In an indication of his wounded state, the president who took office determined to be omnipresent in American life, with daily and at times hourly appearances before the press corps, was almost entirely absent from public view as he prepared to vacate the White House on Wednesday morning.
Trump has spent the past seven days effectively in hiding, apart from delivering a scripted farewell address that his staff recorded and released Tuesday afternoon. In the 19-minute speech, he acknowledged that his term as the 45th president is concluding and declared, “We did what we came here to do and so much more.”
Trump condemned the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and said political violence “can never be tolerated,” though he did not accept responsibility for his role in spreading misinformation that inspired the insurrection or his words that incited the mob attack.
In the two weeks since the riot, Trump has been disinclined to convene a final Cabinet meeting or a final news conference or a final coronavirus briefing because such events would remind people of his impending exit, aides said. And the president instructed his staff not to bring media members in for ceremonial events, such as awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom or other accolades.
Another reason Trump has not held public events in his final days: Aides feel he is too volatile to interact freely with reporters. Trump is “just not in a place where they would go well,” according to a White House official.
Many of Trump’s current and former advisers and associates lament how his presidency is concluding not with a celebration of his policy achievements, but with an unprecedented second impeachment that will permanently tarnish his legacy.
“This is a fiasco,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide who helped him launch his insurgent campaign in 2015. “Donald Trump used to scream at me all the time, ‘You’re very self-destructive.’ But I see it in him as well. It didn’t have to end this way. And I’m sympathetic. I feel badly for him. I’m not criticizing him.”
Although he is grudgingly going through the motions of transferring power, Trump behind the scenes has exhibited far more equivocation. He has continued to falsely tell allies visiting him in the Oval Office that he won the election, and he has been churlish when friends in Florida or New York have called in recent weeks.
Trump’s mentality has swiveled between accepting — and even in moments embracing — his new reality as a former president and still living in a fantasy world.
“He goes between, ‘Well, I’m going to go to Florida and play golf, and life is honestly better,’ and then in the next moment, it’s like, ‘But don’t you think there’s a chance to stay?’ ” said one senior administration official who, like some others interviewed, spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid.
Earlier this month, Trump taped a short video calling on Americans to act peacefully following pressure to do so from Vice President Pence, daughter Ivanka Trump, son-in-law Jared Kushner and other advisers. Trump later told aides that he regretted doing it and that his supporters did not like the video, two officials said.
Trump has complained to advisers about wanting to post his thoughts but not having access to Twitter, which along with other major social media sites suspended his account in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol siege. And two White House officials said he has marveled at the ferocious defenses of him delivered on television by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R), a promoter of QAnon, an extremist ideology that the FBI has deemed a domestic terrorism threat, who was elected in November in Georgia.
Meanwhile, Trump has fixated on finding ways to exact revenge on those who he says betrayed him, chief among them Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the No. 3 House Republican who voted last week to impeach Trump over his incitement of the Capitol siege.
Kushner and other advisers have turned their attention to assembling a defense team for Trump’s expected impeachment trial in the Senate, according to a second senior administration official.
Many of the lawyers who defended Trump in his first impeachment over Ukraine have bowed out this time. This official explained that Trump’s conduct regarding the Capitol attack feels less defensible, and he also will have more difficulty convincing people to publicly support him because he will no longer be president.
“The fact that no one wants to be involved tells you what everyone thinks about it,” this official said. “You have a situation where anyone who would be in a situation to represent or defend him, the calculation is different — he’s not going to be the president, so I’m thinking, what are the private-sector implications of being the public face of Trump’s impeachment defense?”
Trump initially suggested to some outside advisers that he wanted the impeachment trial to be expedited to take place before two Democrats were sworn into the Senate from Georgia, which is expected to happen on Wednesday, but was convinced that would have been a mistake, officials say. In addition, Trump was annoyed that personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani said publicly that he would be defending Trump during impeachment.
Trump has been venting that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) have abandoned him, according to aides. He has asked advisers for information about all 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach him. And he has encouraged allies to attack them publicly because he no longer has access to his Twitter account and has not been doing media interviews where he could fire his own attacks.
Trump’s ire at Cheney has been especially fierce. He has spoken to McCarthy and other lawmakers about his desire to strip her of her leadership position and then to help defeat her in a GOP primary in 2022. He also has lambasted her family, led by former vice president Richard B. Cheney, for supporting “forever wars,” according to aides.
A spokesman for McCarthy said the leader does not support efforts to remove Cheney as Republican conference chair. Cheney’s office declined to comment.
In his final hours as president, Trump has homed in on maximizing one of the few unilateral powers still at his disposal: clemency. He has spent hours in recent days deciding whom to pardon and for what crimes, asking detailed questions about candidates and personally calling family members of those he selected. Of particular fixation to the president was whether he should pardon Stephen K. Bannon, his former chief strategist, advisers said.
Trump granted clemency to Bannon and GOP donor Elliott Broidy and a raft of well-connected celebrities, politicians and nonviolent drug offenders, issuing 73 pardons and commuting the sentences of an additional 70 individuals.
White House counsel Pat Cipollone and other advisers talked Trump out of pardoning himself or preemptively pardoning family members or politically controversial allies, such as Giuliani, officials said. There were some discussions about issuing pardons related to the Capitol riot, but the talks did not advance, an aide said.
Lawyers argued to Trump that he could not pardon people without naming potential crimes, and that preemptively pardoning people would be a bad idea, a senior administration official said.
Trump has been asking aides, friends and other associates whether they’d like a pardon. When one such person declined Trump’s offer for a pardon — explaining that they faced no charges, committed no crimes and therefore had no need for clemency — “Trump’s response was, ‘Yeah, well, but you never know. They’re going to come after us all. Maybe it’s not a bad idea. Just let me know,’ ” according to another senior administration official briefed on the conversation.
The staffers who remain in the largely emptied-out White House have been scrambling to build a departure ceremony on Wednesday morning at Joint Base Andrews befitting Trump’s vision of a grand military send-off.
Aides have been trying to dredge up a crowd by sending invitations far and wide and encouraging people to bring friends, telling them they can have five tickets. Included on the invite list are former Trump staffers who have since disavowed the president, including former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly and former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
Kelly joked in an interview Tuesday that he and Scaramucci had thought about attending together but decided against it. “We won’t be attending,” he said, with a laugh.
Kelly, who on Jan. 7 said on CNN that Trump had become “a laughingstock,” directly blamed the president’s lies and rhetoric for inciting the Capitol attack and said that if he were still in the Cabinet, he would move to invoke the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to remove him from office.
Some current aides are not interested in attending, frustrated with the president’s behavior in his final days and concerned about being seen at a public event with him.
The most notable absence will be Pence, who is not planning to attend Trump’s send-off at Andrews and instead will attend President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration at the Capitol.
Trump’s final days were not supposed to be like this. Following his defeat in November’s election, advisers were cautiously optimistic that Trump ultimately would come to terms with his loss and spend his remaining weeks in office celebrating his accomplishments.
Even as it became increasingly clear that the president would continue to baselessly claim that the election was somehow rigged against him, Trump allies still spoke of a grand finale — perhaps of a competing rally on Inauguration Day to try to draw attention away from Biden, or even an announcement of a 2024 presidential candidacy.
Trump’s political career was still just beginning, advisers said, envisioning their boss at the very least as a kingmaker in the Republican Party for years to come.
But now, in the wake of both the insurrection against the Capitol and Trump’s subsequent impeachment — making him the first president to ever be impeached twice — his exit is that of a president non grata slinking out the door.
Tim Miller, a GOP strategist and outspoken Trump critic who helped organize Republicans to oppose his reelection last year, argued that the president’s weaknesses had always been apparent.
“He’s been a small, pathetic man from the start, going all the way back to 2015,” Miller said. “The truth was, he was stoppable if people were willing to take on the political risk required to stop him. . . . Besides his insane but extremely narrow electoral college victory against Hillary Clinton [in 2016], he doesn’t actually have a whole lot of other victories to point to.”
Still, Trump hinted in his farewell video that Wednesday may not be his final day on the political stage.
“Now, as I prepare to hand power over to a new administration at noon on Wednesday, I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning,” Trump said. “There’s never been anything like it. . . . The best is yet to come.”