The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In his final hours, Trump finally gets his tone right — but the damage can’t be undone

Marine One leaves the White House with President Trump and first lady Melania Trump as they head to Joint Base Andrews prior to the inaugural ceremony. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Watching former president Donald Trump exit from the White House on Wednesday and step back into private life and whatever drama that holds brought an overwhelming sense of what could have, and should have been.

Imagine if, after the November election was declared for Joe Biden, Trump — even after a few reasonable days of waiting — had accepted the results. He could have congratulated the president-elect, welcomed the Bidens to the White House, accompanied them to the U.S. Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony, and then returned to the White House to board Marine One with a final wave to his successor. No one who has despised Trump for four years would have suddenly loved him, but the chances are that such demonstrations of civility would have resulted in an approval rating hovering near 50 percent and relative goodwill from all but the most dedicated haters.

Trump’s video address Tuesday and his live remarks Wednesday were what we should have heard from him these past two months. Yes, there was the usual bravado and credit-grabbing, but those traits are accepted as part of who Trump is. The good wishes and prayers he extended in the past 48 hours to the new administration — granted, without mentioning Biden’s name — were the tone that should have been set from shortly after the election.

Instead, Trump’s legacy will be that of further inciting an already angry mob of thousands gathered in Washington. Immediately following their president’s call to action, they marched on the U.S. Capitol, with many of them breaching security to: break into offices, pose for pictures, create mayhem, destruction, death and occupy the halls of Congress — all while disrupting a constitutionally mandated ceremony being conducted by Trump’s vice president.

Former vice president Mike Pence emerges from Trump’s chaos in relatively good shape and well-positioned for the future. His loyalty to Trump through thick and thin should ultimately place him in good standing with most Trump supporters. Well, all but the kind who would stage an incursion of the Capitol. However, Pence’s dedication to adhering to the Constitution following the election and, especially, in the wake of the Capitol riot made him welcome at Biden’s inauguration and won him some grudging respect even from mainstream media commentators.

Among the many unfair ways Trump was treated through his presidency was untoward speculation about the state of his marriage. Whether first lady Melania Trump on occasion pulled her hand away from his as they walked together was a common subject of social media conjecture. On Wednesday, after Trump briefly addressed the press corps outside the White House, it looked from my TV angle that the first lady reached out and took the president’s hand as they strolled to the helicopter. One doesn’t see Trump as a man in need of comforting, but on Wednesday, Melania seemed to know that he did.

To his credit, Biden spent little time in his inaugural address chiding Trump supporters or dwelling on anyone’s sins. He called for unity, as expected, and even gave a nod to everyone’s right to voice dissent — perhaps a reference to the wrongness of social media silencing conservative voices. It was a good thing to say. Biden’s address was commendable for its brevity and admirable for its focus on the future, not the past.

By contrast, at Joint Base Andrews a few hours earlier, Trump was, of course, looking back. He again rattled off what are legitimate successes, from his political viewpoint — unshackling free enterprise by rolling back regulations, making the border more secure, not engaging the United States in new wars, renegotiating numerous trade agreements, achieving historic Middle East accords, delivering a coronavirus vaccine in record time — and enjoying cheers and applause one last time as president.

He told the relatively small gathering assembled to see him off that neither he, nor they, should have regrets. They had left it all on the field, he said. No one will have to reflect, he said, and say, “You know, if we only worked a little harder.”

Perhaps not. What they might someday, somewhere, after the passage of enough years, find themselves doing is looking back and saying, “You know, if we had only conceded the election … ” But that chance is forever lost. Called on to rise to the moment after the November election — and given one final chance on Jan. 6 — Trump will forever be remembered for the choice he made, and tragically so.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Joe Biden delivers one of the best inaugural addresses in memory

Jennifer Rubin: Mitch McConnell finally admits that Trump and Republicans provoked the Capitol attack. Now what?

Dana Milbank: Biden will offer ‘unity’ and healing. But first we need the truth.

Timothy Shriver: Many Americans want payback. We need a uniter instead.