By Jan Wolfe
The impeachment proceeding against Donald Trump on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has fueled speculation online that he could lose some of the benefits extended to former presidents.
But according to legal experts, under the laws currently in effect, Trump will retain perks including a pension, office space and security detail even in the unlikely event that he is convicted by the Senate in its impeachment trial.
Trump can thank a relatively obscure law, the Former Presidents Act.
WHAT IS THE FORMER PRESIDENTS ACT?
It is a law, enacted in 1958, that provides lifetime benefits to former presidents. The benefits include a “suitable office space,” Secret Service protection, around $100,000 per year to help cover the cost of a staff and a pension currently worth around $220,000 per year.
The law was enacted to provide financial relief to former President Harry Truman, who left office in 1953 facing debts from unsuccessful business ventures that predated his time in office.
For Trump, the annual value of these benefits will likely exceed $1 million. Each year, U.S. taxpayers spend about $4 million to provide perks to the four living former presidents, according to a report by the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, a government spending watchdog.
The most valuable perk is the office space. Former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama each had more than $500,000 in office rent covered by taxpayers in 2020, according to the report.
CAN PRESIDENTS BE STRIPPED OF THESE BENEFITS?
Yes, but only if they are removed from office during their presidency, said Brian Kalt, a law professor at Michigan State University. Being impeached by the House of Representatives does not impact the benefits.
Many lawmakers and public figures called for Trump’s removal from office during the final days of his presidency, but he avoided this fate, so the benefits are safe.
There is one caveat: the law could always change. Some advocates say the Former Presidents Act is an unnecessary cost, arguing that modern-day presidents have lucrative opportunities and do not need the public’s help after stepping down.
In 2016, congressional Republicans pushed a bill that would have put limits on the budgets of former presidents. Obama, who was wrapping up a second term, vetoed it. He said he agreed that reform was needed, but the legislation as drafted would have placed “onerous and unreasonable burdens” on the offices of former presidents.
If Congress does reform the Former Presidents Act, it should do so in a way that does not single out Trump, Kalt said. Such a move could be seen as an unlawful “bill of attainder,” or a legislative act condemning a particular person, he said.
WHO DECIDES WHERE TRUMP’S OFFICE WILL BE LOCATED?
The law allows Trump to pick the location of his office, Kalt said. If Trump were to set up his office at a Trump property, taxpayers would be effectively paying for Trump to rent property he already owns.
The General Services Administration, a federal government agency, would be in charge of appropriately furnishing the office.
Trump left Washington for his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida on the morning of Jan. 20, hours before Biden’s inauguration.
In a Jan. 25 statement, Trump announced he was opening an “Office of the Former President.” It is located at his residence at Mar-a-Lago, with staff working out of a separate building on the grounds.
WHAT ABOUT INTELLIGENCE BRIEFINGS?
There is a growing push among Democrats to deny Trump a modern-day perk of post-presidency life: intelligence briefings and access to classified information.
“There’s no circumstance in which this president should get another intelligence briefing,” said Representative Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, in a CBS interview on Jan. 17. “I don’t think he can be trusted with it.”
Unlike other perks, this is one rooted in custom, not the law. President Joe Biden can unilaterally decide to cut off the briefings.
Biden will consult experts in the intelligence community on the decision, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Jan. 22.