Trump Presidency Careens Toward End on Violent Final Note
Demonstrators hold Trump signs during a protest at the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: Eric Lee/Bloomberg)

Trump Presidency Careens Toward End on Violent Final Note

Donald Trump’s presidency careened toward its conclusion Wednesday with a shocking display of lawlessness, as a mob of supporters inflamed by the president stormed the U.S. Capitol in a bid to disrupt the final certification of his re-election defeat.

A day that started with Trump basking in the adulation of his supporters ended with him on defense and politically radioactive. His vice president, Mike Pence, fellow Republicans and business leaders conspicuously distanced themselves while top advisers considered resigning their posts.

Trump Presidency Careens Toward End on Violent Final Note

On Thursday, Representative Steve Scalise told Fox Business he hoped Trump would issue an “unequivocal condemnation of what happened.”

“We have a hallmark in America that we can debate our differences, we can express our strong opinions, we have a right to assemble and free speech but we don’t have a right to resort to violence to settle our differences,” he said.

Even Trump’s staunch ally Senator Lindsey Graham said he had seen enough.

“Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way,” said Graham, the South Carolina senator who was a confidant and golf partner to the president as recently as Christmas Day. “All I can say is, count me out. Enough is enough. I’ve tried to be helpful.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an icon among conservatives, delivered a devastating condemnation on the floor of the Senate, warning that the attempts to overthrow the election “would damage our republic forever.”

Former President George W. Bush said the assault on the Capitol was “undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes.“ And his successor, former President Barack Obama, said history would remember the violence “incited by a sitting president who has continued to baselessly lie about the outcome of a lawful election, as a moment of great dishonor and shame for our nation.”

Trump Presidency Careens Toward End on Violent Final Note

Trump’s handling of the violence -- which saw him continue to praise rioters even as clashes with Capitol Police left one person dead -- also led to new restrictions and warnings from the social media companies that propelled his political rise, including Twitter, Facebook and Google’s YouTube, along with widespread condemnation from across the political spectrum.

The historic spectacle only underscored the president’s diminished standing and dissipating options after refusing to accept his defeat at the hands of American voters.

A senior Republican senator told White House Counsel Pat Cipollone that the Cabinet should consider removing Trump by invoking the 25th amendment if he doesn’t stop inciting violence, a person familiar with the matter said. And some Republican lawmakers have discussed the possibility of impeaching Trump -- a move that could prevent him from seeking public office again -- though as of now the effort doesn’t appear serious.

White House Resignations

Several White House officials resigned in the wake of the unprecedented violence at the Capitol and others weighed departures. The most prominent to leave was Trump’s deputy national security adviser, Matt Pottinger, who quit Wednesday afternoon in dismay over Trump’s incitement of the protesters.

Former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, now special envoy to Northern Ireland, said in an interview with CNBC Thursday that he had resigned from his post.

The first lady’s chief of staff, Stephanie Grisham, also resigned Wednesday, as well as a deputy press secretary and the White House social secretary. Pottinger’s boss, National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, considered resigning but was persuaded to stay on by allies, according to people familiar with the matter.

The twilight of Trump’s presidency was obvious even before chaos erupted at the Capitol. On Tuesday, voters in Georgia -- until recently a reliable Republican stronghold -- elected two Democrats to the U.S. Senate, giving President-elect Joe Biden’s party control of the upper chamber despite Trump’s efforts to buoy the state’s Republican incumbents.

And earlier Wednesday, Pence -- long a loyal foot soldier in Trump’s insurgent campaign against Washington -- said he could not violate his oath to uphold the Constitution by rejecting Electoral College votes for Biden from states where Trump claims that fraud cost him the election.

Pence’s determination came despite Trump’s last-ditch phone call to lobby him shortly before the president addressed demonstrators gathered near the White House. Trump framed the choice in vulgar language, and when Pence informed Trump of his decision, the president reacted angrily, according to people familiar with the incident.

Minutes later, Trump said publicly that he would be “very disappointed” with his vice president if he failed to block the count of Electoral College votes.

Pence’s decision may create an irrevocable rift between the pair, with Trump tweeting Pence “didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done.” Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, has been banned from White House grounds, according to two people familiar with the matter.

Some in Trump’s inner circle saved their invective for Pence, saying his abandonment in Trump’s hour of need sealed their separation and absolved Trump of supporting him in an expected 2024 presidential run.

‘Never Concede’

The turmoil within the administration underscored the historic gravity of the images from the Capitol, where rioters smashed windows, scaled walls and vandalized offices. The incident will stand as the coda for a presidency that could never escape Trump’s inability to rise to the moment and put his personal interests aside.

At least four people died during the mayhem Wednesday, with one woman shot by Capitol Police when protesters stormed the Capitol building, city police reported. At least 52 people were arrested and a number of guns were seized.

But even as lawmakers from across the political spectrum assigned Trump culpability for the scene, the president seemed to relish the chaos he had fomented.

While never calling for violence, Trump had encouraged supporters to pour into Washington on Wednesday with repeated suggestions that the ceremonial certification of the election results could somehow be overturned. And as he addressed the assembled crowd earlier in the day outside the White House, he called on them to march on the Capitol and give “weak” Republican lawmakers “the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.“

“We will never give up,“ Trump said. “We will never concede.“

As events began spiraling out of control -- with Pence whisked from the Senate floor by security, lawmakers ordered to shelter in place and don protective hoods, and rioters with Confederate flags roaming the halls of the Capitol -- the president did little to calm the situation.

Trump Presidency Careens Toward End on Violent Final Note

Top aides prodded Trump to react, with chief of staff Mark Meadows, Cipollone, and social media director Dan Scavino all urging him to say something, according to a person familiar with the discussions. But even as aides sounded alarm -- one person described Cipollone and Meadows as rattled -- Trump expressed initial pleasure with the disruption.

Trump bounced back and forth between the Oval Office and his private dining room as he watched coverage of the siege on television. In the end, it took the president more than 45 minutes to send a tweet asking his supporters to “stay peaceful.” Neither that tweet nor a subsequent post explicitly called on followers to leave the Capitol.

It was only hours later, after public calls from a chorus that included Biden, congressional leaders, former aides and Republican allies -- as well as private persuasion from his daughter Ivanka Trump and other senior advisers -- that Trump issued a video telling his supporters to “go home.”

The short statement led off with his false claims about election fraud and assigned the protesters no fault for the episode. Trump’s advisers had discussed instead holding a news conference, but the president has avoided interactions with reporters since Election Day and a video was regarded as more manageable.

The president’s final comment of the night -- sent on Twitter as darkness fell over the Capitol -- suggested pride for the chaos he’d unleashed, saying those upset with the election results should “remember this day forever.”

“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,” Trump wrote.

Twitter Ban

The tweets and video were removed by Twitter -- which banned the president from its service for at least 12 hours -- and Facebook, which said in a statement that the company believed Trump’s comments would on balance incite further violence. It was the most dramatic step either social media giant had taken in the course of Trump’s presidency, and underscored both the president’s waning political power and the disgust Wednesday’s violence engendered across the nation.

Prominent presidential allies expressed dismay with Trump’s behavior.

“Two pathetically weak tweets followed by a video that didn’t condemn the violence won’t cut it, Mr. President,” Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote in an op-ed for Fox News. “It’s up to you to tell your followers that what some among them have done is unacceptable to you and the entire country.“

Others called for Trump’s removal from office, despite having just two weeks remaining in his term. Vermont Governor Phil Scott, a Republican, tweeted that Trump should “resign or be removed from office by his Cabinet, or by the Congress.” At least a half-dozen Democratic lawmakers called for impeachment.

Trump was unapologetic, telling supporters who overran the Capitol Police to menace lawmakers that they were “very special.” While some aides were shaken by the events and viewed them as potentially catastrophic for Trump’s political future, others floated unfounded conspiracy theories that political enemies had embedded with Trump supporters to incite the violence, according to officials who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The president’s response was in some ways familiar. Since entering public life, he’s stubbornly refused to grapple with the consequences of his actions, and never worried that his flirtation with radical elements would weaken the republic he was charged with defending. Nor have brazen double-standards -- like the disparate police treatment of his supporters, compared to Black Lives Matters demonstrators who were gassed in protests last summer -- been an issue for Trump.

In many ways, it will be up to his successor to address the ills demonstrated by Wednesday’s events. It is Biden who faces the enormous task of healing the nation and governing in the face of the radicalism Trump has sown throughout the body politic.

Still, the Capitol Hill violence will haunt Trump through whatever he chooses as his next act. Having already lost his mantle as a unique political talent able to win despite outrageous acts, he has now sacrificed any claim he had to being a “law and order” leader.

Four years after promising to banish “American carnage” in his inaugural address on the steps of the Capitol, he brought it to the door.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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