Will There Be a Trump Presidential Library? Don’t Count On It.

If you understand how presidential libraries are created, it’s hard to see how Trump ever gets it done.

Will There Be a Trump Presidential Library? Don’t Count On It.

For months, as the end of Donald Trump’s term approached, historians and journalists have been playing a speculation game: What will Donald Trump’s presidential library be like?

“A shrine to his ego,” predicted a historian in the Washington Post. Others imagine a theme park, or a “full MAGA” exercise in rebranding his presidency. One report said he’s trying to raise an astonishing $2 billion to build it.

Here’s another, more likely possibility: There won’t be one.

It’s not because he doesn’t read books (presidential libraries aren’t that kind of library), and not because his presidency ended in a shocking insurrection at the U.S. Capitol fanned by Trump himself, resulting in a second impeachment. Other presidents have stepped down in borderline disgrace—Richard Nixon resigned; Herbert Hoover lost in a landslide, blamed for the Great Depression—and still got their libraries.

President Donald Trump in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Sept. 2020.

Trump likely won’t even manage to build a private library, such as the one Nixon finally created for himself. Or the “center” for which Barack Obama has had great difficulty even breaking ground, which will lack a government presence, a research facility, or archives.

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. The consequences of this failure, for Trump and his supporters, will go beyond just a building: Without a library, a center or some kind of institute to shore up his reputation, his legacy as a president and his place in history are likely to fall even further out of his control.

The first and most important reason not to expect a Trump Library is that it’s expensive to build one. The government might pay for lifetime Secret Service protection, but it doesn’t front the money for a library: No federal funds may be used to build or equip a presidential library, and no federal property may be used. To get the ball rolling, former presidents must create a nonprofit to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. While they may do so in unlimited sums, with almost no disclosure, from any source, anywhere in the world, it’s a lot easier to do it while in office.

Most presidents with federal libraries began planning—even fundraising—before their terms ended. Franklin D. Roosevelt opened his library about five months into his third term. Eisenhower, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan even broke ground before they left office. And Obama, who initially announced he would do no active fundraising while in office, did passively accept millions as early as 2014. It’s that much harder for a one-term president, given the abrupt and often unexpected nature of their early departure from the White House. Needless to say, if Trump—who still hasn’t admitted he lost—has any such effort underway, he hasn’t made it public.

True, Trump is a wheeler-dealer, but the money requirement is stiffer than it appears: If a president wants to build a library that becomes a federal facility, the usual route is for him to donate all or part of it to the government. And in that case, the law mandates an additional operations and maintenance endowment to the National Archives of 60 percent of the cost of the full project.

Even for presidents who have demonstrated decades of mature perseverance and attention to their top donors, it can be difficult to raise that kind of money. Fundraising gets harder each year a president is out of office. It gets even harder after he dies. It might seem less expensive in the short run to skip donating the library to the government, to avoid that significant endowment. But in the long run, that’s more expensive: The endowment is what legally allows the government to cover future operating costs. Without government funding, personnel and resources, a president’s foundation would need to pay millions of dollars a year to run the facility in perpetuity. When that money ran out, the library would shut down, or at best throw itself at the mercy of Washington. Nixon’s foundation ran his for 16 years before finally giving up, begging the government to welcome the library into the federal fold (it did, in 2007).

Almost all presidents have had trouble with “site selection.” FDR’s mother didn’t want to deed part of the family estate. Harry Truman’s relatives didn’t want him to use the family farm. People in Cambridge, Massachusetts, didn’t want the Kennedy Library bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to its tiny streets; the foundation got hung up in years of protests and construction delays, finally giving up on John F. Kennedy’s hand-picked site. Nixon resigned before he could finalize his secret scheme to build his library amid 4,000 acres he illegally wrested while president from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.

Top: Former President George W. Bush speaks at the opening of his presidential library in 2013. Bottom left: A display of campaign memorabilia at the library. Bottom right: The bullhorn Bush used wile speaking at Ground Zero after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Where could Trump put his? Sometimes universities help provide homes for local presidents, like the University of Texas, which provided 30 acres on its Austin campus for LBJ. But it’s hard to imagine either of Trump’s colleges, Fordham or Penn, willingly hosting his library. Even less controversial presidents have run into friction with such plans. Duke University rejected Nixon, who got his law degree there. Stanford rejected the Reagan Library. Southern Methodist University faculty and students protested the George W. Bush Library, but the library eventually did open on its University Park campus. While each of these presidents had his controversies, none was as widely reviled by a large and diverse swath of the country.

However opposition forms, it can be hard to persist and overcome, for even the most patient and connected of former presidents. The Obama Center has had its groundbreaking delayed for years by community opposition in Chicago—the city that launched his political career.

Trump also has some challenges that are uniquely his own. As of this writing, we don’t know if he’ll run again in 2024. We don’t know if he’ll launch a competitor to Fox News, OAN and Newsmax. We don’t know if he’ll seek to form a new party, or if his party will seek to break from him (though the latter, currently, seems unlikely). We do know the announcement of a presidential library, center or whatever it may be called, is a sign of the end of a political career. A capstone. In effect, a notice of retirement—at least from office-seeking. And Trump has shown little inclination to step decisively out of the public eye.

Even if he did, Trump would then have to raise, legitimately, and according to the laws of the state in which he creates his foundation, hundreds of millions of dollars to build a traditional presidential library, with a museum, archives and space for public events, his foundation’s offices, and whatever other activities he wishes to attempt within such a limited legal and financial environment.

To say the least, Trump has shown little ability to operate a legitimate nonprofit foundation, never mind build an endowment. He’ll have considerable difficulty doing so in his home state of New York. Under a 2019 court order, after “admitting to personally misusing funds at the Trump Foundation,” Trump agreed to a settlement that—should he succeed in persuading anyone to give him the money at all—puts an extremely short leash on any nonprofit he might launch in that state.

If he does build a library, it’s likely Trump would want the legitimacy and imprimatur of the federal government, as a “seal of approval” for his story, told his way. He might even like to have the National Archives host his exhibits about how “great” he made America (again), and, perhaps, how great was the “theft” of his second term. But to do any of that, the law will require him not only to spend the money on the grounds and building, but to raise hundreds of millions of additional dollars—and give it, almost unthinkably, to the government.

If there’s a model for a rule-breaking outsider like Trump, it might be—ironically—the Obama library. But if anything, Obama’s experience shows just how hard it would be for a character not known for focus or persistence.

Top: Former President Barack Obama points to a drawing of the plans for Chicago’s Obama Presidential Center in 2017. Bottom: Renderings of the complex planned buildings.

Obama is a popular, two-term former president who, until 2020, had won the most votes and raised the most money of any president in history. He left office tied with Dwight Eisenhower for the third-highest approval rating in more than 70 years. Yet Obama decided to skip the traditional presidential library, planning an Obama Center outside the National Archives system of official federal libraries. It will not be a research center, nor house his official records, and will have no role for the federal government. It’s not clear why Obama went this route, though the lack of federal involvement frees him from the endowment requirement, and gives him greater latitude to portray his presidency, and use the facility, however he likes.

After the Obama Foundation announced this break, the National Archives quietly announced it hopes future presidents will follow this new model, perhaps because the agency no longer wishes to be in the propaganda business. (Though the break has added to the storage burden of an agency already running out of space.) Given the Archives’ preference not to receive a donated library, it will be difficult for Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, and those who come after them, to go back to the tradition.

Of course, there’s one other outside possibility: Trump, never one to bow to norms, might forge his own model entirely. He could bypass the fundraising and the legal worries about running a charity and the thorny (and costly) issues with government involvement and not build or even operate a memorial to himself—yet still get one. And such a model would be, in a word, Trumpian.

Trump made his name in real-estate development, but few of the buildings with his name on them are ones he built, or even owns. What he really builds is his brand, licensing his name to others who actually build and operate his towers and hotels. He could, in theory, use the same toolkit for a monument to himself, licensing the Donald Trump name to a for-profit enterprise—maybe a casino, or a golf course, or a ticketed museum with an attached hotel—to operate as a tourist attraction for the MAGAs and the (morbidly) curious.

Given the challenges of the other models, that would likely be the only way he could come close to having the kind of Trumpian shrine most observers have predicted. He could even brand it a “library,” to avoid falling out of the club of former presidents—but that wouldn’t make it one.

While Trump almost certainly won’t have a traditional presidential library, and it’s unlikely he’ll have a private version of one, the pull—especially for someone seeking redemption, or even just acknowledgment—is strong. Nixon made plenty of efforts to rehabilitate his reputation, but it was the building of his library, 16 years after he resigned, that rescued him for history: Two former presidents and three former first ladies enthusiastically helped him and his wife Pat dedicate the private Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, California. Tens of thousands of supporters attended, and heard George H.W. Bush’s prediction that Nixon would be remembered “for dedicating his life to the greatest cause offered any President—the cause of peace among nations.”

Top: The Richard Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., in July 2004. Bottom: Current and former presidents and first ladies attend Nixon’s funeral in April 1994. From left–right: President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush, former President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan, former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter, and former President Gerald Ford and Betty Ford.

Four years later, 4,000 mourners watched as five living U.S. presidents gathered for the first time, paying Nixon tribute and laying him to rest alongside Pat in the library’s Rose Garden. Bill Clinton famously bade him farewell by exhorting us to judge the man on nothing less than “his entire life and career.”

Could such future ceremonies, and their implicit rehabilitation, be in store for the 45th president?

Not without a presidential library. Which he won't have.