It turns out there are no silent nights in the Trump era.
Even in the lead-up to Christmas, even in humiliating loss, even as Americans attempt reflection on what has been, for many, the worst year of their lives, President Donald Trump seems bent on maintaining an unrelenting pace of norm-smashing as his term concludes.
No one expected him to fade quietly into retirement. And no one, at this point, is particularly obliged to pay attention — a fact Trump seems very aware of as he desperately seeks to grasp hold of the spotlight for however long it will shine, even as his staff is provided instructions for boxing up their desks and cleaning out their microwaves.
The effect is a president more erratic than ever. Though he has all but disappeared from public view, Trump is wielding what executive powers he has left to rancorous effect, ensuring his presence is felt even as he holes up in virtual isolation. Instead of off-the-cuff rallies or shouting underneath his helicopter, Trump is holding forth in pre-produced videos and, as always, tweeting.
His actions all seem designed to offer the other co-equal branches of government a taste of what he can do — and what damage he can inflict — in the days he is still President.
By pardoning convicted liars, corrupt loyalists and war criminals, Trump has reminded the judiciary that, if he wants to, he can reverse its work. Issuing a surprise and vague attack on carefully crafted stimulus legislation lets lawmakers know he's still a player, even if he sat out the negotiations entirely and seemed confused about what, exactly, he is opposing.
So preoccupied is Trump with his final-stretch actions — which also include his futile efforts to engineer a way to remain in office — that aides were initially uncertain whether the President would even leave the White House for his annual sojourn south to Mar-a-Lago.
Ultimately he did emerge from the White House for the first time in days on Wednesday, ignoring health experts' advice on staying in place for the holidays for a trip to his Florida estate, where earlier this week a student group convened a large, mask-less party in the Donald J. Trump ballroom.
Hoping to disabuse the readily apparent notion that Trump has all but abandoned his governing duties, the White House included an unusual note on his otherwise empty schedule in Florida: "As the Holiday season approaches, President Trump will continue to work tirelessly for the American People. His schedule includes many meetings and calls."
Not letting go of the election
A few hours earlier, Trump had gathered state Republican lawmakers from Pennsylvania for lunch at the White House, apparently undeterred by repeated losses in state and federal courts in his bid to challenge the results of the election there. Trump has aggressively courted GOP members of state legislatures, hopeful someone, somewhere, will help him reverse the results of the Electoral College. He has yet to find success.
As Air Force One was landing in Florida, Trump issued another call for a special counsel to investigate his baseless claims of voter fraud — a message that coincided neatly with the departure of Attorney General William Barr, whose last day was Wednesday and who has said publicly the election was free from widespread voter fraud. Barr's replacement, Jeffrey Rosen, refused to say in a recent interview whether he would name a special counsel if Trump demands it.
Shortly afterward, Trump retweeted a call from one of his supporters for Vice President Mike Pence to refuse to ratify the Electoral College results on January 6 -- a prospect that has captured his imagination even if it remains completely impossible. Trump has told people recently that Pence isn't doing enough to fight for him as his presidency ends.
In between, Trump announced more pardons for well-connected supporters, including Charles Kushner, the father of Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose crime involved luring his brother-in-law into having sex with a prostitute as a hidden camera rolled.
Chris Christie, who was the prosecutor in the case before being elected governor of New Jersey and entering Trump's orbit, once called it "one of the most loathsome, disgusting crimes" he ever prosecuted. But Kushner's proximity to Trump through his son Jared seems to have been enough to secure clemency — a factor, some White House officials have privately speculated, that could be fueling the younger Kushner's limited intervention in his father-in-law's efforts to overturn the election results. Kushner traveled with Trump to Florida on Wednesday after returning from a trip to the Middle East, where he was lauded by foreign officials for his efforts on securing normalization agreements between Israel and Arab nations.
Others included in the latest batch of pardons were Robert Mueller-indicted criminals Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, whose loyalty to the President did not appear to go unnoticed. Mueller, in his final report, documented extensively how Trump had signaled to Manafort and Stone the possibility they could receive pardons during their criminal proceedings if they stuck by him. They did, and the pardons were dutifully delivered.
The pardons extend Trump's streak of wielding his clemency powers for criminals who are loyalists, well-connected or adjacent to his family, wiping away admissions of guilt or jury convictions for even the most depraved acts. While all presidents issue controversial pardons at the end of their terms, Trump appears to be moving at a faster pace than his predecessors, demonstrating little inhibition at rewarding his friends and cronies using one of the most unrestricted powers of his office.
Sore but far from humbled by his election loss, aides say Trump is trying to maintain control of what he can, while he can, in the final days of his term. That the havoc Trump intends on wreaking in the final month of his tenure is coming into sharper focus just as the country enters a traditionally quiet stretch, made quieter this year by still-rampant coronavirus, only heightens the sense of a capital held captive against its will.
Throwing his party 'under the bus'
As Trump was leaving the White House, he refused to stop and answer questions about his veto of a massive defense bill or his out-of-left-field video trashing the $900 billion stimulus package Congress had negotiated with his administration, leaving Americans guessing on when or whether the relief they'd been promised a day ago would ever materialize.
Trump had long promised to reject the defense legislation over an unrelated demand it also repeal a law that shields internet companies from liability for what is posted on their websites. The bill would also require the military to rename bases that were named after figures from the Confederacy — something Trump said in his veto message amounted to an attempt to "wash away history."
It sets up potentially the first veto override vote of Trump's presidency — one that could pit members of his own party against him. It's a position he doesn't seem particularly concerned with, given his parallel rejection of the stimulus package and governing spending bill that GOP leaders had all endorsed.
In the video rejecting the measure, Trump complained about a litany of federal spending, claiming the line items had nothing to do with Covid relief. The expenditures were actually included in an omnibus spending bill that became a legislative vehicle for the stimulus and aren't a part of the relief bill itself.
And a closer inspection of them revealed the things Trump complained about track almost exactly with what the White House had requested in its annual 2021 budget, which was released earlier this year.
Even the President's top allies in Congress do not seem to know what Trump is doing. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, in a call with members of his conference on Wednesday, said Trump hasn't explicitly committed to vetoing the joint coronavirus relief and government funding measure. Instead, he somewhat ambiguously told House Republicans that they needed to find a way to address the President's concerns.
That did little to quell frustration from some members. Rep. Don Bacon, a Nebraska Republican, said Trump had thrown Republicans, who voted for the package in large numbers, "under the bus," according to a person on the call.
One Republican official said Trump was simply seeking to exact revenge on the Republican Senate leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the number two Republican in the chamber, John Thune, who helped negotiate the package. Both have discouraged efforts to challenge the Electoral College results next month.
"The Trump tantrum has nothing to do with check size or spending — he was fully aware of the negotiations carried out in his behalf by (chief of staff Mark) Meadows and (Treasury Secretary Steven) Mnuchin and never said peep," the official told CNN's Jake Tapper. "This is about McConnell and Thune acknowledging the inevitable. When it comes to venting rage and seeking revenge vs. millions losing unemployment the day after Christmas and millions losing apartments and millions of small businesses going under, there is no contest: his ego always comes first."
Still, it's not only members of Congress who are acknowledging Trump's loss. White House staff received an email Wednesday detailing the upcoming exit process — including how to pack their desks, clean their refrigerators and microwaves and timing information about their final paychecks — according to an email viewed by CNN.
A few hours later, another email came through informing them to disregard the previous message. No reason was given for the recall, but the White House management office said "updated information will be shared in the coming days."