WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump spent more than 24 hours after instigating a mob to violently storm the Capitol trying to escape reality.
Cloistered in the White House, Trump raged uncontrollably about perceived acts of betrayal. He tuned out advisers who pleaded with him to act responsibly. He was uninterested in trying to repair what he had wrought. And he continued to insist he had won the election, even as his own vice president certified the fact that he had not.
Only after darkness fell in Washington on Thursday, after the Capitol had been besieged by death and destruction and a growing chorus of lawmakers had called for his immediate removal from office, did Trump grudgingly accept his fate.
“Now Congress has certified the results,” Trump said in a video recorded at the White House. “A new administration will be inaugurated on January 20th. My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”
This was not a concession so much as a grudging acknowledgment that his presidency would end. Trump did not talk of winners and losers, nor did he utter the word “concede,” but it was the closest he seemed willing to go.
Some of his advisers had pleaded with him to give this kind of speech in November, after it was clear that he had lost. Those appeals intensified this week. During his 2-minute, 41-second speech, Trump read from a script that seemed to be carefully written by his aides.
“My campaign vigorously pursued every legal avenue to contest the election results,” Trump said. “My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote. In so doing, I was fighting to defend American democracy.”
Yet it was Trump’s assault on American democracy over the past two months, culminating with Wednesday’s attack at the Capitol, that has left him as isolated as he has ever been in his four years as president. An array of top aides – including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, an original member of his Cabinet – abruptly resigned. Many more privately discussed whether to follow suit. Some of those who stayed kept their distance from the vengeful president, and none stepped forward to defend his complicity in the attack – not even White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, his professional defender.
Outside the administration, a growing number of allies have given up on Trump. Rather than trying to convince him to do the right thing, they are simply hoping he does no further damage before his term expires Jan. 20.
“This is everything that everyone’s been blocking for four years, the role of buffering Trump,” said one of the president’s advisers. “It’s horrible. People are miserable. They can’t wait for the two weeks to be over. Everyone’s taking one day at a time trying to get him through the next two weeks without massive problems.”
The portrait that emerged from interviews with administration officials and Trump advisers and associates, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, is of a president indignant, unmoored and psychologically fragile – one who some aides believe has sabotaged his legacy and threatens the orderly transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden.
One administration official described Trump’s behavior as that of “a total monster.” Another said the situation was “insane” and “beyond the pale.”
“He is alone. He is mad King George,” said a Republican in frequent touch with the White House. “Trump believes that he has these people so intimidated they wouldn’t dare mess with him. I think Trump doesn’t understand how precarious his situation is right now.”
One after another on Thursday, former Trump officials broke their silence to condemn the president, some in sharp terms. William Barr, who resigned last month as attorney general, called Trump’s conduct “a betrayal of his office and supporters,” adding in a statement to The Associated Press that “orchestrating a mob to pressure Congress is inexcusable.”
Two of Trump’s former White House chiefs of staff joined the chorus. Mick Mulvaney resigned from his post as U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, telling CNBC, “We didn’t sign up for what you saw last night. We signed up for making America great again. We signed up for lower taxes and less regulation. The president has a long list of successes that we can be proud of. But all of that went away yesterday.”
John Kelly went further, saying on CNN that what happened at the Capitol “was a direct result of him poisoning the minds of people with the lies and the fraud.” He urged the Cabinet to meet to discuss invoking the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to remove Trump from office. Scores of Democratic lawmakers, as well as Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, called for the same.
Some senior administration officials have been discussing doing so out of fear that Trump could take actions resulting in further violence and death if he remains in office for even a few more days, said a person involved in the conversations.
A former senior administration official briefed on the talks confirmed that preliminary discussions of the 25th Amendment were underway, though this person cautioned that they were informal and that there was no indication of an immediate plan of action.
Under the 25th Amendment, the president can be removed from office by the vice president plus a majority of the Cabinet, or by the vice president and a body established by Congress, if they determine that he “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Trump could contest the move, making its potential impact unclear.
As a mob of Trump supporters breached police barricades and seized the Capitol, Trump was disengaged in discussions with Pentagon leaders about deploying the National Guard to aid the overwhelmed U.S. Capitol Police, according to two people familiar with the talks.
Vice President Mike Pence worked directly with acting defense secretary Christopher Miller and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, as well as with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., about the unrest at the Capitol and military deployments, the people said.
As for Trump, one of the people said, “He was completely, totally out of it.” This person added, “He made no attempt to reach out to them.”
Instead of exercising his commander in chief duties to help protect the Capitol from an attempted insurrection, Trump watched the attack play out on television. There was little communication among the White House staff, other than a message instructing officials to leave early and stay safe.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk to him,” a senior administration official said of the president. “He’s in a terrible mood constantly, and he’s defensive, and everyone knows this was a horrible mistake.”
Considerable internal anger was directed toward Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, according to four aides, both because of what many view as his incompetence in managing the White House and his willingness to prop Trump up while indulging his false election fraud claims.
People who interacted with Trump said they found him in a fragile and volatile state. He spent Wednesday afternoon and evening cocooned at the White House and listening only to a small coterie of loyal aides – including Meadows, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, Personnel Director Johnny McEntee and policy adviser Stephen Miller. McEnany also spent time with the president. Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was described as disengaged.
“He’s got a bunker mentality now, he really does,” said a close adviser to the president.
During the Capitol occupation, aides said, Trump resisted their entreaties to condemn the rioters and refused to be reasoned with.
“He kept saying: ‘The vast majority of them are peaceful. What about the riots this summer? What about the other side? No one cared when they were rioting. My people are peaceful. My people aren’t thugs,’ ” an administration official said. “He didn’t want to condemn his people.”
“He was a total monster today,” this official added, describing the president’s handling of Wednesday’s attack as less defensible than his equivocal response to the deadly white-supremacist rally in 2017 in Charlottesville, Va.
Some aides were mortified that Trump was so slow, and resistant, in telling his supporters to vacate the Capitol, and they believed he did irreparable damage to his presidency and legacy.
Aides and a range of lawmakers begged Trump to call on his supporters to stop rioting. Some former aides echoed those pleas on Twitter, tagging the president presumably in hopes he might see their messages.
Alyssa Farah, the recently departed White House communications director, wrote: “Condemn this now, @realDonaldTrump – you are the only one they will listen to. For our country!”
White House aides tried to get Trump to call in to Fox News Channel, but he refused. He at first did not want to say anything but was persuaded to send tweets. Then they scripted a video message for him to record, which he agreed to distribute on Twitter. But the president ad-libbed by including references to false voter fraud claims that they had asked him not to include, the administration official said. Twitter later locked his account, enraging the president.
“He didn’t want to say anything or do anything to rise to the moment,” the official said. “He’s so driven by this notion that he’s been treated unfairly that he can’t see the bigger picture.”
This official described Trump as so mad at Pence that “he couldn’t see straight.” Several White House aides were upset that the president chose to attack Pence when the vice president, secured at an undisclosed location at the Capitol, had just been in harm’s way.
A former senior administration official briefed on the president’s private conversations said: “The thing he was most upset about and couldn’t get over all day was the Pence betrayal. . . . All day, it was a theme of, ‘I made this guy, I saved him from a political death, and here he stabbed me in the back.’ “
Trump’s fury extended to Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short. The president told aides that he wanted to bar Short – who was with the vice president all day at the Capitol – from the White House grounds, according to an official with knowledge of the president’s remarks.
Short has told others that he would not care if he were barred.
Meadows and White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, among others, had been trying to convince Trump to record a video condemning the violence, vowing to prosecute the rioters and committing to a peaceful transfer of power, officials said. Cipollone has warned the president that he could have legal liability for having encouraged the riots, a detail first reported by The New York Times, and urged him to clean it up. The president did just that in his Thursday remarks.
Deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger was among those who resigned in the wake of the Capitol riot. Although national security adviser Robert O’Brien was said Wednesday night to be considering resigning, he, as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, received word from former national security officials and executives urging them to stay in their jobs.
The message conveyed was that leaving would create a vacuum that foreign enemies might seek to take advantage of, according to a senior administration official.
White House officials, meanwhile, are gearing up for a possible impeachment fight next week even as they brace for additional resignations from senior aides, as well as more junior staffers.
Trump’s support rapidly eroded in the Senate, where a senior Republican aide described the mood among GOP senators as “pretty apoplectic.”
McConnell, who has been estranged from the president in recent weeks, has told fellow senators and other confidants that he does not plan to speak with Trump again.
Even Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of Trump’s staunchest allies and golfing partners, broke with the president.
“When it comes to accountability, the president needs to understand that his actions were the problem, not the solution,” Graham said at a Thursday news conference. While he said he did not believe invoking the 25th Amendment was necessary “now,” he thinks that “if something else happens, all options would be on the table.”
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday night, Graham was similarly blunt. “Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey – I hate it being this way,” he said. “All I can say is count me out. Enough is enough.”
But Trump has found admiration elsewhere. At the Republican National Committee meeting in Amelia Island, Fla., which the president had been expected to address in a recording, he instead called into a morning session Thursday to speak to RNC members for a minute or so, RNC members said.
The crowd greeted him with applause and joy, acting as if Wednesday’s attempted coup had never taken place.
– – –
The Washington Post’s Shane Harris contributed to this report.
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.