Trump Departs White House, With Capitol Riot Defining His Tumultuous Term
Updated at 10:10 a.m. ET
Unwilling to admit defeat but with his time in office at its end, President Trump left the White House early Wednesday, skipping the Inauguration Day ceremony that generations of outgoing presidents have attended — a symbolic peaceful transfer of power that had been made all but impossible by his actions after losing the election to Joe Biden.
Trump came to power four years ago with a focus on what he called America's "forgotten men and women." But now he stands perhaps to be remembered most not for what he did in the White House, but instead for an insurrection two weeks ago, when his supporters stormed the very spot where Biden will take his oath of office.
A week later, the Democratic-led House of Representatives made Trump the only president in U.S. history to be impeached twice — this latest time for inciting the Jan. 6 riot as Congress gathered to certify the results of an election that the president had repeatedly and falsely said had been stolen from him. The Senate is set to consider whether to take steps that could bar Trump from another run for office.
It was an ignominious end to Trump's four years in the White House, during which he sought to reshape the courts and overhaul relationships with allies and adversaries in ways he said would help his supporters: the people who wore the red "Make America Great Again" ballcaps and packed rallies to hear him blast the political elite.
Now, Trump will fly one last time in Air Force One to his South Florida resort, while the political establishment that he railed against takes part in an Inauguration Day made almost unrecognizable by how heavily fortified it is against the risk of further violence from pro-Trump extremists who refuse to accept Biden's election win.
On Trump's last day, a skeleton staff worked past midnight finalizing a long list of final pardons and commutations, including one for Steve Bannon, the right-wing strategist who helped bring him to power, and Lil Wayne, a rapper who had endorsed him in his reelection campaign.
Only hours later, Trump emerged from the White House with first lady Melania Trump, stopping briefly for one more brief "chopper talk" session with reporters beside what he called "the greatest home in the world."
"We've had an amazing four years. I just want to say goodbye, but hopefully it's not a long-term goodbye, we'll see each other again," Trump said, before turning to walk to his Marine One helicopter.
On his way out of the White House, Trump also left a note behind for his successor — continuing a tradition started by President Ronald Reagan in 1989. There was no word on the contents of the message.
At Joint Base Andrews, the outgoing president had one last moment of pomp: "Hail to the Chief," a 21-gun salute and a final farewell to about 200 supporters. Vice President Pence was not there.
Without naming Biden, Trump said, "I wish the new administration great luck and great success," claiming that his White House had laid the foundation for the economy to rebound. "I hope they don't raise your taxes, but if they do, I told you so!" he said.
"So, have a good life, we will see you soon," he said, as the disco anthem "YMCA" pumped through the loudspeakers.
Ignominious end to improbable run
Trump touted many of what he sees as his main accomplishments during his four years in office in a farewell video he released Tuesday. He named conservative judges to fill federal court vacancies, cut taxes and regulations, negotiated the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, slapped tariffs on imports of Chinese goods, built more than 400 miles of border wall, invested in the military, and sped up development of vaccines for the coronavirus.
But in the end, says presidential historian Michael Beschloss, Trump's legacy is likely to be eclipsed by what he did after he lost to Biden, culminating in the insurrection.
"[It's] hard to think of any good he might have done that would outshine that damning verdict," Beschloss said.
After Trump lost the election, some of his allies had sought to try to help him find a way to continue his "America First" movement by focusing on a new role as Republican kingmaker.
Instead, he dove deeply down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud, shook U.S. confidence in free and fair elections that underpin American democracy, pushed scores of half-baked court challenges, and badgered Republicans — from local officials to Pence — to overturn results.
"We're going to the Capitol," Trump told the raucous Jan. 6 rally just ahead of the riot. (Trump instead went back to the White House.) He added: "We're going to try and give them the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country."
Hundreds of those supporters then terrorized the Capitol, forcing Pence and members of Congress to flee, and their aides and other people working in the building sought shelter from the mob. Five people died as a result of the rampage, including a Capitol Police officer.
For hours, Trump did nothing to call off the mob and was slow to condemn the attack. Even when finally telling the rioters to peacefully leave the Capitol, he empathized with them, telling them, "We love you, you're very special."
Two days later, Twitter took the remarkable step of permanently banning Trump from the platform "due to the risk of further incitement of violence."
"The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people," Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday.
Resentment over Russia probe
Trump, a New York real estate developer who rose to national fame as a reality television celebrity before making a long-shot run for the nation's highest office, had made spectacles, controversy and jaw-dropping braggadocio a trademark of his presidency, overcoming public relations nightmares that would have sunk traditional political figures.
He drove the news cycle with acid-tongued tweets and stunts. While presiding over the longest government shutdown in history, he had platters of McDonald's hamburgers delivered to the White House, serving them to visiting college athletes by candlelight.
He gave plum White House and campaign jobs to his family members, drove business to his properties with visits and events, and insulted allies at world summits even as he worked to cultivate relationships with strongmen like Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong Un.
But throughout his time in office, Trump fixated on his resentment over the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Seeking to hobble a potential opponent for his reelection bid, he tried to get Ukraine to investigate Biden, which led to his first House impeachment for abusing his powers. Republicans in the Senate acquitted him in a trial that began almost a year ago.
Asked in July how he would describe his time in office, Trump said he would be remembered as a victim. "I've been very unfairly treated, and I don't say that as paranoid. I've been very — everybody says it," he told Fox News' Chris Wallace.
Biden had cast the 2020 election as a referendum on Trump's character and his willingness to exploit the country's racial and economic divides for political gain.
Voters turned out in record numbers even as the coronavirus pandemic surged, with many motivated by anger over how Trump downplayed the severity of COVID-19 and failed to take steps to contain the spread.
Since the election, Trump has shown little interest in the pandemic, which has infected more than 24 million people in the U.S., killing more than 400,000 people, and throwing millions out of work, school and homes.
Now it's up to Biden to get Americans fully vaccinated and address the economic crisis — something Americans agree should be the new president's top priority, according to an out Tuesday.
Although Trump leaves the nation deeply divided on many issues, the poll showed most Americans agree on this: Trump will go down as either a below-average president or one of the worst in U.S. history.
It's unclear what the next act is for the 74-year-old, who has been said to be considering another presidential run in 2024. In Tuesday's farewell video, Trump said, "The movement we started is only just beginning."
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.