Should Trump be entrusted with a presidential library? And if so, who should be in charge of telling the story of the Trump presidency?
“I think the risk that he would use that kind of institution to perpetuate lies and untruths is so harmful to our democracy,” said Anne Weismann, who litigated Freedom of Information Act and presidential records laws for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It is too great of a risk.”
Weismann was one of several presidential records experts who spoke about Trump’s record-keeping practices and a presidential library as part of a panel discussion organized by Open the Government last month as part of Sunshine Week.
Trump supporters in Palm Beach County bristled at the suggestion.
“To say he should be disqualified because you think he doesn’t spread accurate information? Who are you to judge?” said Peter Feaman, the national committeeman for GOP in Florida. “Guess what, this is America and this is his absolute right and historical imperative to put together a presidential library.”
Philip Kennicott, the Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic who moderated the panel on a Trump presidential library, also raised questions about the former president’s records and papers.
In a Jan. 28 article, Kennicott argued that Trump not does not deserve a presidential library, but that Congress should strip him of a courtesy that allows presidents to ask that their records be withheld from the public for 12 years. As of now, Trump’s records will not be made public until 2033.
“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,” Kennicott wrote. “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,” Kennicott wrote.
Concerns about Trump’s record-keeping practices were raised in January 2018 when news surfaced that a team of federal employees equipped with rolls of clear tape had been tasked with taping back together pieces of documents that Trump had torn up.
The Palm Beach Post subsequently reported that Trump also tore up or destroyed documents while at his Mar-a-Lago club.
Trump supporters say it is not fair to write off a presidential library for Trump based on critics’ assumptions that Trump may have violated the Presidential Records Act or might use a library as a tool to disseminate disinformation.
Michael Barnett, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, agreed and wondered why Kennicott would make the argument against Trump having a library, especially since the library is built using private donations.
“He was the president and he is entitled to have a library,” Barnett said. “I don’t know where (Kennicott) gets off saying he shouldn’t have a library. I don’t even want to dignify that childish remark.”
Presidential libraries are built with private donations
Tax dollars are not used to build presidential libraries. Instead, the libraries are built with private donations made to non-profit organizations established for the sole purpose of building a library and supporting its programs.
The library is then transferred to the federal government and operated and maintained by the National Records and Archives Administration, an independent government agency. The private group that builds the library must also make an endowment of 60 percent of the overall cost of the facility to NARA for future costs to maintain the facility.
The Washington Post reported in January that two people familiar with internal discussions about the library said it would likely be located in Florida and run by Dan Scavino, one of Trump’s longest-serving and most loyal aides.
One of those sources, who was a top fundraiser on Trump’s campaign, said the former president has told supporters he wants to raise $2 billion for the library — a far greater sum than has been raised for past presidential libraries — and thinks he can collect it in small-dollar donations from his grassroots supporters, according to the Washington Post report.
Anthony Clark, a writer and former House Oversight Committee staffer, said during the Open the Government panel discussion that building a presidential library can cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Clark doubts Trump could raise the money or handle the complexities of building the library and partnering with NARA to run it.
“It is especially complex with a lot of responsibilities and regulations involved and doesn’t describe anything Trump has done in his life,” said Clark.
How would Trump administration be portrayed in museum exhibits?
A second impeachment trial. A once-in-a-century pandemic. A baseless post-election challenge. And that’s just one year of the Trump presidency, which concluded at noon on Jan. 20 at Mar-a-Lago. That itself broke a more than a century-long tradition of outgoing presidents attending their successor’s swearing-in.
“This is totally a unique presidency,” said Wesley Borucki, associate professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University.
“Everything about the Trump presidency has been unconventional,” said historian Robert Watson at Lynn University. “To the point where I’ve been joking with some friends that of mine that we are going to have to rewrite all the textbooks, because he has violated everything we said, what every textbook said, was a truism of the office.”
Both Borucki and Watson, who spoke to the Post earlier this year, said the story of the Trump administration will be unlike any in modern presidencies.
Borucki, who is writing a biography of Trump slated for 2022, has said the historic moments during visits here are pieces of a larger mosaic that will go down as a consequential presidency.
He said Trump’s political career will ultimately result in a realignment of American politics that may redefine ideological lines more focused on globalist-versus-nationalist and populist-versus-establishment dichotomies.
No one knows how Trump’s administration would be portrayed
As for how the Trump administration would be portrayed in museum exhibits, no one knows. Much of it depends on how well Trump complied with the Presidential Records Act, which defines how records should be retained.
“We’ve been talking about differences between liberals and conservatives, between Republicans and Democrats for so long,” he said. “And every so often we have a realignment in American history. We’ve been kind of overdue for one.”
Along with that, Borucki said, the use of Twitter and social media to “go over the media’s heads” to speak to his base reconfigured presidential communications.
“A lot of people were won over by his fighting spirit and that comes out in the rallies, too,” he said.
He also said the emphasis on a tariff war with China and its president, Xi Jinping, whom Trump hosted at a Mar-a-Lago summit in April 2017, and the rewrite of the North American trade pact, as well Middle East peace efforts, will be hallmarks of his legacy.
So will the nominations of three Supreme Court justices and the reshaping of the federal bench, Borucki said.
“You’re going to see the effects of that for decades,” he said. “When you think about the legacy of the Trump presidency, there are a number of moments that are significant.”
Watson said previous former presidents have built their libraries in partnership with the NARA. But Watson, who co-founded an annual Truman Little White House symposium in Key West, said he fears the relationship between Trump and the federal records administration “would be testy at best, if non-existent” as have been the president’s dealings with government agencies.
Watson said he has visited almost all the presidential libraries. While each facility has “a degree of celebratory” feel to their exhibits, he said the museums are generally “dedicated” to a fair telling of history and preserving “access to records.”
“The thing that has always been remarkable to me is how honest and forthright they are,” he said of the presidential museums. “These libraries show the president’s legacy with all of its warts and pimples.”
Expert says presidential libraries are honest and forthright about history
Watson said an example of presidential museum storytelling he is very familiar with is Truman’s in Independence, Mo. The museum exhibits include a pro and con debate on whether Truman should have authorized the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan to end World War II.
Rather than a dispassionate telling of the story of the past four years, Watson fears, Trump will want his version — and only his view — of events. He said he is concerned the former president will use the narrative in his library to misrepresent his legacy with a “reinvented, over-flattering” portrayal of his leadership and the events that took place.
For instance, in foreign policy, he fears Trump will present a “dark” picture of world affairs to claim achievement in ending the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and to justify the badgering of allies and strategic international alliances. Ditto for domestic policy, from the effort to build a border wall to the trade war to resurrect U.S. manufacturing to “bringing back coal” as part of an energy strategy.
The hyperbole, he said, may even occlude legitimate milestones, from criminal justice reform to Operation Warp Speed that ushered in a coronavirus vaccine.
“With Trump you automatically wonder whether what is being put in the library is truthful,” he said. “We have alternative facts. We’ve had a war on the truth.”
The damaging part of this is that presidential museums are more than tourist attractions and political meccas for the partisan faithful. They are sentinels of history.
“That could have definite ramifications as the people who visit his library probably would not visit the Truman or the Reagan or the Obama libraries,” he said. “That would be a monument to nationalism and to an inaccurate portrayal of the global order. That is worrisome at best.”
No consequences for Trump from noncompliance with records law
Although there is a system in the White House that records all phone calls, there is nothing to safeguard text communications on apps such as WhatsApp and other sites that erase messages immediately, Weissmann said.
Still, noncompliance with the Presidential Records Act carries little consequence for Trump, Weissmann added.
“When Congress created the law they assumed presidents would want to keep records,” Weissman said. “They never envisioned someone like Donald Trump.”