a privately funded monument “to control his own narrative and not have the federal government having a hand in presenting his narrative to the public,” Updegrove said. “We can expect that he will try to spin a legend around his presidency that’s biased and contrived and that’s based on a false narrative.”
Libraries are treasures for historians and extreme points of pride to outgoing and former presidents, who dedicate a lot of their energy to mapping out how they’re perceived by the buses of school children, retirees in motor homes, and history buffs who will visit their libraries and museums for decades to come.
“They protect, preserve, and present the records of a president’s administration, and they serve a vital function in bringing history to the American people,” Updegrove said.
Presidents often start their planning well before they leave office. During President George W. Bush’s second term in office, first lady Laura Bush — a former librarian — invited presidential-library directors to Camp David to get their advice, said Jay Hakes, who was then director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum in Atlanta.
Nixon had initially made elaborate plans for his library while he was still in office, Dean told Insider. Nixon wanted it to be on a cliff overhanging the Pacific Ocean on the edge of Camp Pendleton — a Marine Corps base in San Diego County. “All of that crumbled with Watergate,” Dean said.
Second-term presidents have a lot of time to think about their library plans, but first-term presidents usually haven’t yet focused on the issue as much because they’re hoping for reelection, Hakes said. But even one-term presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter were already planning for their libraries before they left office.
The federal government technically owns ex-presidents’ documents, and the National Archives usually works in conjunction with private foundations. That federal backing is important for the public’s perception that the enterprise is providing factual information, according to historians and presidential-library experts.
But if Trump wants an official library with guardianship over his White House records, he’ll have to follow the federal government’s rules. Congress can deny any presidential-library proposal.
The Nixon Foundation famously feuded with the National Archives over the portrayal of the Watergate scandal when the Nixon library was added to the federal system in 2004. The government agreed to send Nixon’s presidential documents to the facility in Yorba Linda, California, but the portrayal of the scandal was changed dramatically.
The historian Timothy Naftali, who was hired that year to run the library, ditched the existing Watergate gallery. That exhibit, approved by Nixon before his death, included a quote “suggesting that The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein may have offered bribes to obtain their scoops,” Pacific Standard magazine reported.
“That was the classic big battle,” Hakes said, although he added that plenty of other presidential libraries have downplayed historical events that embarrassed ex-presidents.
What could Congress do?
Congress could certainly change the law regarding presidential libraries — it already did, in 1986, when it amended the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955 to require private endowments to help offset taxpayer-funded costs to maintain these facilities.
Lawmakers could, for example, generally disqualify former presidents in “disrepute” from building physical, taxpayer-subsidized libraries, said Ann Ravel, a former Federal Election Commission chairperson.
“There’s no reason Congress can’t amend the law to deal with the out-and-out corruption of this man,” Manley said.
Congress would be wise to include language that changes presidential-library laws in a must-pass bill, such as a government appropriations bill, Manley added.
It could also include it as part of H.R. 1, the Democrats’ sweeping ethics-reform bill that faces a comparatively rockier path to passage. It could also propose a stand-alone bill, although that, too, might face longer odds.
In a 2015 report, the Congressional Research Service — a nonpartisan research institute serving the House and Senate — said that lawmakers could even remake the entire presidential-library system.
“Congress could determine that having all historical presidential materials in one location is a less expensive and more accessible option than operating 13 or more distinct libraries,” it said.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and the economy still tanking, a presidential-library-reformation project doesn’t appear anywhere near the priority lists of either Congress or the coming Biden administration.
Delayed transition slowed transfer of Trump records
No matter what kind of museum Trump and his friends decide to set up, his records will be government property.
Typically, officials from the National Archives come in at the end of an administration and cart out boxes of documents before the next president arrives. White House records are taken into storage, Hakes said.
The Archives press office told Insider this week that it had been working with the administration and the Defense Department to coordinate the transfer of records and gifts from White House to storage, but that the delay of presidential transition funding slowed the process. Trump’s administration didn’t kick off the transition until more than two weeks after the 2020 election, despite Joe Biden clearly winning and with the president repeatedly losing legal challenges to contest that outcome.
Even though the transfer won’t be completed until after Biden’s inauguration, on January 20, the National Archives and Records Administration will still assume legal custody of them on that day.
But don’t expect the public to get its hands on those records anytime soon.
Even though the Archives gets immediate access to everything from draft speeches, presidential doodles, national-security memos, and details about presidential pardons, they aren’t subject to public Freedom of Information Act requests until five years after the end of the administration.
The law also allows an ex-president or a designated aide to use exemptions to restrict access to certain documents for up to 12 years after the end of an administration. That process wouldn’t change even if the US Senate votes at the conclusion of the upcoming impeachment trial to remove Trump from office and bars him from holding public office again, historians told Insider.
Congress, the courts, and future administrations have special access to former presidents’ documents, although the president and his attorney can still try to withhold them by claiming executive privilege.
It’s been Trump’s responsibility to manage his own records. And it’s uncertain whether he’ll pass everything along to the Archives on his way out the door.
Language in the Presidential Records Act “places the responsibility for the custody and management of incumbent Presidential records with the President.”
The Archives believe “that their role prior to the end of the presidency is just one of guidance,” Clark said. “Like, ‘Here’s how we think you should manage your records.'”
Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly, who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees government operations, cautioned Trump against destroying documents before he exits.
“Though the Trump administration’s record is one worthy of history’s trash bin,” Connolly said in a statement to Insider, “I’d remind the president these documents belong to the American people and the law must be complied with. Future generations have a right to see the harm he inflicted.”