After the shocking and contemptible storming of the Capitol incited by the president of the United States, two things are still certain. First, 11 days from now—on Wednesday, Jan. 20—Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in Joe Biden as our 46th president.
Donald Trump says he won’t attend the inauguration, (which Biden says is “one of the few things he and I have ever agreed on"), but it’s also certain on that same day—and this is the second point—he will become ex-President Trump.
And then what will Trump do?
It says a great deal about the man and our times that this question looms as large as asking what President Joe Biden will do. Can you imagine?
Before this week I would have said that Trump running for president in 2024 was somewhere between plausible and likely, with him even having a chance of winning. But after the Jan. 6th “Beer Belly Putsch,” (so dubbed by Tom Nichols, professor at the U.S. Naval War College) and the resulting implosion of Trump's world (banned from Twitter), that is much less likely. Still, you never ever know when it comes to politics, and regardless Trump, more tarnished than ever and probably hounded by litigation, will remain a giant figure in our lives.
Two huge ambiguities come into play here. First of course is Trump himself, who self-consciously relishes in his unpredictability and indeed probably has no master plan. The second uncertainty is the career path of all ex-presidents, which is to say there is none. No one hands former presidents a playbook or a roadmap. There is very little protocol or precedent. You can’t just run the U.N or the Red Cross or Stanford? Nope. After being the most important person in the free world, everything is a step down. And so it’s up to each ex to find their own way, which has resulted in curious choices, some world-class awkwardness and unsettled personae. Now add Trump to that mix.
Talk about uncharted territory.
“My position with Trump is that all precedents have no meaning with him,” says David Pietrusza, historian and author of numerous books on presidential elections and administrations. “You can throw the history books out the window and can throw the historians like me out the window.”
“You can be sure he’ll do something on a grandiose scale,” says Sean Wilentz, a professor of American history at Princeton University. Wilentz sees Trump potentially establishing “a presidency in exile based in Mar-a-Lago,” a separate power base distinct from the Republican Party. “A presidency in exile is all the more powerful because Trump’s denied the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency and convinced millions of Americans of that,” says Wilentz.
I’ll go deeper into exactly what Trump might do in this sort of capacity, but first I want to take a look at some of the post-presidential lives of other commanders in chief and see how that jibes with soon-to-be former President Trump. There are some very interesting parallels in history with where Trump sits now, but again you can only take those so far.
Sidenote: Being an ex-president is a pretty sweet gig. You get secret service protection, a staffing budget, and an annual pension of $219,200, plus you’re world famous, even if it’s in a bad way (see Nixon, Richard).
The lives of ex-presidents fall into one of several overlapping categories. Some are too old or sick or pass away soon after leaving office to do much of consequence. Some simply retire and take a back seat to history. A few explore new worlds and take on new endeavors. And some stay in the game—or at least tried to. (Book writing is something almost all do, at least partly in the interest of controlling their legacy.)
Let’s look at examples from each group, starting with a quick look at a few who were too old and/or sick. A sad case here is our 11th president, James Polk, who was vigorous upon entering office but became sick and worn down. Polk, who pledged to serve only one term, was succeeded by Zachary Taylor on March 5, 1849. Polk died of cholera three months later. He was 53.
Woodrow Wilson entertained ideas of running for third term in 1920 (you could do that back then), but ill health put an end to that notion and made his post-presidency less than impactful. Ironically, Wilson attended the funeral of his successor Warren G. Harding, who died in office, in 1923 before he passed away the following year.
LBJ and Ronald Reagan were similar in that they both retired from public life and had health issues—in LBJ’s case at least partly self-inflicted. Please read this nugget from historian Michael Beschloss as cited in Wikipedia.
“On Inauguration Day (Jan. 20, 1969), Johnson saw Nixon sworn in, then got on the plane to fly back to Texas. When the front door of the plane closed, Johnson pulled out a cigarette—his first cigarette he had smoked since his heart attack in 1955. One of his daughters pulled it out of his mouth and said, "Daddy, what are you doing? You're going to kill yourself." He took it back and said, "I've now raised you, girls. I've now been President. Now it's my time!" From that point on, he went into a very self-destructive spiral.” (Check out this amazing picture of Johnson with long hair, five months before he died in 1972.)
Of course if you really want to know about Johnson and you have a massive amount of time on your hands, you can delve into Robert Caro’s five-volume biography of Johnson, which he began in 1976. Caro, 85, still has to complete the final book. (I shared a cab with Bob and his wife and research assistant, Ina, one rainy night a few years back on Central Park West in Manhattan and he assured me he was on the case—though now COVID-19 has delayed things a bit.)
Some may think that Ronald Reagan was ill and died shortly after leaving office, but that’s not the case. Yes the Gipper had hearing problems, but enjoyed an active semi-retirement initially (remember his speech at the 1992 GOP convention?), before Alzheimers began to take its toll in the mid 1990s. In fact Reagan died in 2004, 16 years after leaving office.
Both George H.W. and W. Bush took the retirement route, though remember George H.W. could have run again after he lost to Bill Clinton in 1992, but I don’t recall hearing much talk of that. After a career as president, vice president, head of the CIA, ambassador to the United Nations, congressman and liaison to China, he’d had enough. Plus he had sons to carry on his legacy. W has become a bit of a painter as you probably know. (I love this video of art professors analyzing W’s work.)
Both W and his late father have been strategic when it comes to playing a part in Republican politics (very little of that in fact), and even making public statements. Neither has been a fan of Trump—H.W. stating that he voted for Hillary Clinton—and in 2017, father and son issued a joint statement condemning the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. W sent a Christmas card in December suggesting 2021 offered hope. He also congratulated Biden on his victory and rebuked party leaders for the Capitol storming this week.
As for the Bush’s political nemesis, Clinton and Barack Obama, the two Democrats have been more public-facing, particularly Clinton. Remember also, how young they were when they left office: Clinton 54 and Obama 55. It’s a shame really when people so capable and young (W too, he was born the same year as Clinton) have so many good years left without clear options, other than trying to break Jimmy Carter’s ongoing record (see below.)
Clinton of course has been attached to his wife’s career, (with all of its ups and downs), and the Clinton Global Initiative, (with all its ups and downs.) Clinton also wrote books (with James Patterson!) and hit the speaking and conference circuit. (I’ve spoken with him twice in the latter capacity, interviewing him in 2009 in southern California and in South Africa a year later.
As for Obama, I’d say he’s been halfway between active and private. The 44th president became more vocal during the Trump administration (George Floyd, COVID-19, the 2020 election), and has visited leaders around the world. He’s working on a Presidential library in Chicago, (going slowly) and One American Appeal, a nonprofit founded in 2017 by then all five living presidents to raise money for hurricane relief. Maybe the Obamas most high-profile and au courant move though has been to sign a deal to produce films for Netflix. And they're off to a roaring start, winning an Oscar for their documentary “American Factory” last year.
The Bush’s, Clinton and Obama were also friendly members of the most select clique on earth, the Ex-Presidents Club. Don’t expect Trump to be welcomed in. “I think he will be more alienated from the group of former presidents than any other president in modern history, even Richard Nixon,” says Jennifer Mercieca, historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University and author of “Demagogue for President: The Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump.”
Now let’s turn to presidents who wanted to stay in the game, as no doubt Trump will to one degree or another. John Quincy Adams served nine terms in Congress after his presidency and William Howard Taft became the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Trump won’t do those things. But consider Herbert Hoover, who lost to FDR in the election of 1932. Bitter at his thrashing, (Hoover won only six states and lost the electoral vote 59-472) and blamed for the Great Depression, Hoover was a frequent and harsh critic of Roosevelt. (His transition to Roosevelt’s presidency was considered the worst in history. Until now.) Only 58 when he left office, Hoover sought the GOP nomination in both 1936 and 1940, but the Republicans would have none of that, tapping Alf Landon and Wendell Wilkie respectively. (Not that it mattered, Landon fared even worse and Wilkie only a bit better.)
Even closer to closest to the bone perhaps are Andrew Jackson and Grover Cleveland. Jackson ran against John Quincy Adams in 1824 and won the popular and electoral votes, but did not have a majority, and so the House decided the election and gave it to Quincy Adams. As Jackson left Washington, he declared it was all a scam and a fraud on the American people and he was going to get his revenge. “Basically Jackson ran for president between 1824 and 1828 the entire time, and was elected in 1828,” says Mercieca of Texas A&M. “That was a nasty four years.”
But it's Cleveland whom Trump may want to emulate, being the only president to win non-consecutive terms, serving as the nation’s 22nd chief executive from (1884–1888) and our 24th (1892–1896.) Cleveland, an upstate New York politician known for his integrity (as far as those things go), lost his first bid at reelection to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 in a closely contested race. In fact Cleveland won a plurality of popular vote but lost the electoral vote in part because of voter fraud in Indiana (Yes, real voter fraud, unlike in 2020.) Cleveland’s wife was so sure that she and her husband would be back in the White House that she instructed the staff to leave the furniture where it was. Turns out Frances Cleveland was right. Her husband ran against Harrison again in 1892 and won handily, giving him a plurality in three consecutive U.S. presidential elections while only winning the job twice.
“Every one-term president feels mistreated and thinks they should’ve won,” says Kate Andersen Brower, journalist and author of “Team of Five: The Presidents Club in the Age of Trump.” “I know Jimmy Carter wanted to run again—Rosalynn Carter wanted him to run again. She said it was the biggest mistake in American history.” But Carter never did and instead used his platform to sound off mostly against Republican policies, wrote 30 books, put Habitat for Humanity on the map, and became known by some as “a better ex-President than President.” He’s also the oldest ex-president ever, 96, (and the first to live beyond the age of 95), the longest-retired president and the first to live 40 years after his inauguration.
Trump has thought about Carter, according to Brower. “When I talked to Trump, he said he thinks Carter has been mistreated,” she said. “He sees himself as an outlier like Jimmy Carter—he doesn’t realize that he’s more of an outlier than Carter. But they’re alike in that they both say what they think. Carter criticizes Democrats and Republicans. He doesn’t hold back. Trump is obviously like that.”
OK, now to Trump himself and what he will do. “I think he’s going to be running something, something that’s making money,” says Wilentz of Princeton. “He’s used to giving orders.” And of course unlike other ex-presidents, Trump has a job waiting for him, head of the Trump Organization, with all of its opaqueness and indebtedness. Refinancing loans, battling creditors and ostensibly managing properties, hotels and golf courses, etc. on this scale would be quite the full-time job. But along with that comes swaths of litigation trailing after Trump pertaining to his companies, philanthropy and time as president. That could keep the head of the Trump Organization doubly busy.
Everyone expects Trump to create or take over a media property to maintain his profile and stay connected to his supporters. (Remember Obama did a deal with Netflix, right?) Will Trump buy one One America Network, Newsmax or Parler, or simply start Trump Media and be the top-on-air-dog-and-CEO? In whatever media endeavor Trump pursues, I see him running the show and not for instance partnering with Fox, as that would require him to subordinate himself to Rupert Murdoch. Not going to happen.
Being a media star, specifically his 14-year-run on “The Apprentice,” is what saved Trump when his company was floundering and took his profile to a whole other level. Trump also redefined media (especially Twitter) during his presidency. But there’s another reason to expect Trump to focus on his public media profile and that’s because—as CNN’s Brian Stelter notes, “the main power center of the Republican Party is not in the halls of Congress…true power lies in the entertainment wing of the GOP.” Meaning Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson wield more power than Mitt Romney, Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz. Or as former Congressman Trey Gowdy says.
Fox contributor Trey Gowdy right now: "Most of the voices in the conservative movement have never held political office before... Fox has much more influence over Republican primary voters than anyone who's elected."
Fox has power without accountability, it's how we got here. pic.twitter.com/LupSI1qgd5
— Matthew Gertz (@MattGertz) January 7, 2021
“You need to get 51% or thereabout to be a successful politician, but don’t need to get that percentage to be a successful pundit,” says presidential historian Pietrusza.
There’s other ways to make money too. Consider also the business of Trump merchandise; hats, shirts, flags, decals, on and on. That’s a nice little business too, perhaps worth tens of millions of dollars annually. He sold $4 million in two months last year, reportedly. No doubt Trump will do some sort of book deal as well.
And then there’s running for president in 2024. I know, I know, it sounds preposterous after his “burning-down-the-house” party this past week, and he would need to avoid, um, jail, but remember Trump remains a popular, charismatic (oh yes Trump haters he is) figure. He received 74 million votes and used to have 88.5 million followers on Twitter (though it must have irked him to no end that Obama has 127.6 million followers.)
And then there are ulterior motives. Trump may say he’ll run even if he has no intention of doing so. If so, “he’ll take advantage of the multitude of benefits that will accrue to him from saying he’s going to run,” says Mercieca of Texas A&M. “It makes him newsworthy if he’s a declared candidate; it makes it difficult for people to prosecute him for crimes, because it seems politically motivated, like it’s preventing him from running for office. He can of course raise money. He’s been great at raising money from his base and that allows him to continue. I don’t see a lot of downside for him, and it boxes out other contenders.”
On the other hand, Trump would be 78 on Inauguration Day 2024, (the same age as Joe Biden today), so he might not want to take on the immense burden of running. Trump could play the role of Joe Kennedy who famously orchestrated the political careers of his sons. “Trump might say ‘OK kids, it’s your turn. I’ve set this movement on its path but you will continue.’ It might be Ivanka,” says Pietrusza. Or it might be Eric, Donald Jr. or daughter-in-law Lara some day (the latter said to be now considering a run for U.S. Senate in North Carolina.)
So David Pietrusza, will Trump actually run in 2024? “I wouldn’t bet against that,” he says. “Of course, I wouldn’t bet on it either. I’m a historian not a prophet.”
Trump may have hit the ultimate self-destruct button last week when it comes to ever reoccupying the White House, but one thing’s almost certain. He will be very much part of our world for as long as he wants to or is able to. You don’t need to be a prophet to predict that.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that President Donald Trump will receive medical coverage after he leaves office. He will not receive medical coverage, since ex-presidents must have been enrolled in the Federal Employees Health Benefits program for at least five years to qualify for such coverage.
This article was featured in a Saturday edition of the Morning Brief on January 9, 2021. Get the Morning Brief sent directly to your inbox every Monday to Friday by 6:30 a.m. ET. Subscribe
Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter: @serwer.