Inside Trump’s final days: Aides struggle to contain an angry, isolated president
By Steve Holland, Jeff Mason, Matt Spetalnick and Andrea Shalal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – “We are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue,” President Donald Trump exhorted his screaming supporters before they marched on the U.S. Capitol last week, saying he’d go with them. He did not – and what unfolded was a deadly breach of the citadel of American democracy that has left Trump’s world crumbling in the final days of his presidency.
Trump had wanted to join the thousands of hardcore followers who assembled at Capitol Hill on Jan. 6. He told aides in the days leading up to the rally that he planned to accompany them to demonstrate his ire at Congress as it moved to certify Democrat Joe Biden’s November election victory.
But the Secret Service kept warning him that agents could not guarantee his safety if he went ahead, according to two people familiar with the matter. Trump relented and instead hunkered down at the White House to watch television images of the mob rioting he is accused of triggering.
The storming of the U.S. Capitol left five people dead, including a police officer, and threatened the lives of Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress, deeply wounding what remained of Trump’s presidency ahead of Biden’s swearing-in on Jan. 20.
Trump’s fiery, grievance-filled speech from the Ellipse park on the southern outskirts of the White House was a central focus of this week’s hastily arranged proceedings in the House of Representatives that led to his impeachment on a charge of inciting insurrection.
With Wednesday’s vote, Trump became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice, as 10 of his fellow Republicans joined Democrats in denouncing him. But it appears unlikely to lead to his ouster before his term ends since there are no plans to convene a vote in the Republican-led Senate, which alone has the power to remove him.
Even so, the House’s unprecedented rebuke capped a week that has been perilously unstable even for a presidency where chaos has long reigned.
Trump’s last days in the White House have been marked by rage and turmoil, multiple sources said. He watched some of the impeachment debate on TV and grew angry at the Republican defections, a source familiar with the situation said.
Trump has suffered a sudden rupture with his vice president, the departure of disgusted senior advisers, his abandonment by a small but growing number of Republican lawmakers, the loss of his cherished Twitter megaphone, and a rush by corporations and others to distance themselves from him and his businesses.
Reuters spoke to more than a dozen Trump administration officials with a window into the closing act of his presidency. They described a shrinking circle of loyal aides who are struggling to contain an increasingly fretful, angry and isolated president – one seemingly still clinging to unfounded claims of election fraud – and to keep the White House functioning until Biden assumes power.
“Everybody feels like they’re doing the best job they can to hold it all together until Biden takes over,” one Trump adviser told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The White House declined to comment for this story. The Secret Service declined to comment about Trump’s purported desire to travel to the Capitol on Jan. 6.
FOCUS ON PARDONS
Even as Trump has spent time venting to aides and confidantes, one tangible issue he has been focused on is how to apply his power to pardon before his term ends, three White House sources said.
The biggest question is whether he will issue an unprecedented pardon to himself, in addition to family members, before leaving office.
While Trump has not publicly signaled his intention to take a step that some legal analysts say could be unlawful, one White House official told Reuters: “I’ve been expecting that.”
The chances of Trump making such a contentious move may have multiplied due to the uproar over his Jan. 6 speech in which he repeatedly urged his supporters to “fight” for him. Some legal experts say this could open him up to lawsuits or even criminal charges.
Addressing the crowd, Trump suggested several times that he would join in their march to the Capitol and appealed at least six times to Pence to “do the right thing” and refuse to certify Biden’s victory in the formal counting of the electoral vote in Congress that day. Trump and his surrogates had built up a false narrative that Pence, whose role in the certification process was mostly ceremonial, could somehow throw the election to his boss.
Trump’s speech followed an exasperated conversation with his vice president, a longtime loyalist, earlier on Jan. 6 when Trump called Pence “a pussy” for not being willing to overturn the vote, a source briefed on the matter said. The exchange was reported earlier by The New York Times.
On the day of the rally, Trump once again expressed his desire to accompany his supporters to the Capitol. The Secret Service told Trump he couldn’t go with the crowd – though presidents do have the power to overrule their security details.
“They waved him off that day,” a source familiar with the situation said of the Secret Service. “They said it would be way too dangerous.”
So when throngs of flag-waving followers drifted away from the speech site toward the Capitol, Trump retreated to the walled confines of the White House, where aides said he watched the ransacking of the landmark building on television with rapt attention.
Among the mob that battled police, shattered windows and invaded legislative chambers were individuals who waved Confederate flags and wore clothing carrying insignias and slogans espousing conspiracy theories and white supremacist beliefs.
It would be hours before Trump appeared in a video on social media in response to entreaties to say something to rein in his supporters. When he did, he told them he loved them and to “go home” while repeating his baseless claims of a rigged election.
Some of Trump’s own aides were left stunned by his conduct.
“When people are storming the Capitol, you walk to the press room and do a press conference and call on them to stop, instead of cutting a video eight hours later,” said a long-time Trump adviser.
The riot of Jan. 6 followed a two-month campaign by Trump to delegitimize the November election with false claims of fraud. It began when what he had vowed would be a landslide victory over Biden turned into a defeat once all mail-in ballots, which skewed heavily Democratic, were counted.
Trump’s focus on claims of voter fraud, egged on by personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, consumed most of his days. Two days after the election, said a source familiar with the meeting, daughter Ivanka Trump was in a meeting with senior White House staff and said words to the effect that, “We accomplished so much and we had a great run.” A representative for Ivanka Trump declined to comment.
But no one in Trump’s orbit could convince him to explicitly acknowledge defeat and use his remaining weeks in office to hold events to tout accomplishments that he and his aides are proud of.
Advisers felt Trump could make himself a force in the Republican Party for years to come, a kingmaker, and possibly even win a second term in 2024.
His political future could now be in jeopardy as a result of the Capitol violence. If convicted by the Senate in a trial that would occur after he has left the White House, Trump could be banned from holding federal office again.
Trump watched Wednesday’s rapid-fire impeachment proceedings on television from the White House, sources said, stepping away briefly to hand out National Medal of Arts awards to country music artists Toby Keith and Ricky Skaggs.
Even before the riot, Trump’s mood had been darkening as dozens of court cases filed by his legal team and surrogates failed to overturn the voting results in key swing states, people familiar with the matter said.
Aides who would enjoy dropping by the Oval Office to check on Trump found themselves avoiding him lest he give them an assignment related to voter fraud that they knew was impossible, three sources said.
His mood has only worsened since the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol. He has fumed in private about the decision by Twitter, his favorite means of communication with his followers, to permanently suspend his account on the grounds that it was concerned he could incite further mayhem, two people familiar with the matter said.
With Trump scrambling to find an alternative platform, his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner helped head off an attempt by other aides to get him signed up on fringe, far-right social media sites, believing they were not the best format for the president, said an administration official. A representative for Kushner declined comment.
Pence and Trump did not speak for days after the Capitol riot. The vice president had to be spirited to safety in the Capitol basement after rioters, some chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” penetrated the building.
Current and former White House officials say they were aghast at how Trump treated Pence, who has been a steady and loyal lieutenant. They were stung by the president’s criticism and false insistence that the vice president could intervene to overturn the Electoral College results. Trump also never called Pence to check on him during his ordeal, an aide said.
On Monday, the two men met alone in the Oval Office, likely following efforts and appeals by Ivanka Trump and Kushner, according to one White House official. The two men walked out of the meeting in good spirits, chuckling together about something. “The body language was good,” the official said.
The next day, Pence wrote to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he would not exercise the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to remove the president from office for incapacitation, despite pressure from Democrats.
Other aides have not been as forgiving.
Deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, a leading aide on Trump’s China policy, quickly quit in what two sources said was an act of protest against the president’s response to the rioting. Pottinger did not respond to requests for comment. He was followed by at least five other senior foreign policy aides. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also resigned in protest.
Some other Trump officials say they have gritted their teeth and stayed put despite anger over Trump’s perceived role in the violence.
National security adviser Robert O’Brien and White House counsel Pat Cipollone were among those convinced to remain by others, including lawmakers, former government officials and corporate executives, four sources familiar with the matter said. The White House declined comment.
Some who remain in the administration have seized the opportunity to push through significant policy shifts before leaving office, several administration sources said.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, has pressed ahead with controversial international moves, sometimes, according to two people familiar with the matter, without coordinating fully with the White House.
The timing of one decision caught some National Security Council officials by surprise, the sources said: Pompeo’s scrapping of longtime curbs on U.S. government interactions with Taiwan officials, which angered China. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Other Pompeo actions over the past week have included returning Communist-ruled Cuba to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and designating Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement a terrorist organization.
While mostly disengaged from policymaking, Trump on Tuesday, at his aides’ behest, paid a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border wall near Alamo, Texas. Erecting a barrier across the border was a signature promise of his winning 2016 campaign platform. Only portions got built.
Decisions on a final round of presidential pardons are expected to occupy much of Trump’s few remaining days in office. He has stirred controversy in recent weeks by pardoning allies convicted in the investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, security contractors convicted of killing Iraqi civilians, and Kushner’s father, Charles, a real estate developer sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty in 2004 to tax evasion and other crimes.
Trump and his family have potential legal exposure of their own, including investigations in New York over tax and business dealings.
One White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, suggested Trump’s final act as president could be a preemptive pardon for family members and for himself just before Biden is sworn in. Presidential pardons apply only to federal crimes, not violations of state law.
A self-pardon would be an extraordinary use of power never before tried by a U.S. president, and constitutional lawyers say there is no definitive answer on whether it can be done lawfully.
One thing Trump’s staff don’t expect: a resignation. “I would be floored if that were to happen,” another White House official said.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Marla Dickerson)
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