On Jan. 25, 2021, Former President Donald J. Trump opened the Office of the Former President. The Office of the Former President stated it would manage Trump’s “correspondence, public statements, appearances, and official activities” to promote the interests of the Trump Administration and the United States through “advocacy, organizing, and public activism.” Some political analysts speculate Trump may be facing financial difficulties and legal issues between a series of upcoming loan and mortgage payments and the scrutinization of Trump’s businesses. Without a Twitter account and the luxury of the bully pulpit, some guess Trump may use this new office to be the kingmaker, deciding which Republicans get his and his supporters’ support, that some expected him to become following his 2020 defeat. This confluence of factors gives Trump a unique path forward, straying from those beaten by his recent predecessors, which has been a pattern throughout his political career.
The department is a novel idea, not one pursued by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or William Jefferson Clinton. Clinton, Bush, and Obama all elected to write memoirs within a few years of their presidency’s end, though not all were written for the same purpose. The previous three also elected to start foundations or other charitable organizations. Former President George W. Bush has had perhaps the most typical departure from office of the recent presidents of the United States. Bush was much better financially situated than were Presidents Clinton and Obama when they left office. Bush’s book, Decision Points, published in 2010, sold millions of copies, though it is unlikely that the former Texas Rangers owner and son of a former president had financial struggles. Bush has not been a power broker within the Republican Party that Trump may become. The Tea Party movement gained steam in 2010 without any Bush ring kissing required. The exact role Trump will have in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond cannot yet be known.
However, Obama has remained a prominent figure in the Democratic Party since his exit from office, enjoying intra-party approval of over 90%. Though he declined to endorse a candidate until Biden had the primary in hand, Obama still enjoys status as a kingmaker within his party, a role Trump may try to emulate. Though Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has been far from an Obama ally and even plotted a primary challenge against Obama in 2012, Sanders’s inclusion of Obama in a 2020 campaign ad proves the influence Obama still holds in the hearts and minds of Democrats. Trump’s supporters within the Republican Party are passionate, even rabid. His supporters hang on his every word. They are likely to pay close attention to a Trump endorsement in a primary race, even closer attention than Democrats pay to an Obama primary endorsement.
On the more pessimistic side, the clearest parallel Trump can draw from in recent years is former President Bill Clinton. Clinton walked away from the presidency “dead broke,” according to Hillary Clinton, with millions of dollars in debt from legal fees. Clinton and his wife used speaking fees and book deals to pay down their debt. But to stick with former President Clinton, he wrote My Life, his bestselling autobiography, published in 2004. Trump may or may not decide to write a book, but his financial situation is potentially more perilous. Hundreds of millions of dollars in loans coming due is a money issue too hefty even for the most lucrative of book deals to solve. However, Clinton was in the clear from prosecution following his exit from the oval office. Trump cannot yet say the same, with prosecutors in New York actively breathing down his neck.
To find a historical counterpart regarding criminal issues, Trump can look to Richard Nixon. However, Nixon’s example of being a criminal ready for prosecution when he left office should not assuage Trump. Nixon had the luxury of a successor, Gerald Ford, willing to pardon him. If Trump faces federal charges, he will be unlikely to receive a pardon from President Joe Biden. If Trump committed state crimes in New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo is also unlikely to pardon him.
Not being one to shy away, Trump will most likely remain in the public eye. With foundation scandals in the past, Trump might eschew that path as well. Book writing may not be on the horizon for Trump, with publishers cutting ties with people like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who attempted to disenfranchise millions of Americans and overturn the results of a democratic election. Kingmaker has been a role played by previous presidents, including recent ones like Obama. With millions of loyal followers, Trump is sure to remain a potent force within the Republican Party. Avoiding beaten paths has been one of the hallmarks of Trump’s political career. The unprecedented Office of the Former President looks like a continuity in that respect. For now, his opportunities to influence his party remain wide open as many Republicans in Congress crave his endorsement and cower from his attacks.