Trump Keeps History at Bay by Putting Off Presidential Library
(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump is spending his first months as an ex-president trying to ensure that he’s remembered the way he wants -- but he’s holding off on plans to establish a library that would enshrine his version of his presidency.
Refusing to cede the limelight, the former president has issued almost daily statements, set up a website and turned up at multiple events at his Mar-a-Lago resort, including a wedding where he complained about the 2020 election results and President Joe Biden’s moves so far.
But planning for a library would suggest he’s done being president and that’s not something he’s ready to concede, say people familiar with his thinking. Trump has publicly dangled the possibility that he will seek the Republican nomination in 2024.
“Once he says, ‘I am going to be raising money for my library,’ he’s given up even the pretense of trying to run again,” said Anthony Clark, who has written about the politics and history of presidential libraries.
By delaying a library, Trump puts aside, at least for now, a chance to shape the story of his presidency -- as Richard Nixon initially did at his museum by describing the Watergate scandal as a Democratic coup attempt, or as George W. Bush did with a theater that allows participants to vote on the options that he faced such as whether to invade Iraq but ends with a video of Bush explaining his decision.
All presidents since Franklin D. Roosevelt have pursued a presidential library as a way to archive and house their records for researchers as well as to burnish their legacies. Bill Clinton joked at Bush’s library opening in 2013 that it was the “latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
Before Barack Obama, presidents created nonprofit foundations to raise money from private donors to build libraries and museums that they then donated or leased to the federal government to staff and operate using taxpayer funds. The foundations pay for and create the exhibits, with the National Archives helping to develop the content.
Obama is having his private foundation build and administer his presidential center while allowing the National Archives to handle his records. Nixon initially did that as well with the library he opened in 1990 at his birthplace of Yorba Linda, California, before it was turned over to the government to run in 2007.
Clark said he doubts that Trump will ever have a presidential library because of how expensive and complicated they are to build, how difficult it is to secure a location and because he didn’t start raising money and planning before leaving office as other presidents did.
Obama started his library foundation in 2014 for an expected $500 million presidential center in Chicago, his adopted hometown, but groundbreaking isn’t expected until this year because of delays from federal reviews and litigation.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes a library with his records, a museum, the Bush policy institute and the offices of Bush’s foundation, opened on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas -- former first lady Laura Bush’s alma mater -- in 2013 after finalists for the site were announced in 2005.
The National Archives has already set up a Trump Presidential Library website with information about the former president and first lady Melania Trump, and holds the records of the Trump administration, which will start to become available in 2026 -- though Trump can restrict access for 12 years.
While Trump may want the imprimatur of a library run by the federal government, he’d likely follow Obama’s and Nixon’s early model of having the National Archives handle records separately from a museum that he can fully control, said Timothy Naftali, who served as the first director of the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum after it became part of the federal system and created a new, nonpartisan Watergate gallery.
If Trump built a private library or tourist attraction for his supporters, that would allow him to depict his presidency -- including his unprecedented two impeachments -- the way he wants and not necessarily how historians would, Naftali said.
That could mean, he said, exhibits that promote his view that Democrats tried to overturn the 2016 election with an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller based on the “hoax” that Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians, and his account of how the Trump administration handled the coronavirus pandemic.
“His museum will have the same spirit as the private Nixon library’s museum,” said Naftali, now a presidential scholar and a clinical associate professor at New York University. “His tweets could be used as the banners for various galleries in the museum. It’ll be a center of Trumpism.”
With the delay, Trump is not only letting others write the history of his presidency, he’s giving up one opportunity to deploy his wildly successful fund-raising skills. Trump and his affiliated committees have raised more than $2.3 billion since he began his presidential campaign in 2015.
He told supporters before he left office in January that he wanted to raise $2 billion for a presidential library, according to the Washington Post, which would be the most ever. The most likely vehicle would be a nonprofit charity, the model used by modern presidents, because donations are tax deductible and the entity doesn’t have to pay tax on the money it raises, said Paul Seamus Ryan of the government-accountability group Common Cause.
He could legally accept money in unlimited amounts from sources including foreign countries, and disclosure of the donors’ identities isn’t required except by registered lobbyists who give $200 or more.
‘No Problems Raising Money’
Yet such a charity requires that expenditures are used for the public good and not for private benefit of individuals, Ryan said, and Trump has faced questions before about his use of charity funds.
Trump agreed to pay $2 million in damages and shut down the Donald J. Trump Foundation in New York as part of a settlement in 2019 after allegations that he violated state rules governing nonprofits by spending money improperly, including buying a portrait of himself at a charity auction.
The former president’s political committees also raised more than $225 million after the 2020 election by telling supporters the money was needed to “stop the steal” through court fights. But his campaign disclosed spending just $8.8 million on legal expenses for recounts and court challenges, with most of the money still available to Trump for political activities as he ponders his next moves.
Still, a former Nixon library official says that shouldn’t stop Trump from raising money for it.
“Donald Trump proved in 2020 that he had no problems raising money, and he now has four years, if he wants to, to just dangle that prospect of a return to power in front of potential donors,” said Paul Musgrave, a former special assistant to the director at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.
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