President Donald Trump’s administration is ending how it began, with over-the-top declarations of praise for the chief executive.
But now the flattery is mixed with a sense of finality as key people in the president’s orbit are beginning to turn the page and acknowledge his defeat. Trump himself keeps to the Oval Office, still fighting the Election Day results and offering scant acknowledgement of the death and suffering Americans are bearing in the darkest hours of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a week when the Electoral College made official President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, Trump remained out of sight, staying late in the Oval Office and working the phones and television remote in his private dining area just steps from the Resolute Desk.
While he made not one public appearance, some of those who have been his most influential allies and loyal defenders gave up the fight, letting the president down as gently as possible.
Attorney General William Barr offered his resignation last Monday after weeks of tension with Trump brought about an early exit from his post. Long seen as one of Trump’s most supportive Cabinet members, Barr in recent weeks and months had drawn Trump’s wrath for not supporting the president’s baseless claims of election fraud or for not publicly pursuing an investigation into Biden’s son Hunter.
But when Barr stepped aside, he did so with flowery language reminiscent of the compliments that were tossed as verbal bouquets at Trump during early Cabinet meetings.
“Your record is all the more historic because you accomplished it in the face of relentless, implacable resistance,” Barr wrote in his resignation letter. Trump promptly tweeted it out, adding his own words of praise for the attorney general.
In the six weeks since his defeat by Biden, Trump has been increasingly disengaged from his job. The virus has killed more than 300,000 Americans and is now claiming more than 3,000 lives a day, but the president has offered barely a word about the deaths or the development of the vaccine that could bring an end to the pandemic.
At the same time, he has relentlessly tweeted conspiracy theories and false claims about the election, incorrectly insisting it was stolen from him while taking steps to undermine the Biden administration before it begins. Most Republicans went along, refusing to push Trump to stop or work with the president-elect.
Many in the GOP took their cues from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who refused to stand up to Trump, instead of making the calculation that an outraged Republican base — and an angry president — could help produce victories in a pair of January runoff races in Georgia that will dictate control of the Senate. But this past week, even McConnell, R-Ky., bent to reality, declaring that the Electoral College “had spoken” and that Biden was the victor.
McConnell’s acknowledgement that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris had won came only after a long public recap of Trump’s accomplishments on the Senate floor. McConnell spoke about Trump for nine minutes, declaring that “many of us hoped that the presidential election would yield a different result.” He discussed Biden for one minute.
Some more of Trump’s fiercest allies also appeared to give credence, albeit briefly, to the electoral result. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a cable television appearance that Trump was in strong position for a possible 2024 campaign — a roundabout acknowledgement that he won’t be president come next year.
Others close to Trump also marked the looming end. His daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump began tweeted photos of moments throughout the term. His son Eric Trump and his family posed for photos just outside the Oval Office. West Wing staffers put up photos on Instagram of White House Christmas parties, and most of those pictured weren’t wearing masks.
Vice President Mike Pence continued his role as Trump’s biggest hype man, even as the cheerleading came with a whiff of nostalgia. Pence in a ceremony Friday marked the first anniversary of the U.S. Space Force, which he framed as a major part of Trump’s legacy.
But with Trump largely in hiding, it fell to Pence to make a public show of meeting with those distributing the vaccine. And on Friday, he was the one who rolled up his sleeves and took a public shot in the arm as part of a campaign to convince Americans the vaccine is safe.
Trump has been happy to bask in praise throughout his presidency. His Cabinet meetings at times resembled “Dear Leader” sessions in authoritarian nations where officials gush compliments for the man in charge.
The tone was set at the president’s first Cabinet meeting, in June 2017, when the only subject for debate appeared to whether Trump was a great president or the greatest. With the media invited to watch, Trump extolled the achievements of his young administration, asserting that he had accomplished more than any president in his first six months — with “few exceptions,” like President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Pence that day declared his job was “the greatest privilege of my life.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said he was “thrilled,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry gave his “hats off” to Trump and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross offered thanks “for the opportunity” to work for the president.
Perhaps the strongest words came from chief of staff Reince Priebus: “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda.”
On Wednesday, Trump convened his 25th and perhaps final Cabinet meeting. Much had changed.
Several top officials were not there, including Barr, whose resignation was pending; acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who had tested positive for COVID-19; and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was quarantining because he had been exposed to someone with the virus.
Whether there was effusive praise of Trump remains unknown.
The president did not let the media in.