JONATHAN LEMIRE and ZEKE MILLER, Associated Press
President Donald Trump said Friday he won’t attend President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, undercutting his message a day earlier that he would work to ensure a “smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power” to his successor.
Trump offered no clues for how he would spent his final hours in office, and will be the first incumbent president since Andrew Johnson to skip his successor’s swearing-in. Traditionally, the incoming and outgoing presidents ride to the U.S. Capitol together for the ceremony, as a symbol of the nation’s peaceful transition.
Trump’s comments come two days after a violent mob of his supporters occupied the Capitol for several hours as lawmakers were tallying the electoral votes that certified Biden’s victory. Biden will become president at noon on Jan. 20 regardless of Trump’s plans.
“To all of those who have asked, I will not be going to the Inauguration on January 20th,” Trump tweeted. The move had been widely expected, as Trump for months falsely claimed victory in the election and promulgated baseless claims of voter fraud. His own administration said the election had been fairly run.
Vice President Mike Pence was expected to attend the inauguration. Pence spokesman Devin Malley said “Vice President Pence and the Second Lady have yet to make a decision regarding their attendance.”
Biden’s transition team had no immediate comment on Trump’s announcement. But Jen Psaki, the president-elect’s incoming White House press secretary, said last month that whether Trump attended the inauguration was not top of mind for Biden.
On Thursday, with 12 days left in his term, Trump finally bent to reality amid growing talk of trying to force him out early, acknowledging he’ll peacefully leave after Congress affirmed his defeat.
Trump led off a video from the White House Thursday by condemning the violence carried out in his name a day earlier at the Capitol. Then, for the first time on camera, he admitted his presidency would soon end — though he declined to mention Biden by name or explicitly state he had lost.
“A new administration will be inaugurated on Jan. 20,” Trump said in the video. “My focus now turns to ensuring a smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power. This moment calls for healing and reconciliation.”
By next morning, however, Trump was back to his usual division. Instead of offering condolences to the police officer who died from injuries sustained during the riot, Trump took to twitter to commend the “great American Patriots” who’d voted for him.
“They will not be disrespected or treated unfairly in any way, shape or form!!!” he tweeted.
Thursday evening’s address, which appeared designed to stave off talk of a forced early eviction, came at the end of a day when the cornered president stayed out of sight in the White House. Silenced on some of his favorite internet lines of communication, he watched the resignations of several top aides, including two Cabinet secretaries.
And as officials sifted through the aftermath of the pro-Trump mob’s siege of the U.S. Capitol, there was growing discussion of impeaching him a second time or invoking the 25th Amendment to oust him from the Oval Office.
The invasion of the Capitol building, a powerful symbol of the nation’s democracy, rattled Republicans and Democrats alike. They struggled with how best to contain the impulses of a president deemed too dangerous to control his own social media accounts but who remains commander in chief of the world’s greatest military.
“I’m not worried about the next election, I’m worried about getting through the next 14 days,” said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of Trump’s staunchest allies. He condemned the president’s role in Wednesday’s riots and said, “If something else happens, all options would be on the table.”
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that “the president of the United States incited an armed insurrection against America.” She called him “a very dangerous person who should not continue in office. This is urgent, an emergency of the highest magnitude.”
Neither option to remove Trump seemed likely, with little time left in his term to draft the Cabinet members needed to invoke the amendment or to organize the hearings and trial mandated for an impeachment.
Fears of what a desperate president could do in his final days spread in the nation’s capital and beyond, including speculation Trump could incite more violence, make rash appointments, issue ill-conceived pardons — including for himself and his family — or even trigger a destabilizing international incident.
The president’s video Thursday — which was released upon his return to Twitter after his account was restored — was a complete reversal from the one he put out just 24 hours earlier in which he said to the violent mob: “We love you. You’re very special.” His refusal to condemn the violence sparked a firestorm of criticism and, in the new video, he at last denounced the demonstrators’ “lawlessness and mayhem.”
Aides said the video was also meant to slow the mass exodus of staffers and ward off potential legal trouble for Trump once he leaves office; White House counsel Pat Cipollone has repeatedly warned the president that he could be deemed responsible for inciting Wednesday’s violence.
As for his feelings on leaving office, Trump told the nation that “serving as your president has been the honor of my lifetime” while hinting at a return to the public arena. He told supporters “our incredible journey is only just beginning.”
While Trump remained silent and ensconced in the executive mansion until Thursday evening, around him, loyalists headed for the exits, their departures — which were coming in two weeks anyway — moved up to protest the president’s handling of the riot.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao became the first Cabinet member to resign. Chao, married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of the lawmakers trapped at the Capitol on Wednesday, said in a message to staff that the attack “has deeply troubled me in a way that I simply cannot set aside.”
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos followed. In her resignation letter Thursday, DeVos blamed Trump for inflaming tensions in the violent assault on the seat of the nation’s democracy. “There is no mistaking the impact your rhetoric had on the situation, and it is the inflection point for me,” she wrote.
Others who resigned in the wake of the riot: Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger; Ryan Tully, senior director for European and Russian affairs at the National Security Council; and first lady Melania Trump’s chief of staff Stephanie Grisham, a former White House press secretary.
Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s former chief of staff-turned-special envoy to Northern Ireland, told CNBC that he had called Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “to let him know I was resigning. … I can’t do it. I can’t stay.”
“Those who choose to stay, and I have talked with some of them, are choosing to stay because they’re worried the president might put someone worse in,” Mulvaney said.
Mulvaney’s predecessor in the chief of staff job, retired U.S. Marine Corps general John Kelly, told CNN that “I think the Cabinet should meet and have a discussion” about Section 4 of the 25th Amendment — allowing the forceful removal of Trump by his own Cabinet.
Staff-level discussions on the matter took place across multiple departments and even in parts of the White House, according to two people briefed on the talks. But no member of the Cabinet has publicly expressed support for the move.
In the West Wing, shell-shocked aides were packing up, acting on a delayed directive to begin offboarding their posts ahead of the Biden team’s arrival.
The president has asked aides to explore a possible valedictory trip next week to the southern border as a means to highlight his immigration policies.
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed reporting from Washington.