WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump exits the White House after four years of tumult much as he arrived, with only a handful of loyalists and family members at his side.
In his final days in office, Trump found friends and political allies in short supply following the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, when a mob of his supporters breached the building to try and stop the formal certification of his election loss to Joe Biden. He leaves Washington with his Republican Party out of power and his popularity at the lowest point of his presidency.
Republicans who had tolerated and at times cheered Trump mostly abandoned him. Conservative leaders declined to speak with Trump or offer public praise for him on his way out.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who rarely broke from Trump during his four years as president, said Tuesday on the Senate floor that the mob that attacked the Capitol was “provoked” by Trump.
“The mob was fed lies,” McConnell said. “They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
Political figures already estranged from Trump reemerged to describe him as “volatile,” “unstable,” and telling “unbelievable untruth” as they emphasized that they did not want him to seek political office again.
“The divisions in our country, which the president — let’s face it — purposely created, have created tremendous damage to our country. And that’s why I hope to never see him again,” said former Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican. “I think he would be a detrimental figure to our country to ever serve again in that capacity, and I hope that never happens.”
An ally to the end was U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan.
“President Trump oversaw the greatest economy and lowest unemployment in 50 years, he cut taxes and reduced regulations, put three great Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement and built a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico,” said Jordan.
In and out
Inside the nation’s capital, the impact of the riot was visible in the barricades and the thousands of National Guard members at the Capitol and in the streets in anticipation of potential violence surrounding Biden’s inauguration.
White House aides remain shaken by the episode, frustrated that the arguments they have made on the policy successes of Trump’s presidency were eclipsed by the violence and political fallout that consumed the administration’s final days.
“He’s leaving in a way the same as he came in, as someone who’s different, new, violates the rules, encourages division and hatred,” said Eric Foner, an historian of American history at Columbia University. “The irony is we all remember his inaugural address, where he spoke of American carnage. Now he leaves having himself inspired a whole outbreak of unprecedented American carnage.”
The president’s children, who were criticized from the beginning for being given roles as senior White House advisers without relevant experience, were among the last standing alongside Trump as Cabinet members and West Wing staff turned in their badges and emptied out their desks.
Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the election had worried some advisers and ostracized others. But the public and private pressure he placed on Pence in the early days of January to somehow upend the Electoral College count — a power that the vice president does not have — angered and concerned his allies and staff.
“When he started to attack the vice president, I knew things were drastically off the rails — and that the president actually believed he had a chance to overturn this made his isolation so obvious, that there were not a multiplicity of voices and honest advice being given to him,” said Joe Grogan, Trump’s former domestic policy adviser who left the White House last year.
Conservative leaders who frequented White House events during Trump’s term began to steer clear of the president after the Capitol Hill violence, with few exceptions. They scrapped plans to hold legacy and tribute events meant to highlight the accomplishments of the outgoing administration and refocused their efforts on rebuilding coalitions within the fractured Republican Party.
“Conservatives will take some time and think through our next steps. And we’ll have to work to unify in order to move forward,” said Penny Nance, president of the Christian conservative group Concerned Women for America. “There’s a lot of pain.”
The messy divorce
Looking firmly ahead, a group of conservative leaders met in Washington while Trump was being impeached to plot their efforts on coming policy fights with the Biden administration.
“We’re moving on to these next battles,” Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips said. “In the process of that, you build relationships, you broaden out the people in groups you work with across the country and that builds alliances for the long term. That’s going to be a significant part of our effort.”
GOP lawmakers who have quietly criticized the president’s character and leadership now see an opportunity to take back their party — and the number of conservatives who are coming to his defense is shrinking.
“It’s going to be a while before we see how bitter that divorce actually is — it was an uneasy alliance from the start, and it was an alliance that is beginning to come apart,” said Peter Kastor, History Department chair at Washington University in St. Louis.
“There are efforts to construct a memory, or to revise a memory of presidents after they leave office,” Kastor said. “The riots both short-term and long-term have really devastated the memory of Donald Trump that those around him right now are trying to create.”
In the days leading up to the certification of the Electoral College vote, Trump castigated McConnell and his deputies as “weak and ineffective” and dubbed them the “Surrender Caucus” over their unwillingness to interfere with the results.
“Once Trump lost, he threw all of his relationships out the window. He could care less about his relationship with McConnell and Senate Republicans,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. “President Trump has decided just to focus on himself.”
Bonjean said Trump and McConnell once had a “mutually beneficial relationship working together,” particularly on judicial nominations. But that ruptured when the GOP lost control of the Senate, a political failure that Bonjean said McConnell primarily blamed on Trump.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who competed for the GOP nomination the first time Trump sought the presidency, said that he was both “frustrated” and “troubled” by Trump’s behavior before, during and after the riot.
“Not only should his rhetoric have been different at the rally itself, there’s no way the president didn’t know what was going on at the U.S. Capitol,” Walker said.
Walker said that elected officials in the Capitol at the time of the attack are rightly upset with Trump. “I think it’s going to make it easier for Republicans across the country to kind of move on as opposed to before that,” he said.
Darker over time
The riot at the Capitol also left Trump without support from Pence, who was presiding over the Electoral College count when Trump sent a tweet criticizing him. Pence and Trump did not speak for nearly five days after the attack. They eventually held a two-hour Oval Office meeting.
“He doesn’t want to terminate the relationship he has with the president, but he clearly was very disturbed about what happened at the Capitol, not just for his own sake, but what happened and the risk it put members of the House and Senate in in both parties,” Walker said of Pence. “He’s upset for what happened in terms of the violence and the loss of life, particularly with the Capitol police officials, but he’s ready to move on.”
Trump’s behavior since the election, which he falsely claims was stolen from him based on debunked allegations of voter fraud, was a predictable end to a presidency that began with a dispute over his inauguration crowd size, some Republicans said.
But other Republicans said that Trump’s harmful rhetoric seeking to cast doubt on the validity of the election and the rally that turned into mob violence were an unexpected ending to his presidency.
“When he first came into office, he would get up at the podium at these rallies and it was almost, pro-wrestling-esque,” Corker said. “The people knew that what he was saying wasn’t true but he entertained them and they liked the way he was kicking back at the establishment, and so they went along.”
Corker added, “I think it just continued to get darker and darker over time.”
Conservative leaders warned of a disconnect between politicians and political operatives in the nation’s capital and the voters who supported Trump.
The base of the Republican Party is still behind Trump, with nearly six in 10 saying he should be the 2024 presidential nominee, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll.
American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, one of the few conservative leaders to publicly defend Trump during his second impeachment, said he has spoken to the president but was not sure about his political plans.
“Right now he’s looking forward to being at Mar-a-Lago,” Schlapp said. “But I would be shocked if he doesn’t continue to stay engaged in the debate that is going to commence when Joe Biden is sworn in.”
Trump’s prospects of running for office again were widely seen by Republican leaders who had backed him over the years as irreparably damaged after the riot. But they were quick to note that he remained popular with many of the roughly 74 million Americans who voted for him.
“They never liked Washington anyway — they wanted him to take a wrecking ball to this place,” Bonjean said. “And that’s literally what his supporters did.”