Trump had decided Wednesday morning to grant a final gift of clemency after issuing 143 other pardons in an early-morning spree that included his controversial former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.
His remaining aides had hoped that Trump’s departure remarks at Joint Base Andrews earlier that morning — where he thanked his supporters and wished the incoming administration “great success” — would serve as the enduring image of his already fraught exit from the presidency. Instead, they scrambled to explain another whim from their boss.
Away from his twin cravings — the public and the press — the outgoing president announced the Pirro pardon in a brief written statement as much of the world spun forward without him. Many of his once-close Republican allies eschewed his sparsely attended Air Force One farewell to attend President Biden’s inauguration instead. Most of Trump’s senior aides skipped his final flight as president, instead remaining in Washington. And a smattering of supporters greeted his arrival at the balmy Palm Beach airport.
But if the final hours of Trump’s presidency were publicly anticlimactic and relatively sedate, they were characteristically frenetic behind the scenes.
Trump spent his last full day polling a wide range of advisers on whether he should pardon Bannon, who was fired from the White House in 2017. Federal prosecutors charged Bannon last year with defrauding Trump’s own donors in a private fundraising effort for construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Aides began preparing the paperwork for a potential Bannon pardon not even knowing if Trump planned to sign the document, although he ultimately did just before midnight over the objections of many advisers and allies.
Trump also rescinded a much-heralded ethics executive order shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday that had hindered federal administration officials from lobbying the government or working for foreign countries after they leave their posts. In reversing the pledge — which he signed to great fanfare in a 2017 Oval Office ceremony — Trump undercut one of his most significant pledges to “drain the swamp,” now allowing many of his former employees to lobby agencies for which they once directly worked and to accept foreign government clients.
In his final remarks at Joint Base Andrews, Trump never once mentioned the names of his successors — President Biden and Vice President Harris — despite their names having been written into his prepared script.
“I will always fight for you,” Trump said. “I will be watching. I will be listening. And I will tell you that the future of this country has never been better. I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they’ll have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular.”
For Trump, a consummate showman most comfortable when the focus is squarely on him, perhaps the biggest indignity Wednesday was just how clearly the attention had shifted elsewhere, with much of the nation riveted to the inaugural proceedings back in Washington.
There, Biden addressed what he called “the historic moment of crisis and challenge,” offering a glimpse at a governing vision in stark contrast with that of Trump: “Unity is the path forward,” he said.
On social media, Trump’s favored public forum from which he is now largely banned, the conversation also moved past the 45th president. The new focus included scenes both frivolous and moving — from Harris’s purple outfit and pearls to her stepdaughter’s Miu Miu bejeweled coat to the powerful performance by national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman to Michelle Obama’s elegant ensemble to how Lady Gaga, who performed the national anthem, looked like a glamorous “Hunger Games” sponsor.
“He’s a profoundly lonely man and I think he’s on his way to even more profound loneliness,” said Tim O’Brien, a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and a Trump biographer who has often been critical of him. “It certainly ended with a bang, with the insurrection on Jan. 6, but it climaxed with a whimper, which is somebody isolated and locked down and divorced from democracy and the pageantry of the office. It was like he was fleeing a crime scene.”
Trump, who was impeached for a second time by the House for inciting a deadly riot of supporters at the Capitol on Jan. 6, called around to allies in his final hours in the Oval Office on Tuesday evening and talked about how “good” his poll numbers were and how many people still support him, a person who spoke to him said. He surmised that the prospect of a third party that he would lead — called the Patriot Party — could scare Republican senators into voting against convicting him in an impeachment trial.
And he falsely told one adviser that his Gallup poll numbers were at 51 percent. In fact, his Gallup approval number reached its nadir at the end of his presidency, at 34 percent; his average approval rating of 41 percent throughout his presidency was the lowest Gallup has ever recorded.
Trump did not go into the Oval Office on his final day but greeted some senior aides in the Diplomatic Reception Room before departing. Yet, after months of riling up his supporters with false claims of a stolen election that ended in a deadly Capitol siege, he seemed at peace with leaving the White House, the person who spoke with him said.
A small crowd greeted Trump as he walked across the South Lawn toward Marine One, and a larger but still modest one awaited him at Joint Base Andrews. Trump had hoped to orchestrate the sort of showy military send-off that more resembled authoritarian pageantry than the placid rituals of American electoral democracy.
“We will be back in some form,” the outgoing president said. “Have a good life.”
Noticeably absent from his farewell were the three elected Republicans who had worked most closely with him — Vice President Mike Pence, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). All three instead attended Biden’s inauguration — which Trump decided not to attend, bucking the traditional transfer of power — with Pence at center stage applauding Biden’s speech.
Trump tried to re-create the rituals of his routine political rallies, veering off script, offering up mistruths and blaring Laura Branigan’s hit “Gloria” and the Village People’s “YMCA.” Air Force One taxied down the runway to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
“It ended as absurdly as it possibly could end, with him flying off the tarmac to ‘My Way,’ which is a song about someone who has no regrets for anything he’s done and doesn’t care about what anybody else thinks of them,” O’Brien said. “It’s the most unpresidential anthem imaginable.”
Televisions on the flight to Florida were turned to Fox News inauguration coverage for the entire ride, and the final meal was grilled sirloin on a bed of cheesy grits, with an over-easy egg and a buttermilk biscuit.
Trump — who spent some time on the flight talking to the flight crew and pilots — did a flyover of his private Mar-a-Lago Club and the Palm Beach coastline for the last time before the plane landed. Air Force One dipped low as it approached the coastline and surveyed his property, then circled around to land.
No official greeters and little fanfare met Trump as he arrived in Florida. An aide described the moment as a “technical transfer.” At 11 a.m., Air Force One stopped rolling, its belly facing a small phalanx of cameras and about 10 supporters. Trump smiled as he exited the plane but did not take questions. He was joined by Melania Trump and soon trailed by his adult children and their spouses. By 11:09 a.m., Trump’s motorcade had rolled from Palm Beach International Airport for the final time.
As Trump headed toward Mar-a-Lago, the motorcade periodically slowed down so he could take in his supporters who lined the bridge and dotted the roads for several miles.
Brandi Kraus and her husband drove their three young sons 10 hours from Raleigh, N.C., to wave at Trump’s motorcade. Kraus was having her boys practice their salutes while they waited for Trump to pass by.
“We’re kind of hoping for a John Kennedy Jr. moment here,” Kraus said as 4-year-old Zachary snapped his hand back and forth from his forehead.
Kraus said the trip was worth it to see Trump as president one last time: “We’re here to stand up for him, to stand up for the Constitution,” she said.
Trump arrived at his private club before noon on Wednesday, when Biden officially became president, and disappeared behind the hedges without a word. He was accompanied by a few aides, officials said, and is expected to play golf in the coming days.
Anne Gearan in Washington and Lori Rozsa in Palm Beach contributed to this report.