The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is losing the war over his legacy

In this Oct. 5 photo, Donald Trump gives a thumbs up as he returns to the White House after leaving Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

On Sunday evening, CNN aired a special featuring interviews with the senior officials involved in the early coronavirus pandemic response under president Donald Trump. No longer operating under the Trump political umbrella, they offered assessments of the past year that lacked any soothing veneer.

Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House response under Trump, expressed her belief that the deaths that occurred after the first wave of infections last spring were largely preventable. It’s a sentiment that matches recent research but was at odds with the sanitization practices of the Trump White House to which Birx had so often adhered. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s top epidemiologist, suggested it was government experts, not Trump, who had decided to push forward quickly on a vaccine to combat the virus in January 2020. That was months before the administration rolled out Operation Warp Speed, its push for vaccine development.

The former president got his say this weekend, too. He spoke for several minutes on Saturday night, excoriating the administration of President Biden in defense of his own.

The venue? A wedding at his private club in Florida.

It is always the case that presidents want to shape their legacies. No president wants to be Warren G. Harding, pilloried by history when he's remembered at all. Much better to be a Franklin D. Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan, legacies sitting on real foundations that have been carefully tended over time. One has to assume that for Trump, always so keenly attuned to public perceptions of him, the drive to be remembered in a specific light is even stronger.

Yet Trump is perhaps uniquely poorly positioned to frame his own legacy.

Most modern presidents, even controversial ones like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, have at least enough institutional legitimacy to be seen as reliable interlocutors about their own tenures. One can envision either of them or Barack Obama sitting down alongside a panel of historians at an event hosted by a prominent university, discussing presidential decision-making and its ramifications in good faith. It's quite difficult to imagine Trump doing the same thing, as difficult as it is to imagine his sitting down with someone like NBC News's Lester Holt and offering his honest assessment of his own missteps.

Trump spent all of his political capital on trying to stay president, first by constantly misleading the public and, after the 2020 election, by stoking the dishonest claim that his second term had been stolen. Since the moment the U.S. Capitol was first breached on Jan. 6, an event far beyond any acceptable political activity, Trump has repeatedly tried to excuse those who participated — Trump supporters all. Speaking to Fox News’s Laura Ingraham last week, he ridiculously claimed that those who had beaten law enforcement officers and broken windows in a last-ditch attempt to overturn the election results had, in fact, simply been “hugging and kissing the police and the guards” in the facility.

The Post’s Rosalind Helderman explains the lawsuits against former president Donald Trump and his allies for trying to change election results. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post, Photo: Photo: AP/The Washington Post)

Fox News is one of Trump’s few outlets for speaking to the public at this point. The network, eager to win back the portion of its Trump-positive audience that peeled away after it had the gall to recognize that he had lost, is happy to have Trump exclusives, and its hosts have little inclination to push back on the former president’s obvious falsehoods — which suits Trump just fine. Trump no longer has his Twitter or Facebook accounts, seeing them stripped away in the wake of Jan. 6. He lamented the loss of that audience in his interview with Ingraham but tried to put a positive spin on it.

“So I put out statements now ‘from the office of’ and the statements are picked up by everybody,” he said, referring to tweet-esque news releases that his team occasionally puts out. “I mean, it actually works better.”

Of course it doesn’t. The visibility of those statements relies specifically on their being “picked up” by the media, meaning the media has an opportunity to note when their contents deviate from reality. This was the entire reason Trump used to celebrate his Twitter account: It reduced the intermediary role of the press. Now, he relies on the media to propagate what he has to say. The right-wing media will do so uncritically, but no one in that universe has the audience that Trump did, nor are they reaching those who might be persuaded on Trump’s legacy.

Trump has floated the idea of building his own social media network, which would certainly help boost his connection to his base, if not reshape how the world views his presidency. (In fact, it would probably just cement those perceptions.) He could write a book, if he could find a publisher willing to weather the outcry, but there’s no reason to think it would be anything other than a hagiographic rehash of “The Art of the Deal.”

Perhaps recognizing the position he’s in, Trump has reportedly agreed to speak with a dozen journalists working on books about his administration. But, again, the results are largely dependent on his own willingness to be self-reflective — and largely out of his control.

There’s another risk for any effort to shape Trump’s legacy that the CNN interviews with the health officials makes obvious. We’re only about two months past the end of his term in office, and efforts to understand what happened within his administration are still just beginning. Last week, The Washington Post reported that at least nine oversight probes had been hindered during Trump’s time in office, some of which will be completed or released in coming months. The ability of Trump loyalists to keep sketchy activity or faulty decisions out of view largely collapsed on Jan. 20 and the Biden administration will probably have little reason to be generous in keeping them hidden.

Trump's legacy is already rocky, to put it mildly — and we don't yet have a full picture of his presidency.

Don't cry for Trump, gentle reader. He still has a robust institutional defense system in place, from Fox News to various right-wing media figures who are eager to at least solidify how he's viewed by his long-standing political base. On Monday morning, Fox announced a new paid contributor to the channel: Trump's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump.

“Welcome to the family,” “Fox & Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt said to Lara Trump when announcing her new role.

“I sort of feel like I’ve been an unofficial member of the team for so long,” Lara Trump replied, capturing the state of affairs quite accurately.

The problem for Trump is that his family — even his extended family in conservative media — will probably not be who is etching his presidency in the history books.