As former presidents come together, Donald Trump resists joining chummy 'Presidents Club'

·7 min read

WASHINGTON – On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, President Joe Biden and former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton paid tribute at the sites of the nation's most deadly terrorist attacks.

Missing from the gathering Saturday was former president Donald Trump. On his own, Trump instead released a 9/11 memorial speech via video, visited a police precinct and a fire station in New York City, spoke by video to a prayer meeting on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and provided broadcast commentary on a boxing match – and, along the way, criticized his successor Biden over the Afghanistan withdrawal.

A few days later, Obama, Bush, and Clinton, and their wives, announced they are "honorary co-chairs" of Welcome.US, an organization designed to assist refugees from Afghanistan who are re-settling in the United States.

Absent again: Trump.

It was yet another sign that the fraternal "Presidents Club" is not one that Trump wants to join – not that the other ex-presidents appear to be clamoring for him to join anyway.

Then-President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama in Washington on Jan. 20, 2017.
Then-President Donald Trump and former President Barack Obama in Washington on Jan. 20, 2017.

From vaccine promotion to disaster relief, the businessman who often described himself as a "different kind of president" has shunned his engagement with others who have worked in the Oval Office, and the feeling seems to be mutual.

While previous presidents have fought with each other, Trump's outspoken disregard of other presidents is unique, especially so soon after leaving office, political analysts said.

"He prides himself on his separateness," said presidential historian Kate Andersen Brower, author of "Team of Five: The Presidents Club In The Age of Trump."

More: Exclusive: Defeated and impeached, Trump still commands the loyalty of the GOP's voters

More: How America's former presidents will commemorate the 9/11 anniversary

Bad feelings don't appear one-sided

In an interview for her book, Trump told Brower he didn't feel the need to consult former presidents, and did not expect to meet with them much after leaving office. Asked, for example, if he would attend the opening of Obama's presidential library, Trump said: "He probably wouldn't invite me. Why should he?"

"Trump," Brower wrote, "has taken his disdain for his predecessors – and now his successor – further than any other president ever has."

The bad feelings appear to work both ways.

During Saturday's 9/11 ceremony in Shanskville, Pa., in the field into which hijackers drove United Flight 93, Bush made an apparent reference to Trump while lamenting political divisions that have widened in recent years.

"A malign force seems at work in our common life that turns every disagreement into an argument, and every argument into a clash of cultures," Bush said. "So much of our politics has become a naked appeal to anger, fear, and resentment."

Trump apparently thought Bush was talking about him. The 45th president issued a statement accusing the 43rd president of "lecturing" people undeservedly.

"The World Trade Center came down during his watch," Trump said. "Bush led a failed and uninspiring presidency."

After the Jan. 6 insurrection by Trump backers at the U.S. Capitol, ex-presidents Obama, Bush, Clinton, and Jimmy Carter issued statements condemning the violence and suggesting that the rioters were triggered by Trump's false claims of election fraud.

"Their fantasy narrative has spiraled further and further from reality, and it builds upon years of sown resentments," Obama said.

And after Biden's eventual inauguration on Jan. 20, Obama. Bush, and Clinton recorded a three-minute video praising the peaceful transfer of power, a seeming rebuke of Trump's false claims of a "stolen election."

Carter, the only other living president, was also not present at the 9/11 event Saturday, but is 96 years old and makes few public appearances.

Lee Cochran, a spokeswoman for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum that hosted Saturday's event, told the New York Times that Trump "had been given the same information about the ceremony as the other current and former presidents who did attend."

Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington said in a text that the former president "decided to meet directly with First Responders to honor the 20th anniversary."

President vs. president

To be sure, previous presidents have criticized and even hated each other.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson remained rivals after the election of 1800, the first time in which presidential power moved from one political party to another. However, they later developed a warm relationship through the exchange of letters.

In the early 20th Century, President Theodore Roosevelt criticized Republican successor William Howard Taft, and even ran against him as leader of a third party in the election of 1912. Roosevelt later attacked Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, who took advantage of the Roosevelt-Taft split to win that crowded 1912 contest.

Decades later, the political world largely shunned President Richard Nixon after he resigned in 1974 amid the Watergate scandal. Nixon worked his way back into public life with a series of books, speeches, overseas trips, public appearances, and private meetings that sought to influence his successors in terms of foreign policy.

Living ex-presidents attended Nixon's funeral in 1994.

The modern Presidents Club

The chummy Presidents Club, which at times has led to former White House occupants working with each other despite past political disputes, has been more of a thing in the modern media age. The 9/11 appearances and the Afghanistan refugee program announced this week are the only the latest examples.

President Gerald Ford and Carter, despite a brutal 1976 campaign eked out by Carter, later developed a friendship and worked together on various projects, such as the National Commission on Federal Election Reform in 2001.

George H.W. Bush and Clinton, combatants in the 1992 election won by Clinton and featured maverick outsider Ross Perot, also became closer in later years. They helped coordinate relief to Gulf Coast states after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and to Southeast Asian nations after a devastating tsunami that same year.

In 2010, at the behest of then-President Obama, the younger Bush and Clinton helped raise money for earthquake relief in Haiti.

More: All living ex-U.S. presidents, except Trump, appear in ad touting COVID-19 vaccine

More: Silence, straight-ahead stares and candy mark rare full meeting of presidents' club at Bush funeral

Earlier this year, all the living ex-presidents made an ad promoting COVID-19 vaccinations – all except Trump.

Another run in 2024?

During his term in the White House, Trump did join the other ex-presidents for the 2018 funeral of predecessor George H.W. Bush.

Otherwise, Trump's relationship with other presidents has been very different.

No president has described his successor as "illegitimate," as Trump has Biden. No president has been so vocal, so early about a successor – or predecessors for that matter.

It's not that surprising. Trump has never considered himself to be part of any presidential club, said Lara Brown, director and professor at The Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University.

Donald Trump, Republican presidential nominee, speaks on the final night of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on July 21, 2016.
Donald Trump, Republican presidential nominee, speaks on the final night of the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on July 21, 2016.

In accepting the Republican Party presidential nomination in 2016, Trump proclaimed that he "alone" could fix the nation's problems. He often said he inherited a "mess" from predecessors, and claimed his presidency to be the "most successful" in history, though voters elected Biden instead in 2020.

"After he lost, he refused to admit that he was ousted from the presidency and he continues to believe that he should be the current president," Brown said. "In short, President Trump has never been a team player and does not see himself as part of the institution in which he served. He only believes in his own unquestioned authority to be the nation's president."

There may be another reason Trump avoids associating with past presidents: Future politics.

Trump's attacks on Biden – and other presidents – could be leading to another presidential run in 2024, though that would not be unprecedented for an ex-president. Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt also ran again four years after leaving the White House; Cleveland won in 1892, becoming the only president to serve two non-consecutive terms.

If he does decide to run again in 2024, many supporters of Trump don't like the previous presidents any more than he does, analysts said. Many of his supporters have a political worldview that is anti-establishment, and might not want to see Trump associate himself with past presidents, who they see as examples of what is wrong with the system.

"The people who support him are people who see themselves as disenfranchised, as outsiders," Brower said. "If he would suddenly embrace them (the ex-presidents), it would hurt him politically."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donald Trump shuns 'Presidents Club' of Biden, Obama, Bush, Clinton