Imagine, for a moment, the end of Donald Trump’s presidency.
How you imagine Trump’s presidency ending depends, of course, on how you feel about Trump. If you’re one of the 40.2 percent of Americans who approve of the job he’s doing — and likely want him to keep doing it for as long as possible — you might envision him routing, say, Elizabeth Warren in 2020 and sticking it to the establishment for a whole second term.
If you’re among the 54.9 percent of Americans who disapprove of Trump’s performance, on the other hand, you probably don’t imagine him getting that far. The realists among you might picture some Democrat delivering the fatal blow two Novembers from now; the optimists might fantasize about special counsel Robert Mueller taking care of business sooner, with impeachment, resignation and/or indictment to follow.
Either way, when you imagine the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, you imagine the Era of Trump — Trump in every news alert; Trump in every cable chyron; Trump in everyone’s head, 24/7 — coming to an end as well.
The problem with this, however, is that it presumes Trump will behave like a normal ex-president.
“Once he leaves office, Trump will not feel bound by any protocols or any rules,” predicts former Trump campaign adviser Sam Nunberg. “And he will want to remain relevant.”
As clues mount that Mueller’s multiyear investigation will conclude in the coming weeks, and as the 2020 campaign finally gets underway, now is as good a time as any to start preparing for Trump’s post-presidency, which will be unlike any that’s come before.
Much has been made about how Trump has “disrupted” the office he currently holds, and he has. Still, the modern presidency is a political role, and, like his predecessors, Trump has been a political animal. He’s staked out his positions, battled his opponents and used his bully pulpit to try to get his way.
Yet the post-presidency is the opposite. It’s a fundamentally apolitical institution. You rise, for the most part, above the fray. You refrain from attacking your successors. And you transform, largely out of sight and out of mind, into a respectable elder statesman, emerging only to promote your benign memoir, to cut the ribbon on your tasteful library, to champion a few uncontroversial issues here and there, and to join hands with your fellow ex-presidents at times of disaster and tragedy. The job is about decorum — not disruption.
As such, it’s almost a comically poor fit for Trump, who couldn’t be decorous if he tried. “You know … how easy it is to be ‘presidential?’” he told supporters last March, mocking the very idea of Oval Office propriety. “You’d all be out of here right now. You’d be so bored.”
And so, according to presidential historians, Trump biographers and former Trump associates, he won’t even bother, choosing instead to do the post-presidency his way.
“When you have a president who resembles previous presidents in almost no way that I can think of, it’s hard for me to imagine him as an ex-president who is going to resemble other ex-presidents in any way I can think of,” says former Time editor in chief Nancy Gibbs, co-author of “The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity.”
So, what exactly can we expect from ex-President Trump?
A total lack of rhetorical restraint, for one thing. Remember how Barack Obama, emulating George W. Bush before him, resisted uttering Trump’s name for nearly a year after vacating the White House? And remember how big a deal it was — what a break with past practice — when he finally came out swinging in the run-up to the 2018 midterms? Trump won’t wait a year. He won’t even wait a day.
“Trump has spent his whole life and career putting himself in the spotlight,” says Mark Updegrove, president and CEO of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation and author of “Second Acts: Presidential Lives and Legacies After the White House.” “So there’s no question that the gloves will remain off for him as it relates to his own successors. He will not observe the protocol among former presidents to be above partisan politics and self-interest, in the interest of the country.”
Trump biographer Harry Hurt, author of “Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump,” agrees, contrasting Trump’s likely approach to that of Richard Nixon, who left office in disgrace — a possibility for Trump as well — but rehabilitated his image through decades of freelance diplomacy and studious foreign-policy work.
“Nixon had, in a way, the good sense to accept defeat and shut up,” says Hurt. “Is Donald Trump ever going to shut up? Never. As long as there is Twitter, he’s not going to go gentle into that good night. Publicity is his heroin. So you will hear a deluge of Monday morning quarterbacking, regardless of whether he’s succeeded by a Republican or Democrat. ‘President X did this, but I wouldn’t have done that. If you listened to me, we wouldn’t have this problem.’ Or of any success that said president might enjoy: ‘That was because I laid the foundation. That’s all a result of my work.’”
Such sniping, in turn, will do little to endear him to his fellow presidents — another unusual development. As Gibbs details in her book, the modern post-presidency was essentially invented by Herbert Hoover, who, like Nixon — and again, possibly like Trump — left office “the most hated man in Washington.” Recognizing Hoover’s bureaucratic expertise, Harry Truman defied his staff and first tapped the former president to oversee a massive humanitarian effort in post-World War II Europe, then turned to him again to help restructure a federal government that had ballooned to 10 times its pre-Depression size.
“That’s really the start of the President’s Club — of ex-presidents thinking about how they can use their power, their stature, their Rolodex, in order to continue to make a difference and do good, and of current presidents thinking about how they can use their predecessors,” Gibbs explains. “And so you had Eisenhower ending up a pretty helpful counselor to Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs and through the Cuban missile crisis. You had Johnson calling Eisenhower so much that at one point he said to him, ‘You’re the best chief of staff I’ve got.’ You had Nixon writing Reagan a secret letter about how to set up his White House staff and his national-security structure, because Reagan hadn’t spent his life in Washington. You had Clinton calling Nixon late at night to talk about Russia or China. And you had Bush 41 sending Jimmy Carter to Nicaragua on a delicate diplomatic mission, and Clinton sending him to North Korea.
“It’s never a matter of popularity,” Gibbs concludes. “It’s a matter of their value.”
What value Trump might have to the presidents who succeed him remains to be seen. But if past is prologue, they may never even attempt to find out. According to Updegrove, George H.W. Bush once called Trump “a blowhard,” saying flatly, “I don’t like him,” while George W. Bush has lamented that Trump “doesn’t know what it means to be president.” Obama, Clinton and Carter — all objects of Trump’s derision and ridicule — undoubtedly feel the same way.
Look no further than H.W.’s recent funeral for a preview of things to come. Only Trump’s wife, Melania, shook hands with Bill Clinton; Hillary Clinton stared straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge the Trumps’ presence. When greeting the day’s “distinguished guests” from the dais, George W. Bush referred, discreetly but pointedly, to “our presidents,” avoiding the traditional roll call that would have required him to utter the phrase “President Trump.” A few months earlier, at the funeral of Sen. John McCain, both Obama and Bush delivered eulogies; Trump was not invited.
And so “whether the next president ever has occasion to call on Trump, or whether any of the other former presidents would ever see a reason to reach out and enlist him in any cause that they were pursuing, seems less likely than in the past,” Gibbs explains. “I’m not sure anyone expects for there to be a sudden warming of those relations.”
For his part, Trump may not care about being a member in good standing of the Presidents Club. But there are other rituals of the post-presidency that will likely strike his fancy. According to Nunberg, Trump is almost certain to write a memoir — or rather, hire a ghostwriter to pen it for him, as he has done in the past.
Why? “Because he’ll make a lot of money from it,” Nunberg says.
Updegrove concurs. “I think it’s fair to say that there is no subject that interests Donald Trump more than Donald Trump,” he adds.
That self-regard — plus his background as a developer — is why Trump may also take a particular interest building his own presidential library. Updegrove, who previously served as director of LBJ’s library in Austin, Texas, predicts that Trump will follow Obama’s lead and opt out of the usual arrangement in which the National Archives and Records Administration runs a former president’s physical museum, choosing instead to administer his own private institution while either partnering with NARA on document digitization (like Obama) or avoiding government involvement altogether. The reason, says Updegrove drily, is that “the National Archives traditionally ensures some accuracy in the telling of a president’s story.”
“When the government is involved, you can’t come forward with some sort of partisan argument or erroneous fact to support the story that you’re telling in the museum,” he continues, noting that the Trump has made more than 7,000 false or misleading statements since becoming president. “My guess, then, is that Trump will opt out of that process solely so that he can control the narrative of the Trump presidency, as he has to this point.”
Updegrove also says that, given Trump’s predilection for “big,” “beautiful” and often gold-plated buildings with his own name on them, the appearance of the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library may reflect its “more self-aggrandizing” contents.
“This is going to be the Taj Mahal of presidential libraries,” he jokes. “Right on the boardwalk of Atlantic City.”
Presidential libraries are usually built in their namesake’s home state, but Trump might be an exception to that rule too. Last month, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, once billed as the charitable arm of the president’s financial empire, agreed to dissolve and give away all of its remaining assets under court supervision. This was in response to an investigation and lawsuit by the interim New York State attorney general, Barbara Underwood, who described the foundation as “functioning as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests” and of engaging in “a shocking pattern of illegality.” If it succeeds, Underwood’s lawsuit, which is being pursued by her successor, Letitia James, would bar Trump for 10 years from serving as “director, officer, or trustee of a not-for-profit organization incorporated in or authorized to conduct business in the State of New York” — meaning that Trump would either have to forgo any direct involvement in his own presidential library or move it to a different state.
And depending on how Trump leaves office, the library issue may not be the only legal complication he faces. Shielded from indictment by the office he occupies, Trump was nonetheless directly implicated, as “Individual-1,” in the campaign-finance violation for which his former consigliere Michael Cohen faces a three-year prison sentence. Prosecutors in the Southern District of New York might go after Trump after he leaves office too. In fact, Hurt believes that Trump will “be fighting major lawsuits for the rest of his life.”
“The litigation involving Trump and Trump entities is voluminous, and that’s not going to stop,” he says. “In fact, it is only going to increase because of revelations while he’s been in office — from the recent New York Times story about the systematic tax fraud perpetrated by Trump and his father over many, many years to these deals, yet to be uncovered, with the Russians and the Saudis. I would predict that these things are going to do nothing but mushroom and multiply. And Trump simply can’t stop cheating, so he’s just going to exacerbate his problems. It’ll be a big mess.”
Nunberg disagrees, arguing that Trump will “get past [his legal challenges] one way or the other.”
“He either survives them while he’s in office — or he’s removed from office,” Nunberg explains. “But I think it’s going to be done by the time he leaves.”
Regardless, it’s unlikely that Trump will depart the Oval Office with high levels of public support: A majority of Americans have disapproved of his job performance, beginning with the third week of his administration and continuing until now, a record of unpopularity unmatched since Gallup started tracking such things. The question then becomes, Can Trump — who, after failing in real estate, reinvented himself first as a marketer, then as a reality television star and finally as a politician — conjure up yet another act for himself? And if so, what will it be?
Not more politics, insists Nunberg. “When Trump was considering running, he used to joke, ‘OK, if I lose, I get it out of my system, and I’m done with politics,’” he recalls. “So I think he’ll be done. I think he hates this. He hates everyone. He’s not going to miss the game.”
And indeed, it’s difficult to picture Trump emerging as an activist ex-president in the Carter mold — or even advocating for particular issues the way Eisenhower did with the military, Nixon did with China and Russia, Clinton does with global health or Obama does with redistricting and race.
“Post-presidencies are often extended reflections of presidencies, so it’s hard to imagine that Trump is going to look to become something as a post-president that he never was as a president,” says Gibbs. “I’m more interested in whether he will be in a position to build or expand on his business in a way that leverages his presidency, given that’s why he seemed to want to run in the first place — as a brand-building exercise.”
“I think it’s fair to say Trump will be the anti-Harry Truman,” adds Updegrove. “Harry Truman left the presidency and went back to a very modest existence in Independence, Missouri. He refused, despite risking financial bankruptcy and embarrassment, to cash in on the presidency — regardless of the considerable financial needs he had at the time. In fact, Truman went so far as to not use a name-brand pen at book signings, so it didn’t imply an endorsement of that company.
“In contrast, I can certainly imagine Donald Trump exploiting the business opportunities available to a former president,” Updegrove continues. “And cashing in not only on the Trump name, but on the presidency, in order to successfully elevate his business.”
Both Updegrove and Gibbs wonder if Trump might one day launch a media company of some sort — perhaps the right-wing Trump TV cable network widely rumored to be his real endgame in 2016. Conveniently, such an endeavor wouldn’t require Trump to win over any new fans; he’d simply have to retain the loyalty of his sizeable and seemingly unshakeable base. “To give the devil his due, I would never underestimate Trump’s capacity for making a comeback,” says Hurt. “There always seems to be about 30 percent of the American public that’s receptive to whatever he says or does.”
Nunberg, however, is skeptical of the TV idea: “Actually, I more see him becoming the owner of a sports team — maybe football. That’s something he’s always wanted to do. (Trump tried multiple times to buy into the NFL.)
Whatever Trump chooses to do with his remaining days, Nunberg is sure of one thing: We won’t be able to ignore him, as much as some of us might want to.
“It will be big,” Nunberg gushes. “And it will be out of left field.”
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