The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Even as Trump vows to keep fighting, his aides are quietly starting to move on

President Trump speaks during an Operation Warp Speed vaccine summit at the White House on Dec. 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Vice President Pence has begun looking for a new home in the Washington suburbs, and he’s planning a valedictory foreign trip to begin the day Congress counts the electoral college votes.

Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has discussed opening a consulting firm with other White House aides and allies.

Top economic adviser Larry Kudlow has told friends he is planning to return to broadcasting, and he has his next gigs lined up.

President Trump remains defiant, refusing to publicly acknowledge that he lost on Nov. 3. In a recent meeting with allies, he discussed deploying the military to rerun the election and appointing Sidney Powell as a special counsel on voter fraud.

The Post’s Carol D. Leonnig explains the difficulties President Trump will have if he claims Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., as his post-presidency residence. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Yet all signs around the White House point to a four-year whirlwind coming to an end. Aides are quietly lining up next jobs, friends are wrangling last-minute favors and Cabinet secretaries are giving exit interviews.

These behind-the-scenes preparations underscore the reality that while Trump may continue to tilt at windmills, his tenure as the president of the United States is ending.

Advisers have begun reviewing pitches for post-presidency books, deciding which deserve cooperation and which should be shunned, according to a person familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Jason Miller, a campaign aide, is at the center of that process, the person said, though Trump will have final approval.

For weeks, the Trump campaign pointed to the Dec. 14 electoral college vote as what would ultimately decide the election as it tried to overturn the results. (Video: The Washington Post)

Requests for favors — final lunches in the White House mess, photos in the West Wing — are flowing to senior officials daily.

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“People are asking for everything. West Wing tours, visits to the gift shop, meals, final photos in the White House for their Christmas cards — they are all trying to get their last lick of the ice cream cone,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “Everyone wants a final Christmas tour. Everyone wants something.”

Members of Congress are flooding the White House with pardon requests, hoping for last-minute dispensations from a president inclined to wield that power liberally before he leaves. Several advisers said they were surprised by the onslaught. “There are hundreds of them,” the person said.

The administration held another meeting on pardons Friday afternoon.

Cabinet secretaries are giving final media interviews and gifts to staff. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently granted an interview to the American Enterprise Institute, where she offered advice to her successor. “There’s one simple guiding principle I’d urge not just the next education secretary to embrace, but any educator and education leader: Put students first,” she said.

There is no serious planning for a second term, and four officials say the West Wing is far more dormant than it once was, with aides spending their days on job interviews or working from home. The outer Oval Office, once a constant hubbub of traffic angling to see the president, no longer thrums with the same energy.

Aides are frantically looking for jobs outside the West Wing, according to headhunters and consultants, but they’re fearful of getting fired if they are caught before Jan. 20. Some are just leaving. Staff secretary Derek Lyons and communications director Alyssa Farah are among the high-profile departures.

A number of the campaign’s top officials — including campaign manager Bill Stepien — have all but disappeared from the orbit, aides say. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have purchased a $30 million property on a secluded island near Miami, according to the New York Post. Ivanka Trump has begun posting daily pictures looking back on the president’s term, or shots of her children at Washington destinations, such as the Lincoln Memorial.

The White House is spending its days installing loyalists on boards, such as super-lobbyist and fundraiser Brian Ballard to the Kennedy Center; longtime adviser Kellyanne Conway to the U.S. Air Force Academy Board; Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie to a Pentagon advisory board; and White House aides Nicholas Luna and Andrew Giuliani — son to Rudolph W. Giuliani — to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, among others.

One person familiar with the process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal conversations, said the White House had forgotten about these slots but now sees them as final gifts to the faithful. In many cases, the members will serve for four or six years, burrowing into the Biden administration.

“They didn’t do a lot of appointments for years,” said the Trump ally, who received an appointment. “They are saying, ‘If we’re ever going to do it, now is the time.’ They just call, ask if you want the slot, and you have to fill out some minimal paperwork.”

In many ways, the activity is not unusual. “You’d always see the last tours, the effort to obtain pardons, the effort to obtain jobs,” said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. “You usually see a push to get whatever you can do through executive power in the final days.

“What’s not normal is having this all-out attack on the legitimacy of the election and trying to overturn it. That’s the unusual part,” Zelizer added.

In public, Trump’s press office says the president is still focused on governing. “President Trump and this White House remain focused on securing much-needed economic stimulus for the American people, funding the government, and ensuring states and communities have what they need to respond to COVID-19 as well as vaccine distribution to front-line workers and long-term care facilities,” said White House spokesman Judd Deere.

But those close to him paint a different picture.

Trump is spending most of his time in the residence, phoning allies, according to four people who have been in touch with him, and falsely tweeting that he won the election. An adviser who recently spoke to Trump said the president floated trying to stay in office past Jan. 20. He was “angry and in a dark place,” this person said. “I’m not sure that he really meant it,” this person said.

On Friday, Trump met with several allies, including Giuliani, Meadows, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and White House lawyer Pat Cipollone. Trump asked about deploying the military to rerun the election, an idea that Flynn floated during an interview on Newsmax.

That proposal was shot down by Meadows and Cipollone, according to a source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal details about a private meeting. “I think it has lost traction,” he said. “It was an incredibly heated meeting.”

The meeting was first reported by the New York Times.

Powell, a lawyer who often espouses outlandish conspiracy theories and was previously on the Trump campaign’s legal team, was also in attendance. At one point, Trump asked about appointing her as a special counsel on voter fraud, the person said. That idea was also opposed by Cipollone and Meadows; it remains unclear if it will happen.

Trump also discussed the government seizing voting machines to examine them for fraud.

Two aides said Peter Navarro, ostensibly a trade and economics adviser, had pushed some of the most conspiratorial and spurious claims to the president in recent days. Navarro did not respond to a request for comment.

After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) congratulated Biden on his win Tuesday, Trump called to say that the Senate should not declare Biden the president-elect, because the election was illegitimate, officials familiar with the call said.

McConnell and Trump spokespeople declined to comment, though sources close to McConnell, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, observed that the majority leader did not change his message.

Trump has complained to advisers that Republican officials, such as Brian Hagedorn, a justice on Wisconsin Supreme Court who he backed, are not sticking with him. He has plotted how to take on Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) in 2022.

He is dialing allies looking for good news, relying on information from supporters such as Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.). He is constantly asking advisers what options are left — from flipping electors to pressuring House members and senators, officials say.

Four advisers said they do not expect Trump to attend Biden’s inauguration or meet with him in the West Wing. Trump has already begun polling people on how to create counterprogramming for the days around Biden’s swearing-in, these people said.

Most evenings, the president does not speak at the White House holiday parties, disappointing those who flew across the country to attend. Guests at a recent party were told after 8 p.m. that he would not be coming down, two attendees said.

He has not been communicating with the public on key issues, such as a widespread Russian hack of the country’s Internet systems or the worsening coronavirus pandemic, which is sometimes killing more than 3,000 Americans a day.

One adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Trump is “low-key pissed off all the time” and truly believes the race was stolen from him.

Some of the president’s top aides are urging him to stop litigating 2020. Advisers such as Bossie have begun proposing scorched-earth tactics to cripple the Biden administration, so Trump can better position himself ahead of 2024.

Trump is expected to speak next month at the Republican National Committee’s annual meeting in Florida in a bid to freeze the field.

The campaign continues to rake in money. At least $66 million of the more than $200 million raised since Election Day is going to Trump’s Save America PAC, to be used for post-presidential political activities, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter. Less than half a million has gone to the campaign’s recount fund, the person said, while other small amounts have gone to legal committees. The New York Times first reported the PAC had more than $60 million.

But Trump is also gearing up for a fight in Florida, a tacit acknowledgment that this chapter is ending — even if he won’t admit it.

In Florida, Trump owns the Mar-a-Lago Club, which includes both a for-profit social club and private quarters for him. Some of his neighbors have insisted that Trump is not legally allowed to live at the club long-term, citing a 1993 agreement he signed with the town of Palm Beach.

Trump’s business has disputed that, and the town has not taken any action so far. “There is no document or agreement in place that prohibits President Trump from using Mar-a-Lago as his residence,” said Trump spokeswoman Kimberly Benza.

If Trump is ever barred from living at Mar-a-Lago, he might not have to move far: The president owns three other houses near the club, which he has used as rental properties and extra guest suites.

This is shaping up to be an unusually quiet winter at Mar-a-Lago, which used to host dozens of charity galas and luncheons during the Palm Beach winter social season. That lucrative business dropped off sharply in 2017, when major charities moved their events after Trump said there were “very fine people” among the white-supremacist protesters at a march in Charlottesville

This year, a review of town permits and the Palm Beach Daily News’s social calendar shows it has fallen even further, as coronavirus fears have caused many events to be postponed or converted into virtual gatherings.

Mar-a-Lago hosted 49 galas and charity events in the winter of 2014 and 2015, according to an accounting compiled by The Washington Post. The Post identified just nine events on the schedule for this year.

Even Trumpettes USA — a group of Trump superfans who have held huge galas to celebrate him at Mar-a-Lago — says it’s waiting to schedule another.

“We are planning another Event, but not until COVID is under control and when The President gives us his direction,” Toni Holt Kramer, one of the group’s leaders, wrote in an email.

Ashley Parker contributed to this report.