Trump Leaves the White House Like a Failed Coup Leader

Photo: Pete Marovich - Pool/Getty Images

Perhaps the drummers who are trying to gin up a decent turnout for Donald Trump’s departure on his voyage to Florida on Air Force One will succeed, but at this point the “sendoff” is looking to be the kind of aggressively avoided public event normally associated with the reopening of a salad bar after an E. coli outbreak.

Truth be told, presidential farewells often occur under some sort of a cloud. Looking at the 16 presidents who held office in the century before Trump, three (Harding, Roosevelt, and Kennedy) died in office. One (Nixon) was forced to resign. Four (Hoover, Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush) had just been defeated for reelection. Two others (Truman and Johnson) had been denied renomination after a primary setback. One (Clinton) had recently been impeached. Reagan and George W. Bush had late-second-term swoons in popularity and effectiveness. Eisenhower and Obama had the bittersweet experience of turning over the White House to the opposing party. Calvin Coolidge probably had the most fortunate farewell, leaving office on his own terms in March 1929 before he could bear the crushing burden of the Great Depression that October.

But Trump’s defenestration is being accompanied not only by thrilled celebrations among his enemies (including the solid majorities of the public who “disapprove strongly” of his presidential job performance as he exits), but private and sometimes public relief among his supporters and allies. For everyone at Joint Base Andrews who will wave good-bye with a heartfelt pang of regret, there will be several thinking “good riddance” or “don’t hurry back” and some waving with a middle finger.

It’s useful to examine why Trump’s departure will be the least regretted ever.

He Never Conceded Defeat (Or Any Other Error)

The very definition of “graceful loser” requires admitting defeat, accepting responsibility for it, and acknowledging the legitimacy of the winner’s victory. Trump famously did not do any of these things. It’s telling that one of the men with whom Trump is vying for the mantle of “worst president ever,” Richard Nixon, lost in 1960 by an eyelash, and despite legitimate reasons to believe he was counted out in Illinois, chose not to contest John Kennedy’s election. For the fifth time in American history, citizens were denied the catharsis of a resolved presidential election for weeks and months after Election Day.

Unlike the elections of 1800, 1824, 1876, or 2000, the 2020 election left no real doubt about the popular and electoral vote winner, and without an incumbent president determined to deny and then reverse his defeat, the immense divisions between Americans might have well subsided to some degree. It is as certain as anything in life that Trump is only leaving the White House because there was literally no way to remain, however unconstitutional. So how can anyone, friend or foe, admire him for a brave but unbowed exit from Washington? He gave up power kicking and screaming, and if he has to be dragged kicking and screaming aboard Air Force One, no one would be surprised. And worst of all, this final gracelessness perfectly typified his conduct for four long years. He was never at fault, and never a loser.

He Cursed and Betrayed His Friends and Supporters

One of the most bitterly amusing aspects of Trump’s “sendoff” event is that so many former staff and allies spurned and condemned by him were invited to attend. It was mostly unavoidable thanks to the high turnover among Trump’s retainers, and his habit of treating those he discarded with disdain and blame for his own misdoings.

Even before the final paroxysms of January 6, when Trump earned an unlikely second impeachment, he was exhibiting his lack of gratitude to loyalists, as Axios reported on December 20:

President Trump, in his final days, is turning bitterly on virtually every person around him, griping about anyone who refuses to indulge conspiracy theories or hopeless bids to overturn the election….

Targets of his outrage include Vice President Pence, chief of staff Mark Meadows, White House counsel Pat Cipollone, Secretary of State Pompeo and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell….

Trump thinks everyone around him is weak, stupid or disloyal — and increasingly seeks comfort only in people who egg him on to overturn the election results. We cannot stress enough how unnerved Trump officials are by the conversations unfolding inside the White House.

Trump’s tendency to curse and betray his friends was epitomized by his treatment of the most sycophantic vice-president in history, Mike Pence. When Pence refused to violate the clearest possible constitutional and statutory law governing his limited role in the electoral vote count on January 6, Trump reportedly dismissed him with the misogynist epithet of “pussy” and all but cut off communications with the man who had supported him through thick and thin. Worse yet, he maligned the Republican members of Congress who supported his attempted election coup for failing to fight hard enough or to defend him more categorically.

Which of these friends will be sad to see him go?

He Won’t Actually Go Away

Part of any genuine farewell is the anticipation of absence, the sense that the ex-president is retreating into retirement or at least private life. But Trump leaves office as the first ex-president since Hoover to hint at and perhaps even plan a presidential comeback. It’s not because of relative youth: Carter was 19 years younger than Trump is today when he left office and Bush Sr. seven years younger. And it’s certainly not because Trump is likely to be inspired to the kind of post-presidential career of civic or philanthropic service which typified Hoover’s and Carter’s later lives.

No, Trump seems bent on continued party power and vengeance. Some Republicans charge that the second impeachment of Trump on a timetable that can only conclude after he’s left office is a sign of Democratic unwillingness to close the page on his presidency. But the sanction they seek (which some ambitious Republican pols undoubtedly hope is executed before the 2024 election cycle arrives) is a ban on future office-holding. In essence, all Democrats and likely many Republicans simply want him to stay away from Washington — at least for a while — and stay away from the presidential campaign trail forever.

He Disrespected the Constitutional Norms That Would Dictate a Warmer Good-bye

It’s hard for tradition-bound Washingtonians of either party to wish a fond farewell on January 20 to a man who on January 6 was busily inciting a mob to go to the Capitol to halt the routine counting of electoral votes decided on or before November 3, recognized by every objective observer on November 7, and certified by every state in early December. Whether or not they favor an impeachment conviction for this sin against all precedents for law and order, there’s little disagreement among political professionals that this president who once said the Constitution let him “do whatever I want” had finally gone too far.

As he departs Washington, Trump resembles no one so much as a failed coup leader in a banana republic who has negotiated his exile but leaves at the point of a bayonet. For our country, this is a happy occasion we unhappily acknowledge as the necessary exorcism of a great evil.

Trump Leaves the White House Like a Failed Coup Leader