‘Like a Ghost’ in the White House: The Last Days of the Trump Presidency

‘Like a Ghost’ in the White House: The Last Days of the Trump PresidencyJanuary 20, 2021

During his last days in the White House, Donald Trump spent a lot of time thinking about the one and only election he ever lost, plotting every way he could to try to change the results.

He thought about when to leave Washington. He thought about what he should do when he gets to Florida. He thought about whether to pardon his family, even himself.

These are the things that consumed him as he roamed around the increasingly empty White House.

In the last days of Trump’s presidency, the things that preoccupied Trump were not the things that preoccupied other Americans. He was not preoccupied with the deadly riot he had incited, that left Capitol Hill terrorized, that had led to his second impeachment. He was not preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic that killed 400,000 Americans, infected millions more, decimated the economy and is still raging across the United States.

The last days that Trump lived in the White House began officially when Congress voted, in the middle of the night—with broken glass in the marble hallways and gas masks scattered in safe rooms—to certify the election results that Trump still refused to accept. It ends when he flies to his namesake resort in South Florida Wednesday without ever uttering a word to Joe Biden.

In the last days of his presidency, stripped of his social media bullhorn, the president’s shouting—mostly about the betrayal of those in his own party who blocked him from altering the election and tried to remove him from office—could be heard only by the few remaining staff too loyal or too afraid to ignore him.

His last days were quiet. He insisted he was working. “President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening … ” his public schedule said each day. But he wasn’t really working. He was disappearing.

He was a man, a leader, a president almost unrecognizable to those who had watched him over the past four years. Diminished. Adrift, Sullen. Nearly 50 current and former Trump aides and Republican allies describe Trump’s final days in office as a countdown to oblivion—with the energy of a once-chaotic West Wing draining away while signs heralding the coming of his replacement appeared outside their windows.

In the last days, the man who had imposed himself so relentlessly on the public—whose all-hours tweetstorms and rants troubled our sleep and harried our days—faded from view into a gloomy purgatory of his own design.

He’s “like a ghost” in his own White House, said a White House official.

In the last days, he was president but not quite present.

The day that would ultimately come to define the Trump White House began with a demand for loyalty.

In the Oval Office that morning, Trump pushed Mike Pence to use his position overseeing the certification of the Electoral College results later that afternoon to block Biden’s victory. Trump had been promoting this illegal gambit for days, but Pence had said nothing publicly. Finally, to his face, Pence told the president the Constitution wouldn’t allow it and he wouldn’t attempt it.

The day had already started badly for Trump. Just after midnight, Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler had lost her reelection bid, and it looked like the second Republican senator in the state, David Perdue, would soon follow, handing control of the chamber to Democrats. Members of his party were already blaming Trump and his campaign to discredit the state’s voting system—and the Republicans who oversaw it—for the historic defeats. Now, the man who was his most unquestioningly faithful servant was finally telling him no.

Trump was livid. In retribution, he instructed chief of staff Mark Meadows and John McEntee, one of Trump’s most trusted aides, to ban Pence’s chief of staff from the White House complex. They never did.

Two hours later, Trump carried his simmering rage at Pence’s refusal to the “Stop the Steal” rally he had arranged at the Ellipse, just south of the White House. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” Trump told thousands of his supporters. “You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.” Then he urged them to march to the Capitol.

They did. Hundreds of protesters clad in MAGA gear burst through a security perimeter—injuring U.S. Capitol Police officers in the process—and poured into the halls of Congress. They broke windows, scaled walls, emptied fire extinguishers and stalked outnumbered police. They prowled through the House and Senate chambers, stopped to pose for selfies, and left a trail of ransacked offices and graffiti.

Trump watched it unfold on television in the private dining room off the Oval Office, seemingly oblivious to the dangers of an armed mob loose inside the halls of the Capitol. Others around him understood the implications and tried to persuade their boss to act—and act responsibly.

His son Don Jr. who had addressed the crowd earlier, condemned the rioters on Twitter shortly after 2 p.m. Trump took quickly to Twitter, too — before his staff could urge him to alter his message. But instead of urging rioters to stop, he blasted Pence for blocking Biden’s victory. A few minutes later, he tweeted his support of the Capitol Police and asked rioters to “stay peaceful.”

They didn’t. And the injuries and the death toll climbed. Protester Ashli Babbitt was shot as she was trying to go through the shattered window of a door leading to the Speaker’s Lobby. Capitol Police Officer Daniel Hodges was crushed in a door. Lawmakers cowered under desks and behind chairs, frantically calling everyone they could think of — the secretary of Defense, the attorney general, the Army secretary — to get more police to the Capitol.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie repeatedly tried to get in touch with Trump. House Minority Kevin McCarthy, one of the president’s closest allies, called Trump and “begged” Trump to put out a stronger statement. Kellyanne Conway, a former aide who remains close to the president, called the White House after the D.C. mayor’s office asked her help getting Trump to call up the National Guard.

Inside the White House, there was paralysis. Trump’s son-in-law and de facto chief of staff Jared Kushner was flying back from the Middle East. Several aides, including Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, urged the president to say more. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany considered whether to hold a briefing but didn’t. Instead, at 4:17 p.m., Trump released a video. “Go home,” he told the rioters before reassuring them that “We love you.” The outrage at Trump grew as the televised scenes of mayhem continued.

“The first video out in the Rose Garden was never going to be a good idea because it was a continuation of the rally,” a former White House aide said. “It’s almost as if he was still in rally mode.”

Trump and Chris Miller, the acting secretary of Defense, had spoken in previous days about the upcoming protests. The Pentagon should do whatever it needed, Trump told Miller. Still, there was a crucial 30-minute delay after D.C. asked for the National Guard.

Trump, still fuming about Pence’s decision not to interfere with the certification, never called his vice president. Pence had been forced to hide with his family in the Capitol while rioters chanted that they wanted to hang him. Later, Trump expressed frustration to Meadows and other aides that Pence had gotten credit for deploying the National Guard and coordinating with other government officials on the overall response, but it would be days before the two men spoke directly.

Then, even as authorities struggled to regain control of the Capitol and the city imposed a 6 p.m. curfew, Trump tweeted again: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!” An hour later, Twitter slapped his account with a temporary suspension.

With the smell of tear gas still lingering in the corridors, Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani phoned newly elected Republican senator Tommy Tuberville and left a long message that managed not to mention any of the day’s drama but rather urged him to “slow down” the certification. Tuberville never got the message, though, because Giuliani had dialed the wrong senator.

Once they emerged from their safe rooms, most senators, led by the implacably stern-faced Pence, weren’t in the mood for delays.

“Enough is enough,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, Trump’s closest ally in the chamber, said when lawmakers returned to the Senate floor.

Trump’s concession, such as it was, came in the middle of the night, exactly two months after he had first refused to accept that he had lost the election.

At 3:45 a.m., Congress, having summoned its collective rage at the rioters and the man who had dispatched them, confirmed Biden would be America’s 46th president. With the vote, any remaining hope Trump had that he might cling to power for another term vanished.

At the urging of Kushner and an increasingly diminished team of advisers, who shuttled between the executive residence and Oval Office to consult with the president, a defeated Trump did what had been unthinkable just days earlier and publicly acknowledged that a new administration would be coming into office.

He couldn’t resist prefacing his peace offering with yet another lie. “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.” Just minutes after the vote, at 3:49 a.m., the statement was posted to the Twitter account of aide Dan Scavino, who, unlike Trump, still had access to social media.

Dawn broke with the first of a series of resignations. About 7 a.m., his former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who had been serving as a special envoy to Northern Ireland, publicly announced his departure.”I can’t do it. I can’t stay,” he said. By the end of the day, at least a dozen Trump officials had said versions of the same—ranging from Cabinet secretaries and national security experts to senior agency appointees. Other staffers opted to work remotely to stay far away from the West Wing, or not to work at all.

“This has all been part of a big f–king show … That’s what is so infuriating about the whole thing,” said a national GOP strategist who worked to elect Trump. “He knows he lost. He’s a showman. And that showmanship had unintended consequences.”

Some cited their disgust with the president’s rhetoric on the day of the Capitol riot, while others had simply reached their limit following Trump’s election-fraud charade and stunning betrayal of Pence. Still for others, it was Trump’s passive-aggressive statement about the presidential transition that finalized their decision. “It should have been said in December,” said a former Trump aide, matter-of-factly.

Staffers had long considered that Thursday would be an important date internally: The day they could finally — and publicly — acknowledge the election was over and move on. But the riots prevented them from being able to say goodbye as they expected.

For the increasingly isolated president, the pile-on didn’t stop with the steady stream of resignations. When the deaths of five people during the riots were confirmed—including Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick—the right-leaning editorial board at the Wall Street Journal, a Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper, called for Congress to impeach and remove Trump if he declined to “take personal responsibility and resign.”

The stinging indictment by a newspaper Trump had read religiously for decades was more upsetting to him than the flood of administration officials springing for the exits, according to one senior administration official. That was the point Trump began seriously discussing with aides what more he could say to spare himself further humiliation. Kushner and others suggested a televised address from the Oval Office, but the president didn’t like that idea. Several allies gently prodded him to publicly apologize to Pence, despite his notorious refusal to show contrition.

“You would think the news that five people died in a riot of your own making would scare you straight, but no, it was when one of his favorite media outlets turned on him that he finally realized the trouble he was facing,” said a Republican close to the White House.

Other Republican allies urged Trump to attempt a do-over with a more conciliatory and straightforward message. Realizing the treacherous legal waters he had waded into, Trump agreed. At around 7:30 that evening, Trump released a video through the White House, more straightforwardly conceding the election and asking “healing and reconciliation” for the nation. He never uttered Biden’s name. In many ways, it was the speech that most members of Trump’s inner circle, including his wife and Kushner, had wanted him to make in the days after Biden was declared president-elect by the bulk of Washington.

As White House aides trickled into work with their morning coffee, the president fired off a morning tweet from his restored Twitter account: “The 75,000,000 great American Patriots who voted for me, AMERICA FIRST, and MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, will have a GIANT VOICE long into the future.” But the rest of Washington was still grappling with the aftermath of the Capitol siege and debating whether another 12 days of Trump was just too much of a risk to the country.

The president watched the outrage spiral before him on television. Former Republican allies—ranging from Christie to Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey—called for his removal or impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was seeking assurance from the Pentagon that Trump couldn’t abruptly order a nuclear strike. Dozens of corporations announced a freeze on campaign donations to GOP lawmakers who had met Trump’s request to block certification of the election. There were reports Cabinet members were contemplating invoking the 25th Amendment to put Pence in charge. Trump complained to aides that the intensity of the blowback was unfair.

“I think the problem is that he has weathered every storm for five years … and now I don’t think he truly appreciates the extent of the line,” said a former administration official. “I think he’s so used to people being like, ‘Oh, don’t worry about it.’”

It didn’t help Trump’s mood that Pence, whom Trump had been avoiding since their last conversation Wednesday morning, was being treated like the actual commander in chief by Democrats and Republicans alike. Nor was Trump happy that the vice president had so far declined to tamp down any of the calls for removal or reject pleas that he persuade Trump to resign. That just seemed to fuel the rumors that Pence might actually be considering either option.

“He’s reading these things that everyone is saying that Pence is the good guy and I think he’s like, ‘F–k,’” said a former senior administration official.

And in another departure from his vice president’s attempts to foster a peaceful transition, Trump announced via Twitter that he would definitely not attend Biden’s inauguration, leaving Pence and his wife, Karen, to represent the outgoing administration at the Jan. 20 ceremonies.

Sullen and lonely, Trump turned to an old ally who just 48 hours earlier had declared he was fed up with the president’s antics. “Trump and I, we had a hell of a journey,” Sen. Lindsey Graham had said the night of the riot before announcing: “Count me out.” Now, without any explanation from Graham, they were working side by side again. Graham is known to circle the most powerful politician. Still, White House aides were skeptical when he stopped by after renouncing Trump just days before.

Trump and Graham spent hours Friday plotting ways for the president to shift the attention back to his legacy of conservative policy accomplishments and away from Washington during the final countdown to Biden’s inauguration. They agreed to visit the southwestern border, where Trump could return to one of the issues that got him elected in the first place—the promise of a border wall.

But legacy polishing could do only so much to stem the anger. The president’s aides felt the White House should also respond to mounting calls for his impeachment by House Democrats and even some Republicans. Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate member of the Senate GOP Conference, had called for Trump’s resignation hours earlier, and Pelosi was beginning to warm to the idea of a rapid no-frills impeachment.

“If the president does not leave office imminently and willingly,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to fellow Democrats, “the Congress will proceed with our action.”

Led by Kushner and Scavino, West Wing officials began debating whether Trump should comment on threats of a second impeachment, and if so, what he should say. In the end, they decided to keep Trump out of it. They devised a statement that blamed Trump’s opponents for their partisanship and they had deputy press secretary Judd Deere deliver it: “A politically motivated impeachment against a president, who has done a great job, with 12 days remaining in his term will only serve to further divide our great country.”

But there was one more crisis awaiting Trump.

Around 8:30 p.m., @realdonaldtrump went dark on Twitter and the archive of some 55,000 tweets the president had sent during his time in office — statements that had ignited intraparty wars, alerted U.S. officials to major policy changes, blown up congressional negotiations and publicly informed staffers they had been fired — disappeared from the social media site. Trump’s worst fear had become a reality: He was permanently banned from his preferred communication platform.

Unlike his response to the riots, Trump’s fury at the Twitter ban was immediate and unequivocal.

“He can’t believe that. He thinks it’s un-American,” said a person close to the president.

The president raged at Big Tech and he railed at his aides — Why hadn’t they seen this coming? — as they hunted for an alternative platform where he could quickly rebuild his following. Gab, a social network that had become a preferred method for communicating among the alt-right, was briefly considered before Kushner shut down the suggestion. Parler, another Twitter lookalike that already had a strong conservative user base, was widely discussed. But it was eventually tossed aside, too, after Apple threatened to ban it from its app store and aides realized Parler was likely headed for more trouble.

Current and former Trump aides began texting each other. Some were surprised that Twitter had finally done it. Others breathed a sigh of relief.

“We can finally sleep in peace,” remarked one former Trump aide.

Trump had planned to spend that weekend at Camp David, the sprawling, secluded presidential retreat in Maryland he had largely avoided for four years in favor of his own namesake resorts.

But on Thursday, as calls for his removal grew, Trump canceled the trip, choosing to hunker down at the White House instead. He even skipped his regular trip to his golf club in suburban Virginia despite the clear, sunny weather.

Trump remained cloistered at the White House, pacing back and forth between the residence and the Oval Office, reading the New York Times (“House Prepares Article of Impeachment” was the banner headline) and watching television.

Inside the White House, the number of aides this particular weekend was fewer than normal because of the raging coronavirus and a hangover from the holidays. Some aides had quit in protest and others had already left for other jobs as the administration wound down. Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s closest advisers, hadn’t worked out of the White House in weeks and was scheduled to officially depart in just a few days.

Trump openly distrusted some of the aides who remained, even those he had relied on during prior crises. White House counsel Pat Cipollone had led his defense during his first impeachment but Cipollone was considering resigning following the president’s efforts to overturn the election, particularly his pressure on Pence. As a result, Trump’s inner circle had shrunk to just a handful of loyalists who had been with him since the start — McEntee, Scavino, the director of social media, and senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s contentious immigration policies. White House trade adviser Peter Navarro all but abandoned his day job to peddle the widely discredited theory that Trump won the election, writing a report on election fraud and giving TV interviews.

“He has surrounded himself with people who only tell him what he wants to hear and it’s a dangerous place to have the president of the United States be in with 10 days to go,” a senior administration official said.

“They don’t run around and say, ‘Oh, he won the election’ but they don’t tell him, ‘No you didn’t’ and that’s because they told him he was going to win in a landslide,” said a person close to the president.

Kushner, as always, was in charge, steering Trump’s inconsistent and tone-deaf response to the riot, but this time he and Ivanka Trump tried to keep their distance too as they looked to protect their political viability. After Ivanka Trump took to Twitter to urge protesters to stop the violence at the Capitol, she quickly deleted her tweet after she was criticized for calling the protesters “American patriots.”

Meadows, who many blamed for feeding Trump’s belief that he won the election, was in and out of the office, trying to plan his post-White House life. Other staffers, who were obligated to keep on top of official business even though Trump had grown disinterested, tried to limit their time with him in the Oval Office to avoid hearing his endless harangues about the stolen election.

“I think people spent a lot less time with him to be honest,” a former senior administration official said.

Trump spent the day watching TV. He had Fox News on even though he hadn’t forgiven the network for its role in calling the battleground state of Arizona for Biden. And still unable to vent on Twitter, he made more calls than usual — not, as one former Trump aide said, “to more people” but rather, “the same people over and over again.”

“Part of it, to be honest, is I’m not sure a lot of people are calling him,” said a Republican close to the president. “I think he has more availability and he’s more anxious and wants to talk to people who are loyal and support him still.”

The people who bore the brunt of Trump’s calls were former senior campaign aides, Jason Miller and Steve Cortes; former campaign press secretary Hogan Gidley; Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy and Bernie Marcus, a billionaire who co-founded the home improvement retail giant Home Depot.

They tried to cheer him up by talking about his legacy, including a record number of judges, the speedy coronavirus vaccine and an increase in U.S. manufacturing. And they strategized a possible path forward — appointing a special counsel to investigate Biden’s son Hunter; campaigning for the 2022 midterms; granting pardons before he leaves office; taking a victory tour around the country.

A couple months ago, he even began calling up Steve Bannon, his rumpled former chief strategist who was fired in 2017, strategizing ways to overturn the election. Trump had once declared Bannon had “lost his mind” after he gave an interview to a liberal magazine undercutting Trump’s position on North Korea. His possible return to the president’s inner circle seemed improbable, but Bannon reemerged over the summer when Trump floated the idea of bringing the former Breitbart chief back into the fold of the campaign. It never happened—but only because Kushner put a stop to it.

“He’s getting on the phone, he’s calling people and you know he’s not doing the work of the presidency,” a Trump friend said.

There was one person Trump was not calling: his vice president. Four days after Trump had slammed Pence for his lack of courage, four days after Pence began receiving death threats, the president had yet to reach out.

It was now all but certain that Trump would become the only president to be impeached twice. Pelosi was preparing the House for a swift midweek vote, while Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was privately wrestling with the timeline for Trump’s anticipated Senate trial.

But what was on Trump’s mind was the PGA’s decision to cut ties with him — an embarrassing development the golf-obsessed president had awoken to that morning. Overnight, board members of the PGA had voted to cancel Trump’s Bedminster, N.J. golf club as the site for its 2022 championship. He was angrier about this loss of prestige than the riot. The rejection by a famously cautious sports body forced Trump to confront the deepening reality that his life as an ex-president might be every bit as isolated as his final days in office.

Personal victimization was a theme at both ends of the White House that morning.

Trump’s wife, Melania, had kept to herself in the aftermath of the Capitol siege — working behind the scenes to prepare for the first family’s move to Palm Beach. Her chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, a trusted aide who had been with the Trumps since the 2016 campaign, had resigned in protest the night of the attack and her absence was felt first thing Monday morning when the first lady decided to release a statement about the insurrection her husband helped provoke. “I am disappointed and disheartened with what happened last week,” Melania Trump said. But she didn’t stop there. She scolded unidentified perpetrators of “salacious gossip, unwarranted personal attacks, and false misleading accusations on me,” in an apparent reference to rumors percolating within the administration and press corps that she and the president were unlikely to remain together once Trump left office and reports that she had been overseeing a photo shoot for a post-presidency book while the Capitol riot was unfolding.

Outside critics mocked the first lady’s self-absorbed message. Some of the vice president’s aides noted that her typo-ridden statement had misspelled the name of one of those killed.

“It was just exactly what you would expect from the Trump family during a moment of national grief,” said one White House official.

To take his mind off the ballooning impact of the riot, Trump and his aides organized a series of private award ceremonies to keep him busy. On the day after the riot, he had gone ahead with a ceremony to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on two former professional golfers. Now, he planned to give the same recognition to Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, who had been one of the president’s fiercest defenders during the investigation into Russian election interference and who was one of 147 House Republicans to vote against certification of Biden’s 306-232 electoral college victory the previous week.

Normally, such events would be open to the media, but Trump’s aides kept the cameras away, part of an effort to shield Trump from a prying White House press corps and avoid another controversy of his own making. Hours after the event concluded, around 7 p.m., Trump finally summoned Pence to the Oval Office.

For nearly an hour, the two men struggled to sort through the events of the prior week and map out a plan for the remaining days of their administration. Not wanting to bring up the president’s remarkable betrayal or the insults he had hurled at Pence from the stage of his “Stop the Steal” rally, the vice president awkwardly danced around the subject and focused instead on ways he could shift attention back to their policy achievements during the next nine days. He also informed the president that he and the second lady intended to attend Biden’s inauguration.

By the end of the meeting, there was a tacit understanding that after four years of weathering numerous controversies together, the partnership was effectively over. Pence isn’t even expected to seek Trump’s endorsement if he launches a White House bid in 2024.

“I think people feel sorry and bad for [Pence],” a former White House official said. “I do feel bad about the way he was treated by the president.”

As most of the president’s aides were settling in for dinner that evening, House Democrats announced they had lined up enough votes to impeach Trump a second time. Immediately, Republicans began speculating on when the House would vote on impeachment and just how many in the GOP might break with Trump.

Just after 10 a.m., moments after staffers were spotted carrying packing boxes into the White House, the president strode out of the Oval Office and into public view for the first time since the riot. He stopped briefly to speak to reporters as the helicopter rotors of Marine One thrummed in the background.

“It’s really a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in the history of politics,” he said of the looming impeachment. “It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Two minutes later, he boarded the helicopter, bound for a daylong trip to Alamo, Texas, on the Mexican border. He and Graham, who flew with him on Air Force One, had planned to tout the construction of 452 miles of a 30-foot steel wall, much of it merely a sturdier replacement of what was already there.

“I think everyone had an eyebrow raised with Lindsey Graham,” a White House official said. “On Friday he said, ‘I’m done with Trump, I’m over Trump,’ and then the next thing you know he’s on Air Force One.”

Graham wasn’t just interested in helping Trump look good. He wanted Trump to highlight the reduced numbers of immigrants at the border so Republicans could use the issue against Democrats in the 2022 elections after what he expected would be a new surge of immigrants crossing from Central America, in part because of Trump’s departure.

Some thought it was a bad idea in the midst of an impeachment fight. “He’s facing the most potential liability he’s ever had while in office and his chief of staff should have put his foot down and said, ‘Mr. President, you are going to stay in the White House and you are not going to say anything until we sort this all out,” said a Republican close to the White House.

But Graham’s view won out. “Graham also told him that this would … show he was the only president who was able to solve the border issue,” according to a person familiar with Department of Homeland Security preparations for the trip.

In the air, Trump urged Graham to persuade other GOP senators to oppose impeachment, telling him about a new poll released by former Trump campaign pollster John McLaughlin. The poll, which came at the request of Trump adviser Jason Miller, showed that 8 in 10 Trump voters and 76 percent of Republicans said they would be less likely to support a GOP incumbent in the future if they supported impeaching Trump a second time.

Supporters lined the route of the motorcade. At the wall, Trump used a Sharpie to autograph a plaque on a piece of newly constructed border wall. The plaque included the name of the acting secretary of Homeland Security who just the day before had resigned, citing “recent events” in his letter.

On the way home, Trump made calls to senators, including Tim Scott, a Republican ally from South Carolina. He talked about election reform and the transition. Later that day, Scott came out against Trump’s removal.

But as he traveled home, news broke that his Republican firewall was starting to crack. Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican in the House, announced she would support impeachment. And the New York Times reported that McConnell thought Trump’s actions qualified him for conviction. Trump and McConnell had not spoken since Dec. 15 when the Senate majority leader announced Biden was, in fact, the president-elect.

“These guys aren’t afraid of him anymore,” a Trump friend said of Republicans. “He thinks they are but they aren’t.”

On the morning of the day Trump was impeached for an unprecedented second time, the president’s team did something the president himself hadn’t been doing much of — fighting back. It was almost as if he had lost his love of combat when he lost the social media whip he had long used to enforce loyalty — or at least silence — among Republicans. His team circulated results of the poll showing Republican voters not only opposed removing Trump from office but were less likely to support GOP incumbents who crossed the president.

It didn’t have the desired effect. Even McCarthy, one of his biggest allies in the House who had maintained absolute GOP opposition to the first impeachment, said on the House floor that Trump “bears responsibility” for the Capitol attack and told his members to vote their conscience.

Trump spent most of the day watching the House debate on TV from the White House residence and the private dining area off the Oval Office. Allies had been pushing him to give a public statement, anything to stave off an expected flood of Republican defections. But the president didn’t want people to think he was afraid of being removed from office. “He didn’t want to legitimize it any further,” an aide said.

At 2 p.m., Trump released a one-paragraph statement that didn’t mention impeachment. “In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind. That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for. I call on ALL Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers.”

The disconnect between the historic drama playing out in Congress and the make-believe reality of normal life inside the White House was never clearer than during an East Room ceremony that afternoon. As one member of Congress after another rose in the House to decry Trump’s grievously antidemocratic behavior, the president gave awards to country singers Toby Keith and Ricky Skaggs — both supporters of Trump — and former Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, whose iconic image of a crying Vietnamese girl fleeing naked from a napalm attack had stoked Americans’ disgust with the Vietnam War.

Outside the White House, photographers captured Navarro, the trade adviser, carrying a large, framed photograph of one of Trump’s meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

At 4:26 p.m., when the House voted, Trump was back in the Oval Office. He was not surprised by the vote, but he was surprised at the numbers — there were fewer Republican defections than aides had warned him there might be.

Then McConnell sent a letter to Republican colleagues that afternoon, indicating he could vote for conviction. He said he intended “to listen to the legal arguments when they are presented to the Senate.” That Trump could actually be convicted in the Senate became suddenly more plausible.

At 6:30 p.m., shortly after Pelosi signed the article of impeachment, Trump released a lengthy video statement — written by Stephen Miller, Scavino and attorneys, including Cipollone. Delivered in his flat Teleprompter voice, the statement didn’t mention the historic rebuke of his behavior, but it did, for the first time, unequivocally urge his supporters to shun political violence. It was something Kushner had been pushing for a couple days.

There were “strong feelings that we needed to do everything possible to make it very very clear that anyone who in any way was affiliated with our movement should not contemplate any violent behavior in any way or they’re out of the movement,” a senior administration official said.

It came too late for some Trump allies.

“The videos the president put out were great and the messaging was on point but they were 24 hours and a week too late,” a former White House aide said. “He should have said immediately, ‘Go home.’”

That evening, Trump’s aides, including political director Brian Jack, briefed Trump on the 10 Republicans, one by one, who had voted that afternoon for impeachment. The president focused his ire on Cheney and vowed to retaliate.

“He’s now keenly focused on those 10,” a White House official said.

In one of his final policy acts, Trump sent Congress a sweeping package of proposed spending cuts, including billions of dollars for a global health and vaccine distribution program involved in the Covid fight. There was no chance lawmakers would ever push through his plan, but it was perhaps the closest thing to official work Trump had attempted lately. Despite the daily boilerplate scheduling guidance from the communications staff — “President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings” — everyone at the White House knew he was fixated on the election and now impeachment.

“There was a feeling of a traffic jam and more and more initiatives that were piling up and that’s frustrating for everybody,” a former senior administration official said. “You still need the president’s signature for things requiring executive authority.”

Instead, Trump handed off some things to Pence. It was the vice president who traveled to FEMA headquarters for a briefing on inauguration security — his first public event since the Capitol riot. It was a mask-clad Pence who gave the White House phone operators challenge coins and framed letters of appreciation. It was Pence who went to the Capitol to thank the National Guardsmen protecting the building. He told them he hoped for “a safe inauguration and a swearing-in of a new president and vice president.” And it was Pence who called Kamala Harris to congratulate her and belatedly offer his assistance during the last days of the transition. It was the first call between the two. (Trump has never called Biden.)

Trump had expected to award the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Bill Belichick, but it was canceled after the New England Patriots head coach, a longtime friend of Trump’s, said he would not accept it. That left nothing official on Trump’s schedule for the day.

“The government’s continuing to operate and run, and the president would weigh in on substantive policy decisions, but luckily a large majority of those have already been done,” a senior administration official said.

But as problems persisted with statewide Covid-19 vaccine rollouts and the U.S. death count crept closer to 400,000, Trump didn’t appear to weigh in — publicly or privately. Nor did he seem interested when the Labor Department released new data showing the first net decline in U.S. employment since the spring and staggering job losses across the food and beverage and hospitality industries. One top economic official who continued to work out of the White House said it had been two weeks since he last saw the president.

At some point during the day, Mark Meadows’ wife, Debbie, was seen packing a stuffed pheasant into the trunk of a car.

Trump was forced to spend much of the day going through the motions of saying goodbye to departing staffers, smiling in group photos with employees from a seemingly never-ending list of offices—intergovernmental affairs, management and budget, legislative affairs, social secretary.

Behind closed doors, Trump awarded the Legion of Merit (a rarely bestowed honor given to a foreign leader) to Mohammed VI, the king of Morocco. (The country’s ambassador accepted the award.) The king had recently agreed to resume diplomatic ties with Israel, helping to reshape the landscape of the Middle East and North Africa. Trump has told allies that he will travel to the region next month to tout his legacy there.

Inside the White House, moving boxes were scattered around the West Wing and the walls that once featured enlarged photographs of the Trumps were bare. Outside the White House, large moving trucks had pulled up. Across the street, workers hung Biden/Harris signs and bunting ahead of the inauguration.

The White House was so uncharacteristically quiet after years of nonstop activity that the brief visit of one of Trumps’ biggest supporters, Mike Lindell, CEO of the pillow manufacturing company MyPillow Inc. (which offers $45 discounts when using the promo code “QAnon”) caused a stir.

Lindell had come to brief the president and Cipollone on material he had found on the internet — ”footprints of the machine fraud,” he called it — that showed that “Joe Biden lost. Seventy-nine million votes for Donald Trump. Sixty-eight million for Joe Biden.” This was big stuff, Lindell later told Rightside Broadcasting. But he was disappointed by the reception he got from Trump. “I said, ‘This is real. It shows the number of votes flipped.’ And [the president] looks at it and he goes, ‘It’s like we all knew that, right?’”

Lindell was told he had to wait to see Trump’s lawyers, so he stepped outside the White House to make a call. That’s when photographers captured a close-up of his notes that appeared to suggest “martial law” might be necessary to save the country.

“Insurrection Act now as a result of the assault on the … martial law if necessary upon the first hint of any … ” his notes read. Lindell said he was just dropping off the memo for an attorney. “People ask me all the time.”

The “My Pillow Guy” on Friday was followed on Saturday by the guy once known as “My Rudy” when Trump met with his one-time personal attorney, Giuliani.

Giuliani told ABC News that he was working on Trump’s defense for his impeachment trial. He planned to argue the president did not incite the riots because the allegations of voter fraud in November were true, though he said there are other opinions on what argument to make.

But by Sunday, Giuliani, who led the president’s efforts to overturn the election, told ABC News he would not be part of Trump’s legal team because he is a witness. Giuliani himself has been accused of inciting the Capitol riots when he urged the crowd at the Stop the Steal rally to engage in “trial by combat.”

Just days earlier, Trump had grown annoyed with Giuliani, refusing to take his calls or pay his bills. It remains unclear whether Trump is ready to hire him again.

The capital was a maze of steel fences and checkpoints. Thousands of National Guardsmen patrolled nearly deserted streets blocked by dump trucks and concrete barriers. Federal officials warned that armed groups might attack state capitals. Wanted lists of rioters circulated and reports of arrests seemed to keep coming as neighbors and family members called the FBI to identify people they had seen in videos and photos on social media.

Inside the White House, the president and his closest advisers spent the day thinking about forgiveness.

Trump had long made pardons a signature performance of his presidency, doling them out to political allies and people nominated by celebrities. He liked that the Constitution gave him the exclusive power to grant them. And he was determined to use it fully before he left office.

He met Kushner and Ivanka Trump and Cipollone to review a list of pardon requests that have been coming in from friends and allies on behalf of themselves and others who have grown anxious.

Outsiders, including David Safavian, a former Republican lawyer who was pardoned by Trump last year, and Brett Tolman, a former federal prosecutor turned lobbyist, had been advising the White House. On Dec. 30, Tolman posted — but later deleted — information on what type of person the administration wanted to pardon. “Good news friends — I finally learned what type of individual DOJ and the White House Counsel’s Office will support for clemency: individuals who have not committed a crime and are not incarcerated.”

Trump had issued two rounds of pre-Christmas pardons and commutations, including for three former members of Congress, numerous people convicted in Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference, and four security contractors convicted for massacring Iraqi civilians in 2008. He wanted to issue one more batch — perhaps 100 or more —by Tuesday. But he wanted to make sure he gave out fewer than the 176 Bill Clinton issued on his last day in office.

Trump had spent weeks considering giving preemptive pardons to as many as 20 close associates and family members, including his children, Don Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump, Giuliani, Bannon, maybe even himself. There was real concern that he could be charged for his role in the Capitol riot. In some respects, a self-pardon would have been a classically Trumpian act, never before attempted and constitutionally questionable. But such a move, he and his advisers knew, would come with a kind of public relations taint — not to mention dangerous future legal implications — that could do more harm than good to a legacy already in jeopardy.

“It would require him admitting guilt and that’s not something he does.”

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, amid a firestorm for calling African nations “shithole countries,” Trump golfed at one of his clubs in Florida. In 2019, during a government shutdown, Trump and Pence made a brief appearance at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. In 2020, just after the House impeached him the first time, Trump and Pence again visited the memorial before the president left for a quick trip to Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum.

On his final Monday in office, he didn’t golf. He didn’t visit the MLK memorial. He worked to shore up his legacy.

Trump recorded a 20-minute video in the Blue Room of the White House to be released the next day, touting his accomplishments. “We did what we came here to do,” he said. And he portrayed himself, somewhat implausibly, as someone who brought the country together instead of tore the country apart.

“Our agenda was not about right or left, it wasn’t about Republican or Democrat, but about the good of a nation, and that means the whole nation,” he said.

But on the same day, Trump’s 1776 commission, formed to fight the academic left’s view of history, released a report that some historians chided for excusing slavery.

Even though he never publicly admitted he lost the election, Trump knew he was leaving the White House. But he couldn’t decide when he should go.

Despite speculation that he would leave for Mar-a-Lago weeks in advance — just after the election or at the holidays — he never did. Trump admired the trappings of the presidency too much to leave the White House that early. Instead, Trump had discussed with aides leaving on Jan. 19 or the morning Biden was sworn into office. He settled on departing the morning of Inauguration Day. He wanted to go before the actual ceremony so that he didn’t have to ask the new president to use the plane, and he wanted to be sure it would still be designated as Air Force One for the trip.

It was never publicly announced, but staff went about making arrangements for a farewell that would resemble an official state visit — perhaps with a red carpet, color guard, military band and 21-gun salute. He wanted to do it at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. It would be the kind of pomp and circumstance that was one of the few things Trump loved about the presidency, only organized for the proverbial audience of one.

His team sent out invitations to supporters and donors Sunday. It didn’t actually indicate Trump was leaving the White House but does allow them to bring up to five friends to a ceremony “featuring President Donald J. Trump.” Somehow several banished employees were invited, including former top White House adviser John Bolton and Omarosa Manigault Newman, who both turned their relentless criticism of Trump into tell-all books. They suspected it was a sign the White House was desperate for people to attend. “He’s a disgrace,” said Manigault Newman, who said she received multiple invitations.

Certainly, many in the Washington establishment seemed ready for him to go. On the floor of the Senate, McConnell offered a blunt assessment of Trump’s culpability for the Jan. 6 insurrection. “The mob was fed lies,” he said. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people. And they tried to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like. But we pressed on.”

Months ago, after the election, when he knew it wouldn’t go his way, Trump schemed about counterprogramming Biden’s big moment by announcing on Inauguration Day that he would run in 2024. His aides convinced him that would be premature. So in the final days, Trump continued to pester his allies for ideas about what he should do during the actual inauguration when the nation’s eyes would be trained on someone else. Should he hold a campaign rally? Maybe do a call with a foreign leader? Just go golf?

Nothing was certain except the plan for Trump to land in Florida at 11 a.m. Wednesday, an hour before Biden would place his hand on the Bible on the Capitol terrace.

Still president — for a few minutes, at least — but not present.

Andrew Desiderio, Josh Gerstein, Jasmine Hilton, Daniel Lippman, Lara Seligman, Sam Stein, Ben White and Melanie Zanona contributed to this report.

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