Things would seem to be moving toward establishing a Trump library. On Jan. 20, the day he left office, the National Archives launched the Donald J. Trump Presidential Library website. Already, there are rumors that the former president is engaged with the idea of creating some kind of presidential center, perhaps run by longtime aide Dan Scavino, with a price tag as high as $2 billion. Even before Trump left office, a sophisticated parody site, djtrumplibrary.com, began attracting admirers for its sharp architectural and design satire on what has become the norm in presidential centers. But it also deftly skewered the larger scam that has become attached to the presidency: the use of presidential libraries and museums to entrench perpetual fundraising and hagiography as a permanent part of every post-presidential career.
None of this, however, means that Trump could actually create a presidential center similar to the one planned for former president Barack Obama, or those dedicated to former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. As Anthony Clark, author of “The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity & Enshrine Their Legacies,” wrote recently in Politico, it is unlikely that Trump has the focus, administrative savvy and financial resources to execute a presidential center: “Presidential libraries are complicated. And if you understand how they work — and how Trump himself works — it’s nearly impossible to imagine him actually pulling it off,” Clark writes.
But that doesn’t mean that Trump won’t try and that, in trying, cause further damage to the country. That is why Congress should use this moment to reconsider the legislation that helped create and shape the presidential libraries now administered by the National Archives, not just to prevent Trump from perpetrating one last, giant grift, but to reform the system so it serves the country better. This is long overdue, and would need to be done even if Trump weren’t trying to raise $2 billion for a Trump center. But his intention to do so makes this urgent, even an issue of national security.
Before Franklin D. Roosevelt decided to donate his presidential papers to the federal government in 1939, the documents and paperwork generated by a president usually were considered the outgoing leader’s personal property. Roosevelt recognized an interest in giving the public access to this material. The 1955 Presidential Libraries Act formalized the process, encouraging presidents to donate their papers, as well as land and a building to house them, which the National Archives would officially maintain. Over the next decades, these privately created, federally administered libraries became increasingly complex, serving as museums, think tanks and shrines, with presidents allowed considerable — often far too much — control over what records were considered presidential and when the public could access them.
Individual presidents used executive orders to make changes, the law was amended and former presidents were required to donate more and more resources to maintaining the federally operated part of these facilities. Finally, in 2017, faced with the possibility of having to donate 60 percent of the total cost of an Obama presidential center to the federal government to cover running the library part of the project, the 44th president opted out of the system almost entirely. When the Obama center opens in Chicago, no official presidential library will be part of the complex, which will be privately built and operated. Obama’s presidential records, the vast bulk of them digital rather than paper, will have to be accessed elsewhere, although the Archives will loan material to the Obama center for exhibitions.
Ordinarily, presidential records can’t be accessed for five, and up to 12, years after a chief executive leaves office. And before leaving office, a president has significant leverage over what the public eventually can see, which documents are delivered to the Archives, which are considered public and which are private, and to weigh in on other matters, including security and the national interest.
The case of Trump is exceptional by any standard, and he should be afforded no discretion over his records or any privilege to extend the amount of time before the public can see them. Trump’s 2017 requirement that the National Archives withhold access to his materials until 2033 should be abrogated, and Congress should begin an extraordinary effort to recover as much of his communications legacy as possible, even material that wasn’t deemed “presidential.” Trump’s presidency mixed public and private interests in a way that was unprecedented in modern American history, so his decisions on these matters can’t be trusted. He incited an insurrection, and many of the people who may have participated in that, including members of Congress, are still actively engaged in public life. The need to know who they are and what they did isn’t just a matter for the FBI, the Justice Department and prosecutors.
As Clark points out, Congress has intervened before in an exceptional presidential records case. A little more than four months after Richard Nixon was forced from office in disgrace, President Gerald Ford signed the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, which gave the government direct custody over Nixon’s records to prevent their destruction. It wasn’t just that Congress didn’t trust Nixon, it also felt “the need to provide the public with the full truth, at the earliest reasonable date, of the abuses of governmental power popularly identified under the generic term ‘Watergate,’ ” according to the law’s text.
It is imperative to the nation’s future that we know how and why authoritarianism became so deeply and pervasively rooted in the Trump administration. Historians, journalists and biographers need immediate access to this material (with the minimal oversight necessary by professional, nonpartisan archivists) to help educate the American public on the greatest threat to the republic since the Civil War.
Nixon was interested, primarily, in keeping the full extent of his criminal and disreputable behavior from becoming public, although he eventually did succeed in creating a Nixon library. The danger of Trump using a presidential library to burnish his image is far more serious, with the ex-president and his surrogates still promoting the idea that his electoral loss was somehow fraudulent. That creates an ongoing uncertainty in American public life, which Trump and even more unscrupulous actors will use to further division, inflame tension, exacerbate racism and delegitimize the American democratic system.
So even a privately funded and operated Trump presidential library, which would be devoted to whitewashing his record and rewriting history, is a terrible and even dangerous idea. Further, given Trump’s alleged misuse of charitable funds, including self-dealing, waste and other illegal activities, at his now dissolved New York-based foundation, any intention to start another public entity can only be considered a crime scene waiting to happen.
If it unfortunately does happen, it probably will be in Florida, where state Attorney General Ashley Moody is one of Trump’s top surrogates and a prominent supporter of his false claims of election fraud. So, on this matter, Americans cannot trust the rule of law in Florida, but they can put pressure on corporate and other entities not to donate to any group associated with any effort to build a Trump presidential center. And the FBI can keep a close watch on any national group created to solicit funding for such an endeavor.
Finally, Congress can improve American record-keeping and preservation by forbidding future presidents from raising money for presidential centers while still in office. Access to presidential records is also expensive and time consuming — even digital documents, the quantity of which has grown exponentially since most communications became electronic, need to be sorted, surveyed and labeled, a process that is laborious. Rachel Vagts, president of the Society of American Archivists, points out that the most urgent need, right now, is better funding for the National Archives, and a better culture of compliance with laws governing record-keeping.
Trump reportedly flouted those laws on a regular basis, tearing up and discarding even paper documents. The extent to which he and his administration destroyed records and communicated outside of federal systems is unknown, which is why he and his people should be cut out of the process of preserving those documents. And Americans should shame anyone — including architecture firms, exhibit designers and corporate donors — who helps Trump perpetuate the lies that nearly destroyed our 244-year-old effort to create a democratically governed republic.