PALM BEACH, Fla. — Donald Trump left Washington the same way he came in — flouting traditions, demanding praise and fixated on making himself the center of the story.
There was only one difference: The spotlight he so religiously craves was no longer on him.
Trump departed the White House early Wednesday, hours before his successor, Joe Biden, took the oath of office at a scaled-back inauguration ceremony outside the heavily fortified Capitol. After boarding Air Force One, he flew to south Florida, where he awaits an uncertain post-presidency amid criminal investigations, lawsuits and a second impeachment trial over the Capitol riots he helped foment.
Trump skipped the traditional farewell speech to the nation, news conference and televised interviews designed to serve as capstones to his time in office. He did leave a handwritten note for Biden at the Resolute Desk at the urging of people around him, including Republican leader Kevin McCarthy — about the only custom he followed.
But just as Trump came into office in his own unique way, he left on his own terms too. The outgoing president hosted his own ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base. In the lead up to it, his team pressed former officials — including spurned former White House aides like John Kelly, John Bolton, and Omarosa Manigault-Newman — to attend in hopes of producing a grand send-off.
But it fell far short of that. Only several hundred die-hard supporters showed up to watch the president depart. Aides Mark Meadows, Stephen Miller and Kash Patel were there. So was surrogate Sebastian Gorka. Vice President Mike Pence and GOP leaders in Congress were not. Neither was Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel, who is still recovering from surgery. Those who came stood in a cold breeze as the Trump campaign playlist — from Macho Man to Tiny Dancer — blared over the loudspeakers. A military band played as Trump stepped off Marine One and walked down a red carpet to a makeshift stage.
“We were not a regular administration,” Trump said, in what was one of the truer testaments offered during the day.
“It has been something very special,” he told the crowd. “And I just want to say goodbye, but hopefully it’s not a long-term goodbye.”
How long that goodbye ends up being now depends on a host of factors, several outside Trump’s control. He has yet to put together a defense team for his impeachment trial in the Senate, which could result in him being barred from running for future office. He has no clear avenues for regaining his social media prominence after the biggest platforms gave him the boot. And while he will have a staff of about a dozen, including a small political operation, with him at his estate in Florida, there is no clear indication yet as to what it will actually do.
Aboard Air Force One on Wednesday, only a small coterie of aides, including Trump’s senior campaign adviser Jason Miller, political director Brian Jack and social media director Dan Scavino, accompanied Trump and his family. Some took the flight as a one-way ticket for their new jobs: Margo Martin, a press wrangler, will be handling communications for Trump in Palm Beach; Molly Michael will continue to be an assistant to Trump; and Beau Harrison is expected to run operations. Their salaries, an aide said, will be paid for by the General Services Administration, which covers support for former presidents.
While Trump doesn’t have the presidency anymore, he does have his fans. On Thursday, Trump’s family, most loyal donors and friends are set to host a welcome home luncheon for him at his Mar-a-Lago club. And when he arrived in Florida, about 400 hardcore ones were gathered along Southern Boulevard in Palm Beach waiting for what was in essence the final MAGA rally of the Trump presidency. They came with their Keep America Great flags and Women for Trump shirts and Trump-Pence signs, many with Pence scratched out in protest of his decision to certify the Electoral College results. A pink sign congratulating Tiffany Trump for her engagement was also spotted by reporters.
Trump’s motorcade slowly maneuvered down the roads leading to his club, “presumably,” the pool report noted, “so POTUS could take in the support and wave.”
Paul Amirata, a 52-year-old insurance lawyer, said Trump gave him a thumbs-up after seeing his handmade sign: “On the 8th Day God Created Donald Trump.” Like most of the hundreds of supporters who gathered to wave at his final motorcade, Amirata believes Trump was betrayed by virus creators in China, the fake news media, Big Tech, vote-rigging Democrats, disloyal Republicans and an all-powerful Deep State.
“The fix was in, and that’s why we’re seeing him on Southern Boulevard in Palm Beach instead of taking the oath in Washington,” Amirata said.
Cynthia Potenza Taylor, a Christian activist who makes Nativity sets, cried all morning at the prospect of Trump no longer in charge. Though she initially hoped that Pence or the Supreme Court would overturn the election results she said she now accepted the election results as part of God’s plan and that good Christians still needed to fight harder.
“We’re in a battle, and God is still on our side,” she said.
Only weeks ago, Trump’s aides and allies were urging Trump to attend Biden’s inauguration to show the world that the United States can engage in a peaceful transfer of power. But after a two-month crusade to overturn the election that ended in riots that left five people dead and Washington on edge, even his own advisers seemed relieved to not have to deal with the questions after another Trump blowup.
The sparsely attended inauguration may not have had Trump in attendance, but it did include members of Congress of both parties, including the part of the Republican Party that never took to Trump.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump’s decision not to come to the inauguration was “kind of a disgrace” but called Pence, a longtime friend, an “honorable man” for attending. “I wanted to come and pay my respects to the institution and the peaceful transfer of power,” Ryan added. “I felt duty-bound to come and pay my respects to the process.”
Former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake also said Trump should have attended but “given everything I’m not surprised.”
Even Rep. Jim Jordan, one of Trump’s biggest allies on Capitol Hill, attended the inauguration — his fourth — a day after he visited the White House to thank Trump for his service.
“I just went to say goodbye and say thank you,” Jordan said. “I hope he runs again. I think he’s done a tremendous job.”
While Jordan may wish it, allies say that Trump is unlikely to run again for office after the events of the last two weeks. He has talked about starting a new political party, investing in his own conservative network or just traveling the country to put on his MAGA rallies.
He burned numerous bridges on his way out and shattered even more norms. Trump never spoke to his successor, even with Biden staying last night just across the street from the White House in the presidential guest house Blair House. Nor did outgoing first lady Melania Trump give Jill Biden the traditional tour of the White House.
While Trump’s political future is uncertain, so too is his life outside of politics. While in the White House, Trump was largely protected from facing criminal charges, given a longstanding Justice Department precedent not to indict a sitting president. Now, he’ll have to grapple with a series of investigations that might directly implicate him.
The New York Attorney General’s Office is investigating whether Trump and his company misreported assets on financial statements used to seek loans, tax breaks and economic benefits. And the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, is still probing Trump’s payoffs to two women to keep them quiet during the 2016 campaign about extramarital affairs with Trump. Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, already went to jail over the payments, which violated campaign finance law. Trump himself was implicated in the scheme, with prosecutors saying he directed Cohen to make the hush money payments.
“He is in more jeopardy of getting into serious legal difficulty than any other president who has ever served by far,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
Daniel Lippmann contributed to this report.