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How to Treat a Disgraced Ex-President

Should Donald Trump receive a lifelong salary, a government-funded office, and a presidential library? A look back at past failed presidents.
January 14, 2021
How to Treat a Disgraced Ex-President
15, 37, and 45.

As Donald Trump’s time in office draws to a close, it looks increasingly like the twice-impeached president will complete his full term—with Senate Republicans unwilling to begin an impeachment trial before Trump’s clock runs out and Joe Biden is sworn in at noon on January 20.

Whatever happens in Trump’s remaining days in office and in the Senate trial that presumably will ensue, he will most likely be among the presidents ranked worst in surveys, such as those conducted by C-SPAN in 2000, 2009, and 2017. If so, Trump will join the list of other failed presidents, including the man at the bottom of all three of those lists: James Buchanan.

Widely considered the worst president in American history, Buchanan was also the first president to retire in disgrace. His four years in office were exceedingly tumultuous, with the low point being the secession of seven Southern states—South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas—from the Union.

Buchanan’s relationship with Congress was also exceedingly rocky. In 1860, Republican John Covode, a fellow Pennsylvanian, called for a commission to investigate the misappropriation of funds related to military contracts and called for presidential impeachment (the House also debated censure resolutions). Over the dark winter of 1860-61, most of Buchanan’s cabinet resigned.

Congress had, early in Buchanan’s term, followed a tradition dating to George Washington and appropriated one thousand dollars for an official portrait. Though an “impatient sitter,” Buchanan sat for the painting. But by 1860, with Republicans now controlling both houses, Congress refused to pay artist George Peter Alexander Healy the money owed to him for the portrait of the unpopular incumbent. Indeed, the very sight of Buchanan so galled visitors that the Commissioner of Public Buildings removed the sitting president’s portrait from the Capitol Rotunda to prevent defacement.

Left with no recourse, Healy later pleaded directly with Buchanan for his payment, but the former president refused to pay on the ground that he had not commissioned the work. The portrait remained in the artist’s collection until his death in 1894; it was eventually acquired by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where it hangs today.

When Buchanan retired to Wheatland, Pennsylvania in March 1861, he hoped to lead a quiet life as a private citizen. The onset of fighting in the Civil War the next month disrupted those plans. He regularly received death threats in the mail. Over the next year, Buchanan became embroiled in a war of words with General Winfield Scott, formerly the head of the entire Union Army, about the state of military readiness of federal installations.

Next, on December 15, 1862, the Senate attempted to censure the former president. The language of the proposed resolution cited Buchanan’s part in failing to stop the insurrection of the Southern states:

Resolved, That after it had become manifest that an insurrection against the United States was about to break out in several of the Southern States, James Buchanan, then President, from sympathy with the conspirators and their treasonable project, failed to take necessary and proper measures to prevent it: wherefore he should receive the censure and condemnation of the Senate and the American people.

The next day, the Senate debated the resolution, deciding to give Buchanan a chance to respond. In turn, Buchanan protested that if the Senate could “go back & try, condemn, & execute the former incumbent, who would accept the office?” Ultimately, the censure failed to pass, but Congress had established an important precedent of being able to introduce resolutions of censure for former presidents.

By June 1863, Confederate forces threatened Buchanan’s hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Tensions ran high all around. To his political friend Joseph B. Baker, he later recounted:

An amusing incident which occurred on the Sunday when it was supposed by many that the rebels would be upon us. I met Newton Lightner & Mr. McGonigle on Dr. Atlee’s pavement. We were conversing on the news of the day, but not so as to give offence even to a rank abolitionist; when suddenly Miss Atlee raised the window & ordered us off the pavement. I shall never attempt to paint her countenance nor detail her language on this occasion.

That same month, Buchanan learned that his franking privilege—the ability to send mail without paying postage—had been taken away by Congress. Nevertheless—and to his credit—Buchanan remained loyal to the Union cause during the Civil War. In 1864, for example, he urged his fellow Democrats not to run on a peace platform, without success.

Throughout Buchanan’s retirement, the former president wisely avoided the spotlight. As early as 1861, he had begun preparing a defense of his administration, and he devoted much of the war years to writing his magnum opus, Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion, published in January 1866. The book was widely ignored, with perhaps five thousand copies sold in total. Until his death in 1868, Buchanan hoped in vain that his memory would be vindicated.

Since Buchanan, Congress has softened its stance on former presidents. Eventually, the franking privilege was restored to former presidents on a case-by-case basis, and universally so in 1973. In 1955, Congress passed the Presidential Libraries Act, and in 1958, every former president became eligible to receive the numerous benefits enacted in the Former Presidents Act. (The latter act would especially benefit former president Harry Truman, who, even with the sale of his memoirs, was quite poor.)

The end of Richard Nixon’s presidency tested the boundaries of these acts. He was nearly impeached over the Watergate scandal: The Judiciary Committee approved of articles of impeachment and presented them to the full House, but ten days later Nixon resigned. A month after that, President Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon.

Should such a disgraced president receive the benefits accorded to other presidents? The text of the Former Presidents Act specifies that a president removed from office by impeachment and trial would be ineligible for those benefits, but since Nixon had instead resigned, he was determined to be eligible. A long legal battle also yielded an official Nixon Presidential Library. Even as Nixon attempted to rehabilitate his image—writing books and offering counsel to subsequent presidents—he was not invited to future Republican National Conventions.

Donald Trump, presuming no Senate trial removes him from office before January 20, will be entitled to the same benefits, financial and otherwise, received by his recent predecessors. These benefits include a salary for the remainder of his life (at an amount presently calculated at $219,000 annually); an office space and staff provided by the General Services Administration; financial support for his widow upon the president’s death; and lifetime protection by the Secret Service (in 1994, Congress voted as a budget-cutting measure to eliminate lifetime protection, a move reversed under the Obama administration in 2013).

If Trump were removed from office via impeachment and trial, he would not be eligible for these many benefits. (If removed via the Twenty-fifth Amendment, he would presumably still receive them.) Interestingly, if, as now seems likely, the Senate were to hold a trial after Trump leaves office—there is precedent for impeachment trials of former officials—and find Trump guilty, the most that the Senate could do in that trial to punish him would be to disqualify him from holding office in the future. He would still be eligible for benefits under the Former Presidents Act: The act’s language doesn’t forbid giving benefits to presidents who were impeached, but only to presidents who were impeached and removed from office by the Senate.

That said, Congress could pass a new law withholding from a disgraced Trump the privileges customarily accorded to a former president. And, as he embarks on what will undoubtedly be an unprecedented post-presidency, Trump can be excluded from events traditionally attended by former presidents, such as inaugurations and funerals—not that he would wish to attend anyway.

Trump, like Buchanan and to an extent Nixon before him, can and should be made persona non grata in Washington.

Thomas J. Balcerski

Thomas J. Balcerski is an associate professor of history at Eastern Connecticut State University. He is the author of Bosom Friends: The Intimate World of James Buchanan and William Rufus King. Twitter: @tbalcerski.