The federal presidential library system traces its origins to Franklin Roosevelt's 1941 establishment of a library to make his records more accessible in the interests of transparency. But lack of funding and weak oversight by the National Archives and Records Administration mean that, without significant changes in the law, Trump will have a perfect pedestal where he can erect a shrine to himself. His records won't be available in full until after he dies; he'll be able to raise millions to award sinecures to his aides as they tout his supposed successes at "making America great again"; there is no mandate to pursue historical accuracy; he can whitewash his legacy. This will be the headquarters for Trump's permanent post-presidential campaign.
And while Trump's presidency was distinguished by constant departures from norms, the library is one place where all presidents are consistent. Following a trail blazed most successfully by Richard Nixon, turning his presidential library into an image-making prop will be among the most normal things Trump ever does.
For most of American history, presidents' official papers were considered to be their private property. When they left office, they took their records with them. This practice ran obvious risks. Some records succumbed to neglect. George Washington's nephew Bushrod regretted that the president's papers had been "excessively mutilated by Rats." Others met more dramatic fates, as when many of the papers of Southern presidents John Tyler and Zachary Taylor were destroyed when their family homes were looted by Union troops during the Civil War. And still others were disposed of by image-minded presidents who worried that history would be unkind to them, as with the papers of Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge .
The papers' value enticed some heirs to profit from them. George Washington's heir sold the first president's records back to the government for $25,000 (more than $600,000 today) in the 1830s. An octogenarian — and impoverished — Dolley Madison sold many of the papers of her husband, President James Madison, to Congress for the same amount in 1848.
But Roosevelt recognized that historians could not reach useful judgments about the past with only partial access to it. He created the first modern presidential library by giving the federal government his papers — along with his books, his model ship collection and a complex built with $400,000 ($7.2 million today) in private donations. The move recast expectations that later presidents would treat their records as a part of their civic responsibility, the law professor Jonathan Turley has argued . Future presidents followed FDR's example by raising funds to build libraries and deeding their papers to the National Archives, a framework codified in the Presidential Libraries Act of 1955. And because presidents could, if they chose, attach conditions on when some materials would be released, they retained a measure of control over their image. The Kennedy family, for instance, reportedly slowed access to the president's taped conversations.
This cozy arrangement was never quite as altruistic as advertised. But it set expectations that lasted until Nixon undermined confidence that presidents could be entrusted with their materials. After resigning to avoid impeachment in the Watergate scandal, Nixon demanded custody of his presidential records — including the infamous Oval Office tapes, many hundreds of hours of which had not yet been made public and which Nixon could have destroyed at will. After all, they belonged to him.
In response, Congress passed a tough law , the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act, in 1974; it applied only to Nixon and seized control of his papers. Congress later codified the new understanding in the Presidential Records Act (PRA), which applied to presidents from Ronald Reagan onward and formalized the concept of presidential libraries as repositories of records that belonged to the public.
But in doing so, Congress unintentionally legitimized all the precedents that Nixon hadn't broken. And over time, those precedents would render FDR's vision all but forgotten, ripe for exploitation by someone like Trump who has no use for norms. Ironically, it was Nixon who ended up proving that a "presidential library" didn't really need records to be part of a rehabilitation effort. In 1990, Nixon opened an entirely private library at his birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif. Unlike the other presidential libraries, this one was not intended to hold official papers, because the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act specifically forbade Nixon's materials from leaving the D.C. area.
In other words, the "library" Nixon built for himself wasn't a library at all. It was a redoubt from which he could oversee the last act of his campaign to restore his image as a statesman. That project's apogee came during the former president's funeral at the library in 1994, when President Bill Clinton delivered a cloying eulogy that bade farewell to the deceased "on behalf of a grateful nation." Trump could hardly find a better model for how to use a post-presidential complex as a legacy-enhancing project.
Nor, it turned out, did the Nixon library's ability to tell its story rely on being private. After Nixon's death, his family and foundation sought to remove the asterisk from their private library by having it become part of the federal system, including a lobbying effort to have the law changed to enable Nixon's records to be transferred to Yorba Linda. But the National Archives didn't want the materials going to an institution that wouldn't respect the standards of history and historical record-keeping.
I was in my first real job, working for the National Archives' Nixon team in 2006, so I saw the negotiations over accepting a private library into the federal system firsthand. The government-appointed director — my boss, the historian Timothy Naftali — insisted that any federal institution would have to put history first. That included installing a new Watergate exhibit to replace the original one, which described the scandal as a "coup" launched by Nixon's rivals.
The foundation ultimately conceded, and the records moved to Yorba Linda in 2007. A new, honest Watergate exhibit was installed. And, for a time, the federal Nixon library showed that the National Archives could design and maintain a presidential library that lived up to a high standard, even when there was substantial political pressure to treat Nixon like any other president — one who should be allowed to tell his own story.
To be sure, other libraries have since showed similar glimmers of what such a system could look like, such as the FDR library's recent exhibit on Roosevelt's internment of Japanese Americans. But the Nixon library was supposed to be the test case: If the National Archives couldn't tell the ugly story of a dirty president from whom Congress had seized the records of his "abuses of governmental power" (as the Presidential Recordings and Materials Preservation Act terms his wrongdoing), then critics who claimed that libraries were just propaganda fronts would be vindicated.
The arc of presidential libraries bends toward loyalty, not truth. After Naftali left, the Nixon foundation blocked his replacement, because it disagreed with the nominee's critical views about the Vietnam War. After a years-long impasse, a new director was named — a fine officeholder but one with no historical expertise who has described Nixon as "a good man who accomplished many things." Even a fully federal institution cannot be relied upon to give a nonpartisan account of history to the public — a precedent Trump's acolytes are surely watching.
If even Nixon can become normal through the presidential library system, then it's unlikely that the system will do anything but embrace Trump and let him tell the story he wants to tell — if he chooses to have a federal library at all.
The Obama Presidential Center's website bills the not-yet-completed facility as a "world-class museum and public gathering space." But it will not be a presidential library, because it will not host any presidential records. Thus freed from federal oversight, it will be able to tell the story that Obama chooses — just as Nixon's private library did. The former president's records will be made available instead through the "Barack Obama Presidential Library" run by the National Archives that will be available only online. (Many of the records are already digital.)
There are reasons to regret splitting the records from the presidential center. Obama's precedent gives a green light to a Trump center that could be entirely private and free from pressure to ever tame itself even temporarily, as Nixon's library eventually did. Either way, the road is clear for Trump to raise tremendous sums to burnish his reputation. George W. Bush's foundation has more than $400 million in assets ; Trump could probably raise even more from deep-pocketed supporters, small-dollar donors and even foreign governments. (In early 2019, Trump's future chief of staff, then a congressman, strongly endorsed the Presidential Library Donation Reform Act, which passed the House but didn't become law, on the grounds that it would provide transparency in a system vulnerable to abuse .)
With a big war chest, the hallowed "permanent campaign" of the modern presidency could achieve its final form in a foundation dedicated to burnishing Trump's record. Such a foundation could easily generate enough revenue to support endless functions at Trump resorts, hotels and Mar-a-Lago. It could even prove a launchpad for political careers for the next generation of Trumps — or, given that the president would still be in his 70s, for Trump to pull a Grover Cleveland-esque comeback himself.
There are other problems facing the presidential library system. A culture of accommodating presidential interests rather than insisting on nonpartisanship is one (as a small agency, the National Archives lacks the clout to stand up to former presidents or their families' pressures on Capitol Hill). Stagnant budgets and atrocious agency morale are others.
The cost to the public's understanding of history is real, not least because it now takes decades to fully process and release contemporary presidential records. A 2019 National Archives memorandum reported that the George W. Bush library had a backlog of 158 million pages and could process only 650,000 pages per year (a theoretical holdup of more than 240 years). And since presidents can restrict access to their most sensitive materials for up to 12 years , there's a good chance that no substantial records will come out during Trump's lifetime.
These issues could be fixed. Congress and a new president could boost funding for the National Archives to speed records processing. The PRA could be amended to extend, for Trump, the protections and priorities applied to Nixon's papers. And a new president could stand behind a National Archives that insists on historical integrity as the first and only goal for not only presidential materials but the museums in presidential sites as well.
But it seems at least as likely that none of this will happen. Hardly anyone except some academics and scattered reformers seems bothered by how the presidential library system has devolved over the past seven decades. If Trump figures out yet another way to turn some aspect of the presidency to his personal advantage, well, that's not a deviation — it would be, to paraphrase the president, just modern-day ex-presidential.