What I Learned When Trump Tried to Correct the Record

The former president made an unusual effort to influence how historians will view him.

Illustration of Donald Trump.
Katie Martin / The Atlantic; Getty

About the author: Julian E. Zelizer is a history and public-affairs professor at Princeton University. He is the editor of the forthcoming book The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.

As an academic historian, I never expected to find myself in a videoconference with Donald Trump. But one afternoon last summer—a day after C-SPAN released a poll of historians who ranked him just above Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan, our country’s worst chief executives—he popped up in a Zoom box and told me and some of my colleagues about the 45th presidency from his point of view. He spoke calmly. “We’ve had some great people; we’ve had some people that weren’t so great. That’s understandable,” he told us. “That’s true with, I guess, every administration. But overall, we had tremendous, tremendous success.”

I am the editor of a scholarly history of Trump’s term in the White House, the third book in a series about the most recent presidents. A few days after The New York Times reported on the project, Trump’s then-aide Jason Miller contacted me to say that the former president wanted to talk to my co-authors and me—something that neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama had done. For someone who claimed indifference about how people in our world viewed him, Trump was spending an inordinate amount of time—more than any other ex-president that we know of—trying to influence the narratives being written about him. My co-authors and I weren’t the only people he reached out to. According to Axios, Trump conducted conversations with more than 22 authors, primarily journalists, who were working on books chronicling his presidency.

But if anything, our conversation with the former president underscored common criticisms: that he construed the presidency as a forum to prove his dealmaking prowess; that he sought flattery and believed too much of his own spin; that he dismissed substantive criticism as misinformed, politically motivated, ethically compromised, or otherwise cynical. He demonstrated a limited historical worldview: When praising the virtues of press releases over tweets—because the former are more elegant and lengthier—he sounded as if he himself had discovered that old form of presidential communication. He showed little interest in exploring, or even acknowledging, some of the contradictions and tensions in his record.

The former president sat at a wooden desk in his Bedminster Golf Club with an American flag beside him. Over the first 30 minutes, with a single sheet of white paper in front of him, Trump reminisced about his underappreciated negotiating talent in handling the economy, the coronavirus pandemic, and the leaders of China, North Korea, and Russia. “Nobody was tougher on Russia than me,” he maintained. With regard to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Trump recounted how he had compelled other allied nations to pay higher dues after decades when they had not paid their fair share. Many of Trump’s anecdotes came back to how he had talked—or intimidated—powerful actors into doing things that no other president would have been able to. The former president claimed that he had reached a tentative deal with the South Korean government to contribute more to its own defense. (In telling the story, he imitated the accent of South Korean President Moon Jae-In.) The historic deal, Trump alleged, was scuttled once Joe Biden became president, after the 2020 election was “rigged and lost.”

He seemed to measure American politicians primarily by how they treated him. Even many of those elected officials who criticized him in public sang a different tune, he insisted, when the television cameras were off. Trump vented about governors who continually expressed during private meetings how impressed they were with his COVID policies (“I hope you can get the tapes,” Trump said) yet proceeded to “knock the hell out of me” in public: “So unfair.”

Right as I was about to open the virtual floor for discussion, Trump took a surprising detour, spending several minutes telling a convoluted story about how price overruns and poor design plans had marred the Navy’s $13 billion supercarrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. Calling the project the “stupidest thing that I’ve ever seen,” Trump explained how during a presidential visit, he warned that the technologically advanced vessel was a mistake. He recounted how the hardworking crew members who had been servicing ships for years (“out of central casting”) thought key features of the Navy’s design, including aspects of the catapult system that assists in launching planes, made no sense to anyone who had experience in aerial military operations. On the USS Gerald R. Ford, you would have to be an “Albert Einstein,” one crew member had complained, to fix things that once would have been extremely easy to repair.

I glanced at the puzzled faces of my colleagues in their Zoom boxes as Trump’s story unfolded. But his point soon became clear. He was taking a jab at the experts. For the historians who were writing a first draft of his presidency, Trump had a message: The best and brightest didn’t always know what they were talking about—unlike hardworking people who lived by common sense, as he did.

Our entire meeting suggested that Trump sometimes does care about expertise, despite his vitriol toward the academy. After all, he was the one who had decided to reach out to a group of professional historians so that we produced “an accurate book.” As he has done many times before, Trump proudly mentioned his uncle who was a professor at MIT. While talking to us, Trump was working to influence the narratives that were told about him—as he’d done repeatedly during his time in the Oval Office. Indeed, he had even closed out his term peddling the case that he was not a failed one-term president, like Herbert Hoover or Jimmy Carter, but someone who had victory stolen from him.

When the Yale historian Beverly Gage brought up the president’s relationship with the FBI and the intelligence community—the subject of her chapter in our book—he eventually turned to the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021. According to his memory, the expert opinion was off. The “real story,” Trump argued, “has yet to be written.” When Congress met to certify the Electoral College results, Trump told us, there had been a “peaceful rally,” more than a “million people” who were full of “tremendous love” and believed the election was “rigged” and “robbed” and “stolen.” He made a “very modest” and “very peaceful” speech, a “presidential speech.” The throng at the Capitol was a “massive” and “tremendous” group of people. The day was marred by a small group of left-wing antifa and Black Lives Matter activists who “infiltrated” them and who were not stopped, because of poor decisions by the U.S. Capitol Police when some “bad things happened.”

During our hour together, Trump didn’t have many questions for us. Even in his attempt to correct the record, Trump mostly didn’t acknowledge or engage with informed outside criticisms of his presidency. He did, however, admit to having sometimes retweeted people he shouldn’t have, and at one point he said, “when I didn’t win the election”—phrasing at odds with his false claim that the 2020 vote was stolen.

But his goal was to sell a group of historians on his side of the story. “I’m looking at the list, it’s a tremendous group of people, and I think rather than being critical I’d like to have you hear me out, which is what we’re doing now, and I appreciate it.” In preparation for the meeting, his staff had already supplied us with documents that portrayed him as a conventional president with a moderate record.

He seemed to want the approval of historians, without any understanding of how historians gather evidence or render judgments. Notwithstanding the C-SPAN polls, our goal is not to rank presidents but to analyze and interpret presidencies in longer time horizons. We want to understand the changes that take place to public policy, democratic institutions, norms of governing, and the relationship between White House officials and political movements. Though we are always eager to read oral histories by participants—and hear directly from a former president—these sorts of comments play only one small part in works that are checked and cross-examined with other contemporaneous sources. In practice, professional historians gather their evidence by reviewing essential written and oral documents stored in archives—which is why so many in my profession shuddered upon learning that boxes of material were initially carted off to the former president’s home at Mar-a-Lago rather than given directly to experts at the National Archives.

Trump could help historians evaluate his presidency by sitting for public questions from people other than Fox News hosts and Conservative Political Action Conference audiences, and preparing a thoughtful, revealing, and honest memoir—one that might offer historians insights into his personal and political evolution as well as key decisions made in his time in office.

After answering our questions for half an hour, Trump ended the conversation by thanking us: “I hope it’s going to be a No. 1 best seller!” It was certainly an upbeat way to sign off, though I wasn’t quite convinced he meant it. A few days after our meeting, Trump announced that he would stop doing interviews with authors, because they had been a “total waste of time.” He added: “These writers are often bad people who write whatever comes to their mind or fits their agenda. It has nothing to do with facts or reality.”

The video above is embedded courtesy of Special Collections, Princeton University Library. The full video can be found here.