Michigan State Law Review
Paul F. Campos, The Truman Show: The Fraudulent Origins of the Former Presidents Act, 2022 Mich. St. L. Rev. 1 (2022), available at https://scholar.law.colorado.edu/faculty-articles/1580.
When President Donald Trump was impeached for a second time, many commenters pointed out that, if Trump were to be convicted by the Senate, he would likely lose millions of dollars in future taxpayer-funded benefits. These benefits are provided to ex-presidents by the Former Presidents Act, a 1958 statute of considerable political significance and ongoing controversy, that nevertheless has to this point been ignored completely by the legal academic literature.
This Article represents the first sustained discussion of the FPA in that literature. It concludes that the statute should be revoked — and it centers its critique on the law’s until-now unrevealed fraudulent origins.
Essentially the only argument ever put forward in either scholarly or popular discourse to justify the existence of the FPA is that it was passed as a response to former President Harry Truman’s financial struggles, and in particular because he refused to exploit his status as a former president to ameliorate them.
Using recently released and until now unexamined archival evidence, this Article demonstrates that, in a complete contravention of the existing standard historical record, Harry Truman was, as a direct result of being president, a very wealthy man on the day he left the White House, with an estimated net worth, in relative economic terms, of approximately $58 million in 2021 dollars. The Article reveals that this wealth was a result of both Truman’s enormous presidential salary — several times larger, in real terms, than the current salary for the office — and, more problematically, of the evident fact that Truman misappropriated essentially all of the multi-million dollar — in 2021 terms — presidential expense account that was set up for him by Congress at the beginning of his second term.
The Article also reveals that, again contrary to the current historical understanding, Truman made another fortune after he left the presidency, by doing precisely what he claimed he was not doing, that is, exploiting his status as a former president to maximum economic advantage. Indeed, by the time Congress passed the FPA in response to Truman’s various claims that he was at least teetering on the brink of potential financial distress, Truman’s net worth was, in relative economic terms, approximately $72 million in 2021 dollars.
In a precise inversion of the meaning ascribed to it by the standard historical narrative, Harry Truman’s actual financial biography illustrates exactly why the Former Presidents Act has always been a bad law, that has never had any reasonable justification in public policy.
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