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.