7 min read.Updated: 08 Jan 2021, 09:49 AM ISTRebecca Ballhaus, The Wall Street Journal
With resignations thinning the ranks around him and growing calls for his removal, president says he will depart peacefully on Jan. 20
President Trump late Thursday called the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of his supporters a “heinous attack" and said he would leave office peacefully Jan. 20, after facing bipartisan criticism for his reaction to the riot and increasing pressure for his removal.
In a nearly three-minute video, Mr. Trump accepted no responsibility for the riot, which followed a rally where the president urged supporters to head to the Capitol and “fight." He warned rioters, “To those who broke the law, you will pay."
The video, tweeted shortly after 7 p.m., followed pressure from advisers to more forcefully respond to the riot at the Capitol, which left four people dead. Several of his closest advisers have publicly condemned his response to the violence, and White House counsel Pat Cipollone warned the president that he risked legal exposure related to the riot, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
The president spent the day in the White House without access to the social media accounts that helped rocket him to power, as advisers described him as increasingly angry and isolated. His Twitter account was locked for a period and Facebook banned him from its platform, citing posts the companies deemed to be inciting violence or undermining the electoral process.
Members of his inner circle, including chief of staff Mark Meadows, senior adviser Stephen Miller, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, Mr. Cipollone, and the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, urged him to put out another statement Thursday, aides said, telling him Americans needed to hear directly from the president.
They advised the president that it was important to dissuade supporters from participating in violent riots in Mr. Trump’s name, particularly as Inauguration Day nears, the aides said.
On Thursday morning, the president very briefly addressed over speakerphone a members’ breakfast at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in Florida, thanking the donors for their service to the party but didn’t address the riots, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Later in the day, he awarded the Medal of Freedom to golfers Annika Sorenstam and Gary Player in a private ceremony. On Friday, he plans to spend one of the final weekends of his presidency at Camp David, a White House official said.
In past moments of crisis, the president has often spent hours on the phone, calling dozens of friends and advisers to get their take. That wasn’t the case on Wednesday and Thursday, aides said, as several of the president’s closest advisers publicly condemned his response to the riots. He also has rebuffed calls from advisers including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has said he spent 25 minutes on Wednesday trying to reach the president to urge him to call for the violence to stop.
The White House declined to comment.
Advisers said the president remains consumed with anger toward Vice President Mike Pence over what he saw as a betrayal for refusing to try to block the congressional certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory. Several White House officials steered clear of the Oval Office on Thursday, wanting to avoid a president described by one adviser as “in a dark place." Advisers said the president appears more consumed with his election loss than remorseful for the riot.
“It’s like watching someone self-destruct in front of your very eyes, and you can’t do anything," said another adviser who recently spoke to the president.
On Wednesday, shortly before the president left the White House to deliver remarks to supporters, Mr. Pence told him that he lacked the constitutional authority to block certain electors from being counted, which the president had been pushing him to do, according to people familiar with the conversation. Mr. Pence said it would set a bad precedent if he veered off course, according to one of the people.
The president was furious, the people said. “I don’t want to be your friend," Mr. Trump told Mr. Pence, according to one of the people. “I want you to be the vice president."
Many of the president’s aides have been disturbed by his attacks on Mr. Pence, one of his most loyal allies. Some of the president’s advisers have praised Mr. Pence for following the constitution while under pressure from Mr. Trump to overturn the election results.
The violence at the Capitol on Wednesday and its aftermath have also unfolded against the backdrop of another major blow for the White House and the Republican Party: losses in two Senate runoff elections in Georgia, which means Democrats will control both chambers of Congress as well as the White House beginning Jan. 20. Several of the president’s advisers faulted his aggressive accusations of fraud for Republicans’ losses this week.
Meanwhile, the ranks around the president have thinned in the 24 hours since the riot at the Capitol. On Thursday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao became the first cabinet secretary to resign, citing the “entirely avoidable" storming of the Capitol. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos resigned Thursday evening, saying in a letter to the president there was “no mistake the impact your rhetoric had" on Wednesday’s events. At least five other administration officials have also resigned, and several more—including national security adviser Robert O’Brien—have contemplated doing so, aides said. Mr. O’Brien is expected to stay for now due to national security concerns, they said.
“People are very realistic about how bad this is," said one adviser. Many White House officials are despondent about the events of the last 24 hours and see it as a terrible way to end the presidency, the adviser said.
On Wednesday, the president was in “bunker mode," according to a person close to the White House, as aides struggled to persuade him to condemn the violence at the Capitol.
The president’s advisers—including the vice president—were dismayed by his reluctance to do so, people familiar with the conversations said. Mr. Trump had to be cajoled into issuing tweets and a subsequent video statement urging rioters to go home—in which he called them “very special" and said “we love you"—because he “didn’t want to do anything," one of the people said.
The president’s inner circle is the smallest it has ever been, people close to him said. He is increasingly communicating largely with devoted advisers Mr. Miller, John McEntee and Dan Scavino. Even some of Mr. Trump’s staunchest defenders have distanced themselves. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday night: “Count me out. Enough is enough."
The president’s own advisers say they view his recent behavior as increasingly self-destructive. Aides watched the riots at the Capitol unfold on TV with horror. One adviser described the president’s conduct as increasingly erratic and unpredictable.
Some administration officials as well as outside advisers to the president have begun discussions about invoking the 25th Amendment, according to a senior administration official and others familiar with the matter, as lawmakers in both parties have called on the cabinet to do so. The move would allow Mr. Pence to take over the duties of the president if cabinet officials deemed Mr. Trump unable to do his job. But it is widely viewed as unlikely to come to fruition, the people familiar with the discussions said, in part because the president has less than two weeks left in his term.
It remains unclear what the remaining 13 days of Mr. Trump’s presidency will look like. Administration officials have teed up a series of executive orders that the president might sign on issues like the role of independent agencies and buy-American requirements for renewable energy. But multiple officials said it has been hard to focus Mr. Trump’s attention on policy matters.
Administration officials also have been consumed by pardon discussions in recent weeks. Among those for whom a pardon has been discussed is rapper Lil Wayne, who in December pleaded guilty to a federal firearm charge, people familiar with the conversations said. Mr. Trump met with the rapper in October.
The president has recently told advisers he is considering issuing a pardon for himself before he leaves office, which some allies have urged him to do but which has dubious legal basis, according to a person familiar with the discussions. the New York Times first reported his recent interest and Mr. Cipollone’s warning about the president’s legal exposure.
The Justice Department in a 1974 legal memorandum said a president can’t pardon himself under the legal principle that “no one may be a judge in his own case," but some legal scholars disagree with the opinion and it has never been tested in court. Mr. Trump in 2018 said he had the “absolute right" to self-pardon, “but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?"
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.
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