Trump's lonely exit
Posted January 20, 2021 12:34 p.m. EST
CNN — In one last divisive spectacle before exiting the Oval Office, President Donald J. Trump became the first chief executive in modern US history to forgo the tradition of attending his successor's inauguration. Instead, Trump opted for a departure ceremony that left the self-styled larger-than-life business tycoon-turned-president appearing small and as alone as ever.
With the pomp and circumstance granted to a foreign leader visiting the nation's capital, the taxpayer-funded ceremony treated Trump to a military band playing "Hail to the Chief" as deafening sounds from a 21-gun salute echoed across Joint Base Andrews, just outside Washington, DC. The manufactured nature of the festivities, ginned up to rival President Joe Biden's inauguration, seemed more fitting for an ousted autocrat heading into exile.
Four years ago, Trump delivered his own inauguration speech, promising an end to what he called "American Carnage." During his final remarks as president, however, Trump seemed incapable of his escaping his role in instigating the mob violence at the Capitol on January 6, a day that will forever stain his legacy.
"We were not a regular administration," Trump said, in a rare moment of honesty.
Speaking without the aid of teleprompters, Trump sounded detached and despondent as he touted his perceived achievements, citing the creation of the Space Force as well as his success in placing three conservative justices on the US Supreme Court. Though he did not mention Biden's name once during the remarks.
"I wish the new administration great luck and great success," Trump said.
"Goodbye. We love you. We'll be back in some form," he continued, before adding, "have a good life."
The music typically played at Trump rallies blared over the loudspeakers, including one of the President's favorites, "YMCA," by the Village People. Only this time, Trump did not bop along to the lyrics as he often does at his rallies, pumping his fists, to the delight of his supporters. Trump lumbered around the stage like a defeated prize fighter, scanning the venue for the exits.
Obsessed with crowd sizes, Trump had hoped for a grand departure ceremony prior to this final presidential flight, teeming with throngs of adoring fans in MAGA hats, to cap off his last morning in power. The event allowed for invitees to bring up to five guests in an effort to produce a large turnout. But the small gathering of approximately 200 people in attendance on the frigid tarmac paled in comparison to Trump's caustic campaign rallies, lending a cold and melancholy mood to the setting.
A few familiar Trump loyalists stood out in the crowd, including his final White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and speechwriter Stephen Miller. The 45th President's adult children applauded dutifully, including Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner. Miller gave a teary-eyed Ivanka a hug.
After he finished speaking, Trump began to exit the stage, then turned around to shake hands with Meadows, the highest-ranking White House official other than the President attending the departure ceremony, as Vice President Mike Pence chose to honor the American tradition of participating in the transfer of power taking place back in Washington.
In one final sign of the fractured relationship between Trump and Pence, the vice president also did not appear for the President's final departure on Marine One from the South Lawn of the White House.
As he walked down a red carpet and past the color guard for a final time as commander in chief, the President and first lady steered clear of the reporters gathered under the wing of Air Force One.
"Do you have any remorse for the events of January 6?" this reporter asked Trump. The President did not respond.
Standing atop the staircase leading to the presidential cabin, the Trumps looked back at the scene, stone-faced, before giving a final wave to the cameras and making their way on board.
The outgoing President boarded Air Force One at approximately 9 a.m. ET for his last flight as commander in chief along with a small contingent of White House officials and staffers who plan to work for Trump during his post-presidency. Flying during the hours prior to Biden's official swearing-in provided Trump with one last opportunity to enjoy the presidential aircraft and all of its trappings, without having to ask permission.
During the flight to West Palm Beach, Trump declined to visit with members of the press, a continuation of the outgoing President's determination to evade questions about his role in the Capitol insurrection.
Instead, a lone White House wrangler who will go on to work for the ex-president, Margo Martin, fought back tears as she thanked reporters and photographers for their work covering the administration.
"It's been an incredible ride, you guys," Martin said.
Not since the resignation of Richard Nixon has a president left office under such disgraceful circumstances. Yet, due to his own actions, Trump may sink to the bottom of the list of presidents maintained by historians who measure the legacies of former commanders in chief.
"Donald Trump is the worst president America has ever had," presidential historian Tim Naftali wrote in The Atlantic this week.
Trump's incitement of a violent mob of supporters who stormed the Capitol and threatened the lives of members of Congress had been roundly denounced as an attempt to spark insurrection against the US government. For weeks leading up to the January 6 siege, Trump pointed to bogus conspiracy theories to falsely claim he was cheated out of a second term, allegations that were never substantiated in federal court.
Following the violence at the Capitol, GOP leaders sought to distance themselves from Trump as well as other Republican lawmakers who stoked the hostility brewing inside the president's political base.
"They were provoked by the President and other powerful people," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said of the rioters.
Trump's network of allies and associates has been rocked by the insurrection attempt at the Capitol. Several former administration officials and White House advisers said they declined to attend Trump's departure ceremony out of disgust with the outgoing president.
"Sending the mob was a red line," one adviser said.
"He has eviscerated his legacy," another former adviser said.
A separate White House adviser predicted Trump's time in office will serve as a cautionary tale to future generations about presidential dishonesty.
"Don't end up like Trump because of your lies," the adviser said.
The President who derided journalists as "the enemy of the people" and "fake news" had finally realized the costs of his pathological dishonesty.
"In the end, it all came crashing down because he could never tell the truth," the adviser said.
Blasted by his critics as a dictator wannabe, Trump had always seen himself as more of a "monarch," a longtime Trump adviser told me.
After attempting to strongarm Pence into subverting the constitution during the official counting of the electoral votes on January 6, Trump will never see a throne installed at the White House. He will have to settle instead for the gold-plated surroundings of Mar-a-Lago, which will serve as Trump's initial post-presidential home.
Martin told reporters that Trump doesn't have any set plans for his first few weeks out of office. Mostly golf, she said.
"He doesn't sit still very well," Martin said of Trump.
Following Trump's arrival in Florida, reporters made one final attempt to shout questions on the tarmac, during the ex-president's final minutes in office.
"Any remorse for the events of January 6?" this reporter asked again.
There was no response.