One of the most disturbing elements of the Trump presidency, nearly one year after his stunning win, has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, war, white supremacists or Russia. These things are tangentially involved, but not central to what I believe is the worst legacy Trump could leave. If history judges him harshly (and it will) on political issues, he will be judged more harshly because he has destroyed the sanctity of the Presidents Club.
This club has unwritten rules that actually have a purpose behind them. Since George Washington (who hated the concept of political parties and “factions”), former presidents have generally withheld the harshest criticism of the current occupants of the office. Violations of this rule have generally brought swift condemnation from the press and the former president’s own party.
One example from 2007: Jimmy Carter was raked over the coals for calling George W. Bush’s administration “the worst in history.” Though he publicly retracted the statement, the sting was palpable.
“His language was much sharper than what you’d normally hear” from an ex-president, said the presidential historian Michael Beschloss. But he and other presidential scholars roll their eyes at the notion that former presidents do not speak ill of current ones.
Criticism is a privilege of former presidents to be exercised judicially. We know that as the office changes hands (and parties), there will be disagreements. Eisenhower thought Kennedy was foolish (and Kennedy eventually came around to some of Ike’s policies). Teddy Roosevelt was withering in his criticism of Taft and Wilson, but as historians note, he remained a candidate for president.
The rules for candidates are much, much more lax than for former presidents who will not seek office again. Given that the five living presidents today are all in the category of not seeking office (two are too old, and three have served two terms), the unwritten rules for the club of living presidents should apply. This especially holds true for former and current presidents of the same party.
But Trump doesn’t allow it. He accepts no criticism and responds forcefully to the slightest implication of error.
White House attacks legacies of both Bush presidents after reports that they refused to vote for Trump – The Washington Post
The White House on Saturday disparaged the legacies of the only two living Republican presidents to precede Donald Trump, after reports that both men castigated Trump in interviews last year and refused to vote for him.
The Washington Post reported that the White House responded to the two former Bush presidents’ remarks about Trump with venom against Bush’s Iraq foreign policy.
“If one Presidential candidate can disassemble a political party, it speaks volumes about how strong a legacy its past two presidents really had,” the White House wrote to CNN. It called the younger Bush’s decision to wage war on Iraq “one of the greatest foreign policy mistakes in American history.”
Right or wrong, this is a serious breach of the Presidents Club rules by both the Bushes and Trump.
Why this is important
Three things have always marked a peaceful transition of power in the United States. One: the outgoing president does not contest the results of the election or declare it invalid. Two: the small club of ex-presidents recognizes the weight of the office on the current president and offer discreet assistance or advice. Three: the current president returns the favor by not generally going after the previous presidents either legally or in the media.
The Trump presidency has violated two of these, and nearly violated the third. There was a real push to somehow find a smoking gun to declare Trump’s election invalid in the days between November 8 and January 20th. This included using every branch of federal law enforcement along with secret FISA warrants. This doesn’t mean Trump had no part in provoking it, but still, this is a very dangerous precedent.
If the sanctity of the President’s Club cannot be restored, we may find future presidents not simply criticizing, but prosecuting Trump or their own antecedents.
— Ryan Nobles (@ryanobles) November 4, 2017
We should not be smug or casual about this. The Presidents Club is important because there are so few living presidents at any given time, and the office carries so much power with it.
Destroying the sanctity of the relationship between the men who have occupied the office of president, and opening up future presidents to every kind of legal action is the worst thing President Trump could do to this country. If this is his legacy, then regardless of what other results he might obtain, his fitness for the office will be a subject historians will treat most unkindly.