WASHINGTON (AP) – This is a club Donald Trump never really wanted to join and certainly not so soon: the cadre of former commanding officers who revere the presidency enough to put aside often bitter and even come together in a common cause.
Members of the ex-presidents’ club pose for photos together. They smile and pat their backs as they move around historic events, or sit somberly side-by-side at VIP funerals. They undertake special projects together. They rarely criticize themselves and tend to say even fewer harsh words about their successors in the White House.
Like so many other presidential traditions, however, this is something Trump seems likely to flout. Now that he’s stepped down, it’s hard to see him embrace the majestic and exclusive club of living former presidents.
“He sort of laughed at the very idea that he would be accepted into the Presidents ‘Club,” said Kate Andersen Brower, who interviewed Trump in 2019 for her book “Team of Five: The Presidents’ Club in the Age of Trump ”. “He said, ‘I don’t think I’ll be accepted.'”
It’s also clear that the other club members don’t want a lot of him – at least for now.
Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton recorded a three-minute video of Arlington National Cemetery after President Joe Biden’s inauguration this week, praising the peaceful presidential succession as a core of American democracy. The segment did not include any mention of Trump by name, but was a stern rebuke of his behavior since the loss of the November election.
“I think the fact that the three of us are standing here talking about a peaceful transfer of power is a testament to the institutional integrity of our country,” Bush said. Obama called the inaugurations “a reminder that we can have fierce disagreements while recognizing each other’s common humanity, and that as Americans we have more in common than what separates us.”
Trump spent months baselessly claiming that the election was fraudulently stolen from him and ultimately helped spur a deadly insurgency at the US Capitol. He left the White House without attending the swearing-in of Biden, the first president to skip the inauguration of his successor in 152 years.
Obama, Bush and Clinton recorded their video after accompanying Biden to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the inauguration. They also recorded a video urging Americans to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Only Jimmy Carter, 96, who limited his public events due to the pandemic, and Trump, who had already flown to post-presidential life in Florida, were not there.
Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Trump was not suitable for the club of ex-presidents “because he had a different temper.”
“Club members have always been respected by the presidents who have followed. Even Richard Nixon was respected by Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan and so on, for his foreign policy, ”Engel said. “I’m not sure I see a lot of people calling Trump for his strategic advice.”
Former presidents are sometimes called in for great tasks.
George HW Bush and Clinton teamed up in 2005 to launch a campaign urging Americans to help the victims of the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Bush, father of President George W. Bush, called on Clinton to step up Katrina relief efforts.
When the elder Bush died in 2018, Clinton wrote: “His friendship has been one of the great gifts of my life,” high praise given that he was the man he ousted from the House. Blanche after a murderous campaign in 1992 – making Bush the only full-term president in the past three decades, except Trump.
Obama called on Clinton and the young President Bush to step up fundraising efforts for Haiti after its devastating 2010 earthquake. George W. Bush also became good friends with former first lady Michelle Obama, and cameras caught him slipping a cough lozenge on her as they sat together at the funeral of Arizona Senator John McCain.
Usually, presidents give the same respect to their predecessors while they are still in office, regardless of their party. In 1971, three years before resigning in disgrace, Richard Nixon traveled to Texas to participate in the inauguration of the Presidential Library of Lyndon Baines Johnson. When the Nixon Library was completed in 1990, then President George HW Bush attended along with former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford.
Trump’s break with tradition began even before his presidency did. After his election victory in November 2016, Obama welcomed Trump to the White House by promising to “do whatever we can to help you succeed.” Trump replied, “I look forward to being with you many times in the future” – but it never happened.
Instead, Trump falsely accused Obama of bugging him and spent four years mowing his predecessor’s record.
Current and former presidents hated each other at times, and criticizing their successors is not uncommon. Carter criticized the policies of the Republican administrations that followed his own, Obama rebuked Trump while campaigning for Biden, and also criticized the policies of George W. Bush – although Obama was generally careful not to name his predecessor. Theodore Roosevelt attempted to overthrow his successor, fellow Republican William Howard Taft, by founding his own “Bull Moose” party and running for president again against him.
Yet presidential reverence for former presidents goes back even further. The country’s second president, John Adams, was concerned enough about tarnishing the legacy of his predecessor that he retained George Washington’s Cabinet appointments.
Trump may have time to build his relationship with his predecessors. He told Brower that he “could see himself becoming friends with Bill Clinton again,” noting that the couple used to golf together.
But the chances of becoming the traditional retired president he never was during his tenure remain long.
“I think Trump has gone too far,” Brower said. “I don’t think these former presidents will welcome him at any time.”