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Trump shuns ‘ex-presidents club’ — and the feeling is mutual

Former Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama in a video at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday.
Former Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama appear in a video from Arlington National Cemetery after President Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday.
(Biden Inaugural Committee)

It’s a club Donald Trump was never really interested in joining and certainly not so soon: the cadre of former commanders in chief who revere the presidency enough to put aside often bitter political differences and even join together in common cause.

Members of the ex-presidents club pose together for pictures. They smile and pat one another on the back while milling around at historic events, or sit somberly side by side at VIP funerals. They take on special projects together. They rarely criticize one another and tend to offer even fewer harsh words about their White House successors.

Like so many other presidential traditions, however, this is one Trump seems likely to flout. Now that he’s left office, it’s hard to see him embracing the stately, exclusive club of living former presidents.

“He kind of laughed at the very notion that he would be accepted in 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 was like, ‘I don’t think I’ll be accepted.’”

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It’s equally clear that the club’s other members don’t much want him — at least for now.

The House will send the article of impeachment to the Senate on Monday. A trial will take place two weeks later.

Former Presidents Obama, George W. Bush and Clinton recorded a three-minute video from Arlington National Cemetery after President Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, praising peaceful presidential succession as a core principle of American democracy. The segment included no mention of Trump by name, but stood as a stark rebuke of his behavior since losing November’s election.

“I think the fact that the three of us are standing here, talking about a peaceful transfer of power, speaks to the institutional integrity of our country,” Bush said. Obama called inaugurations “a reminder that we can have fierce disagreements and yet recognize each other’s common humanity and that, as Americans, we have more in common than what separates us.”

Trump spent months making baseless claims that the election had been stolen from him through fraud and eventually helped fire up the crowd at a rally before a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He left the White House without attending Biden’s swearing-in, the first president to skip his successor’s inauguration in 152 years.

Obama, Bush and Clinton recorded their video after accompanying Biden to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider following the inauguration. They also taped a video urging Americans to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Only 96-year-old former President Carter, who has limited his public events because of the pandemic, and Trump, who had already flown to post-presidential life in Florida, weren’t there.

Jeffrey Engel, founding director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Trump isn’t a good fit for the ex-presidents club “because he’s temperamentally different.”

“People within the club historically have been respected by ensuing presidents. Even Richard Nixon was respected by Bill Clinton and by Ronald Reagan and so on, for his foreign policy,” Engel said. “I’m not sure I see a whole lot of people calling up Trump for his strategic advice.”

Former presidents are occasionally called upon for big tasks.

With a flurry of executive orders, Joe Biden shows he’s planning to annihilate all memory of the Trump years.

George H.W. Bush and Clinton teamed up in 2005 to launch a campaign urging Americans to help the victims of the devastating Southeast Asia tsunami. When Hurricane Katrina blasted the Gulf Coast, Bush, whose son George W. Bush was then president, called on Clinton to boost hurricane relief fundraising efforts.

When the elder Bush died in 2018, Clinton wrote, “His friendship has been one of the great gifts of my life,” high praise considering he was referring to the man he ousted from the White House after a bruising 1992 campaign — making Bush the only one-term president of the last three decades until Trump.

Obama tapped Clinton and the younger President Bush to help lead a fundraising drive 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 her a cough drop as they sat together at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s funeral.

Usually presidents extend the same respect to their predecessors while still in office, regardless of party. In 1971, three years before he resigned in disgrace, Nixon went to Texas to participate in the dedication of Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library. When Nixon’s library was completed in 1990, then-President George H.W. Bush attended with former Presidents Reagan and Ford.

Trump’s break with tradition began even before his presidency did. After Trump’s election win in November 2016, Obama hosted Trump at the White House, promising to “do everything we can to help you succeed.” Trump responded, “I look forward to being with you many, many more times in the future” — but that never happened.

Instead, Trump falsely accused Obama of having wiretapped him and spent four years continuing to savage his predecessor’s record.

Current and former presidents sometimes loathed each other, and chastising their successors isn’t unheard of.

Carter criticized the policies of the Republican administrations that followed his, Obama chided Trump while campaigning for Biden and also criticized George W. Bush’s policies — though Obama was usually careful not to name his predecessor. Theodore Roosevelt tried to unseat his successor, fellow Republican William Howard Taft, by founding his own Bull Moose Party and running for president again against him.

Several key Obama administration policies survived Trump’s four-year onslaught, easing Biden’s way as he assumes office.

Still, presidential reverence for former presidents dates back even further. The nation’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 friendly with Bill Clinton again,” noting that the pair used to golf together.

But the odds of becoming the traditional president in retirement that he never was while in office remain long.

“I think Trump has taken it too far,” Brower said. “I don’t think that these former presidents will welcome him at any point.”

Weissert and Riechmann write for the Associated Press.


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