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For anyone at all disturbed by the alternate universe President Donald Trump has pushed as reality over the past four years, a nagging aggravation may be that one day this man will have a presidential library, just like the 13 most recent presidents to come before him.
Trump White House
The ultimate honor for a former leader is a temple to his leadership, all the better if it is ultimately subsidized by taxpayers. It’s a complete certainty that any library that could possibly meet Trump’s standards of bombastic self-aggrandizement would trample over anything an objective observer could certify as verifiable fact.
Consider: Would Trump mention the pandemic? His first impeachment? His second impeachment? Would the insurrection he inspired at the US Capitol be portrayed as revolution?
We don’t know the answers to those questions yet. But one thing we know is that presidential libraries are not, under law, taxpayer-funded parting gifts for presidential egos, but rather repositories for their records, which must be conceived and built with private funds. Another is that Trump is heading to Florida to begin his post-presidential life, hoping to raise $2 billion, according to The Washington Post, while the country comes to terms with how to remember and learn from his divisive presidency.
Will he build Trump World?
“A former president can open a shrine if they wish,” said Timothy Naftali, the former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.
That’s essentially what Nixon and his supporters did when they raised money in the years after his resignation to build the Nixon center, he added.
“Donald Trump certainly has the right to build a Trump World if they want,” Naftali said. “The question is whether it becomes a federal archival facility and has the stamp of professionalism from the National Archives and Records administration? That’s the issue.”
Naftali was the first director of the Nixon library after it was taken over by the National Archives, and his first order of business was to put in an objective look at Watergate – which when the library was run by Nixon supporters had been treated not as the scandal that ended his presidency but as a sort of Democratic conspiracy.
He thinks Congress should consider passing a law, as it did with Nixon, to segregate artifacts and papers from Trump’s administration, which under federal law belong to the country, and treat them differently than they have for other presidents.
“What I’m worried about is that they would go to a facility that will have as its mission the continuation of the disinformation campaign that characterized much of the Trump years,” Naftali said. “I think it would be harmful to the country for a National Archives-administered library to be seen even tacitly as participating in the divisive, and as we saw on January 6th, deadly, misinformation of the Trump world.”
Are presidents guaranteed presidential libraries?
Not exactly, although every president since Herbert Hoover has a library in his name that is run by the National Archives and Records Administration. But it is not a guaranteed thing.
The legislation that allows for libraries has been changed over the years since it first passed into law in 1955 after Franklin D. Roosevelt established the first presidential library, using private funds, and then gave it to the National Archives. The legislation was amended in 1986 to cut down on costs, according to the National Archives.
Quiz: Without looking, name the 15 presidents from Hoover to Trump.*
Do taxpayers pay for these libraries?
The legislation requires private funds to set up a presidential library, which can then ultimately be run by the Archives, through the Office of Presidential Libraries.
But the concept and execution of the library must come from private sources before it is taken over by the government.
How do these libraries come to be?
Some recent presidents have worked alongside the National Archives as they were using private funds to build their libraries, so that their operation could be taken over relatively quickly after they were completed, according to Anthony Clark, a former congressional staffer who wrote a book critical of the need for presidential libraries called “The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies.”
He pointed out that Congress can technically object to the National Archives taking a role in a presidential library, but since the 1950s it has not had to take an affirmative vote to approve one.
“Right now, under the law, there’s nothing technically prohibiting the National Archives from starting to plan with whatever organization the Trump family creates, like a Trump Foundation, towards the eventual opening of that building.” He added: “There’s nothing in the law that says there’s anything needs to be balanced, that any kind of historical analysis has to be done.”
There are also examples of honest and powerful exhibits at presidential libraries, according to Clark, who has written approvingly about the way former President Gerald Ford wanted the end of the Vietnam War is portrayed at his library.
What’s at a presidential library?
These libraries, while they have museum-like exhibits, also usually house the records from a president’s administration. Think of the volume of paperwork a presidential administration generates. They’re troves for researchers and historians. Read here about the value of presidential papers to presidents.
They’ve gotten more and more ornate. Ronald Reagan’s library, for instance, features an Air Force One plane resting on pylons. It’s become a popular destination site for presidential debates during Republican primaries.
What’s the new model for presidential libraries?
President Barack Obama, for instance, has ceded any control of his records to the National Archives, which has created an online-only Obama presidential library.
Instead, the Obama Foundation is building, with private money, a massive Obama Center in Chicago. That’s a private venture, although he got a sweetheart deal on the South Side space from the city and it will include a new branch of the Chicago Public Library. It may borrow artifacts from the National Archives, but that site will not be an official presidential library.
It’s been a difficult process for the former president to find a space and get started on the museum, something twice-impeached Trump might find even more difficult. Four years after Obama left office, no ground has been broken. But the spec pics look really nice.
Who usually gives money for these things?
Obama’s foundation has raised many millions of dollars and lists some of the larger givers on its website. Corporations like CNN’s owner, AT&T, Microsoft and Boeing, billionaires like Marc Benioff, charitable foundations and more have all given more than a million dollars.
Who would give to a Trump library?
Fundraising could be a huge issue for Trump, who has been ostracized by corporate America. The Washington Post reported Monday that he hopes to raise $2 billion from small-dollar donors to build a library, but that is a LOT of small-dollar donations.
CNN’s White House team has reported that before Trump’s speech inspired rioters to storm Capitol Hill there “had been talk of securing property in Florida and having Dan Scavino, his longtime aide, run it. But now there are questions about who would donate to Trump’s library in the current climate.”
On the other hand, this is a man who has built or rebranded numerous buildings and golf courses in his image during a long career in real estate. The question is not whether he will find a way to commemorate his time in office. It’s whether the US government will play a part.
Quiz answer: The last 15 presidents
Hoover, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump. And, starting Wednesday, Biden.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated how the Air Force One at the Reagan Library is secured. It rests on pylons.