The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After inciting mob attack, Trump retreats in rage. Then, grudgingly, he admits his loss.

The Post's Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker on how President Trump could be removed from office, either under the 25th Amendment or by impeachment. (Video: The Washington Post)
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President Trump spent more than 24 hours after instigating a mob to violently storm the Capitol trying to escape reality.

Cloistered in the White House, Trump raged uncontrollably about perceived acts of betrayal. He tuned out advisers who pleaded with him to act responsibly. He was uninterested in trying to repair what he had wrought. And he continued to insist he had won the election, even as his own vice president certified the fact that he had not.

Only after darkness fell in Washington on Thursday, after the Capitol had been besieged by death and destruction and a growing chorus of lawmakers had called for his immediate removal from office, did Trump grudgingly accept his fate.

“Now Congress has certified the results,” Trump said in a video recorded in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room late Thursday afternoon. “A new administration will be inaugurated on January 20th. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”

This was not a concession so much as a grudging acknowledgment that his presidency would end. Trump did not talk of winners and losers, nor did he utter the word “concede,” but it was the closest he seemed willing to go.

Some of his advisers had pleaded with him to give this kind of speech in November, after it was clear he had lost. Those appeals only intensified this week. During his 2-minute, 41-second speech, Trump read from a script that he agreed to only after a pressure campaign from Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, legal counsel Pat Cipollone and members of his family, officials said.

“My campaign vigorously pursued every legal avenue to contest the election results,” Trump said. “My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote. In so doing, I was fighting to defend American democracy.”

Yet it was Trump’s assault on American democracy over the past two months, culminating with Wednesday’s attack at the Capitol, that left him as isolated as he has ever been in his four years as president. An array of top aides — including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, both original members of his Cabinet — abruptly resigned. Many more privately discussed whether to follow suit. Some of those who stayed on kept their distance from the vengeful president, and none stepped forward to defend his complicity in the attack — not even White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, his professional defender.

Outside the administration, a growing number of allies have given up on Trump. Rather than trying to persuade him to do the right thing, they are simply hoping he does no further damage before his term expires Jan. 20.

“This is everything that everyone’s been blocking for four years, the role of buffering Trump,” said one of the president’s advisers. “It’s horrible. People are miserable. They can’t wait for the two weeks to be over. Everyone’s taking one day at a time trying to get him through the next two weeks without massive problems.”

The portrait that emerged from interviews with administration officials and Trump advisers and associates, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, is of a president indignant, unmoored and psychologically fragile — one who some aides believe has sabotaged his legacy and threatens the orderly transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden.

One administration official described Trump’s behavior as that of “a total monster.” Another said the situation was “insane” and “beyond the pale.”

“He is alone. He is mad King George,” said a Republican in frequent touch with the White House. “Trump believes that he has these people so intimidated they wouldn’t dare mess with him. I think Trump doesn’t understand how precarious his situation is right now.”

One after another on Thursday, former Trump officials broke their silence to condemn the president, some in sharp terms. William P. Barr, who resigned last month as attorney general, called Trump’s conduct “a betrayal of his office and supporters,” adding in a statement to the Associated Press that “orchestrating a mob to pressure Congress is inexcusable.”

Two of Trump’s former White House chiefs of staff joined the chorus. Mick Mulvaney resigned from his post as U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, telling CNBC, “We didn’t sign up for what you saw last night. We signed up for making America great again. We signed up for lower taxes and less regulation. The president has a long list of successes that we can be proud of. But all of that went away yesterday.”

John F. Kelly went even further, saying on CNN that what happened at the Capitol “was a direct result of him poisoning the minds of people with the lies and the fraud.” He urged the Cabinet to meet to discuss invoking the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to remove Trump from office. Scores of Democratic lawmakers, as well as Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), called for the same.

Some senior administration officials have been discussing doing so out of fear that Trump could take actions resulting in further violence and death if he remains in office for even a few more days, said a person involved in the conversations.

A former senior administration official briefed on the talks confirmed that preliminary discussions of the 25th Amendment were underway, although this person cautioned that they were informal and that there was no indication of an immediate plan of action.

Senior officials have discussed removing Trump under the 25th Amendment. Here’s how that would work.

Under the 25th Amendment, the president can be removed from office by the vice president plus a majority of the Cabinet, or by the vice president and a body established by Congress, if they determine he “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Trump could contest the move, however, making its potential impact unclear.

As a mob of Trump supporters breached police barricades and seized the Capitol, Trump was disengaged in discussions with Pentagon leaders about deploying the National Guard to aid the overwhelmed U.S. Capitol Police, according to two people familiar with the talks.

Vice President Pence worked directly with acting defense secretary Christopher C. Miller and the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Mark A. Milley, as well as with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), concerning the unrest at the Capitol and military deployments, the people said.

As for Trump, one of the people said, “he was completely, totally out of it.” This person added, “He made no attempt to reach out to them.”

Instead of exercising his commander-in-chief duties to help protect the Capitol from an attempted insurrection, Trump watched the attack play out on television. Though not necessarily enjoying himself, he was “bemused” by the spectacle because he thought his supporters were literally fighting for him, according to a close adviser. But, this person said, he was turned off by what he considered the “low-class” spectacle of people in ragtag costumes rummaging through the Capitol.

Considerable internal anger was directed toward Meadows, according to four aides, both because of what many view as his incompetence in managing the White House and because of his willingness to prop Trump up while indulging his false election-fraud claims.

People who interacted with Trump said they found him in a fragile and volatile state. “A lot of people don’t want to talk to him,” a senior administration official said. “He’s in a terrible mood constantly, and he’s defensive, and everyone knows this was a horrible mistake.”

Trump spent Wednesday afternoon and evening cocooned at the White House and listening only to a small coterie of loyal aides — including Meadows, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, personnel director Johnny McEntee and policy adviser Stephen Miller. McEnany also spent time with the president. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was described as disengaged.

Trump’s “got a bunker mentality now, he really does,” said a close adviser to the president.

During the Capitol occupation, aides said, Trump resisted their entreaties to condemn the rioters and refused to be reasoned with.

“He kept saying: ‘The vast majority of them are peaceful. What about the riots this summer? What about the other side? No one cared when they were rioting. My people are peaceful. My people aren’t thugs,’ ” an administration official said. “He didn’t want to condemn his people.”

“He was a total monster today,” this official added, describing the president’s handling of Wednesday’s coup attempt as less defensible than his equivocal response to the deadly white-supremacist rally in 2017 in Charlottesville.

Aides weigh resignation, removal options

Some aides were mortified that Trump was so slow, and resistant, in telling his supporters to vacate the Capitol, and they believed he did irreparable damage to his presidency and legacy.

Aides and a range of lawmakers begged Trump to call on his supporters to stop rioting. Some former aides echoed those pleas on Twitter, tagging the president presumably in hopes he might see their messages.

Alyssa Farah, the recently departed White House communications director, wrote: “Condemn this now, @realDonaldTrump — you are the only one they will listen to. For our country!”

White House aides tried to get Trump to call in to Fox News Channel, but he refused. He at first did not want to say anything but was persuaded to send tweets. Then they scripted a video message for him to record, which he agreed to distribute on Twitter. But the president ad-libbed by including references to false voter fraud claims that they had asked him not to include, the administration official said. Twitter later locked his account, enraging the president.

“He didn’t want to say anything or do anything to rise to the moment,” the official said. “He’s so driven by this notion that he’s been treated unfairly that he can’t see the bigger picture.”

This official described Trump as so mad at Pence that “he couldn’t see straight.” Several White House aides were upset that the president chose to attack Pence when the vice president, secured at an undisclosed location at the Capitol, had just been in harm’s way.

A former senior administration official briefed on the president’s private conversations said: “The thing he was most upset about and couldn’t get over all day was the Pence betrayal. . . . All day, it was a theme of, ‘I made this guy, I saved him from a political death, and here he stabbed me in the back.’ ”

Trump’s fury extended to Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short. The president told aides he wanted to bar Short — who was with the vice president all day at the Capitol — from the White House grounds, according to an official with knowledge of the president’s remarks.

Short has told others he would not care if he were barred.

Trump also brooded about the decisions by Facebook and Twitter to suspend his accounts. An adviser likened the president’s social media accounts to his “security blanket and oxygen.” White House spokesman Judd Deere condemned the moves and said in a statement, “Big Tech is out of control.”

Meadows and Cipollone, among others, tried to persuade Trump to record a video condemning the violence, pledging to prosecute the rioters and committing to a peaceful transfer of power, officials said. They argued that his image and future political prospects could be permanently damaged otherwise.

Cipollone also warned the president that he could have legal liability for having encouraged the riots, a detail first reported by the New York Times, and urged him to clean it up. He and other lawyers helped the president understand that once he leaves office, he and his family would have considerable legal exposure on multiple fronts, an adviser said.

By the end of the day Thursday, Trump had relented, having seen some of his biggest supporters abandon him and considered the prospect of impeachment.

Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger was among those who resigned in the wake of the Capitol riot. Although national security adviser Robert C. O’Brien was said Wednesday night to be considering resigning, he, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, received outreach from former national security officials and executives urging them to stay in their jobs.

The message conveyed was that leaving would create a vacuum that foreign enemies might seek to take advantage of, according to a senior administration official.

White House officials, meanwhile, are gearing up for a possible impeachment fight next week even as they brace for additional resignations from senior aides, as well as more junior staffers.

Trump’s support rapidly eroded in the Senate, where a senior Republican aide described the mood among GOP senators as “pretty apoplectic.”

Inside the four-hour insurrection

McConnell, who has been estranged from the president in recent weeks, has told fellow senators and other confidants that he does not plan to speak with Trump again.

Even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunchest allies and golfing partners, broke with the president.

“When it comes to accountability, the president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution,” Graham said at a Thursday news conference. While he said he did not believe invoking the 25th Amendment was necessary “now,” he thinks that “if something else happens, all options would be on the table.”

Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday night, Graham was similarly blunt. “Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey — I hate it being this way,” he said. “All I can say is count me out. Enough is enough.”

But Trump has found admiration elsewhere. At the Republican National Committee meeting in Amelia Island, Fla., where the president had been expected to tape a speech, he instead called into a morning session Thursday to speak to RNC members for a minute or so, RNC members said.

The crowd greeted him with applause and joy, acting as if Wednesday’s breach at the Capitol had never taken place.

Shane Harris contributed to this report.