6 Things Former Presidents Aren’t Allowed to Do After Leaving Office
There are restrictions about what presidents can do while in office—and what they can't do once they leave the White House.
When we think about former presidents of the United States, we may immediately picture our former heads of state establishing their presidential library, participating in charitable work, and attempting to live a (relatively) quiet life out of the spotlight. But it’s a little more complicated than that.
“When a president leaves the White House for the last time and turns the keys over to his successor, there is one very fundamental shift in his status that occurs,” Mike Purdy, presidential historian and author of 101 Presidential Insults: What They Really Thought About Each Other — and What It Means to Us tells Reader’s Digest. “It’s not just about moving out of the historic and majestic White House. The biggest change occurs at the tick of a clock’s second hand on January 20th every four [or eight] years. That moment at noon is when a new president is sworn in and the now-former president suddenly becomes a private citizen once again.”
Even after leaving office, former presidents continue to be public figures. Though they may no longer be making the big decisions, they’re still in possession of a lot of confidential information about the country and the government from the time they did spend in the Oval Office, and they’ll continue to keep receiving these perks U.S. presidents get to keep. While they’re welcome to do things like move out of Washington, D.C., or take up painting, being the former President of the United States will continue to dictate different aspects of their lives, up to and including their funeral arrangements. And between 12:01 p.m. EST on January 20th and their memorial service, former presidents are required to follow plenty of rules, including these six.
Violate the law
While a sitting president can argue he is immune from prosecution for certain acts committed as president, as a private citizen, the former president is just like everyone else without such a legal shield. “Like all other private citizens, a former president may not violate the law,” Purdy explains. “If he does, then he is subject to the same prosecution as any other person. Not only is the president not above the law, former presidents are not above the law.”
Sell or share classified information
As tempted as former presidents may be to earn some extra post-White House cash by selling government secrets, Purdy says that’s also not allowed. “In what could be a huge breach of national security for the nation, a former president may not sell or share classified information he obtained while president,” he notes, reiterating that former presidents are not above the law.
Two-termers may not run for president again
After Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as president, some lawmakers began to think that permitting someone to be in office for so long might not be the best way for the country to function as a democracy. “Up until Roosevelt, no president had served more than two terms,” Purdy explains. “The 22nd Amendment caps an individual to being elected only twice to the presidency and codified the nation’s practice up until FDR. The 22nd Amendment also provides if someone has served less than two years as president by virtue of ascending to the presidency due to the death or resignation of a president, they could still be elected to two full terms.”
This means that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama are constitutionally prohibited from running for president again. But one-termers like Jimmy Carter and Donald Trump, could constitutionally run again and serve. But, Purdy says that has only happened once, when Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms in the late 1800s.
Hit the open road
As much as they may want to, former presidents aren’t permitted to drive themselves around. “A rule created after John F. Kennedy was assassinated is that ex-presidents no longer can drive on open streets or roads—only private property,” William S. Bike, an expert in politics and government relations and author of the book Winning Political Campaigns tells Reader’s Digest. “They are required to be driven by Secret Service personnel who are trained in evasive driving maneuvers. Lyndon B. Johnson was the last who drove on the open road.”
According to Bike, Bill Clinton in particular misses driving, and therefore always opts to drive the golf cart when he’s hitting the links. Donald Trump, on the other hand, was accustomed to having a chauffeur long before he was president, so Bike says that he probably didn’t miss it. And while this rule makes sense for safety purposes, we’re missing out on some great anecdotes “like the time former President Harry S. Truman was driving down a road in Missouri and saw a lady farmer trying to corral some pigs that had escaped from their pigpen,” Bike says. A former farmer himself, Truman got out of his car and helped get the pigs back.
Receive secret deliveries
Maybe a former president doesn’t want anyone to know that he ordered a food dehydrator from a late-night infomercial, but his Secret Service agents will always find out. That’s because the Secret Service inspects all mail for former presidents before it is delivered to their homes, Bloomberg Law reports. The screening takes place at a separate off-site facility in order to keep any potential threats as far away from the former president as possible. This policy came in handy in 2018 when the Secret Service identified “suspicious packages” sent to Clinton and Obama.
Purchase their own electronic devices
As it turns out, an ex-president can’t just walk into the Apple Store and buy the latest iPhone, Bike says. Technology like that—when used by a former president—must first be approved by the Secret Service. “A president or ex-president is supposed to communicate on approved devices,” he explains, “but former President Trump ignored this rule and therefore consistently was hacked.” Along the same lines, the Secret Service is also permitted to use “stingray” devices used to track the location of cell phones, The Hill reports.
Next, read on to learn about 13 unlikely jobs U.S. presidents have held after leaving office.