Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS
Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/JOSHUA ROBERTS

Washington — Donald Trump departs Washington on Wednesday with Americans more politically divided and more likely to be out of work than when he arrived, while awaiting trial for his second impeachment — an ignominious end to one of the most turbulent presidencies in American history.

Trump intends to leave in the morning for his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, arriving before president-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. There, the former president will begin his post-presidency life attended, at least temporarily, by a handful of former White House staffers.

The last president who chose not to attend his successor’s inauguration was Andrew Johnson in 1869, another impeached leader. While Trump’s absence will break more than a century of precedent that has reinforced the peaceful transfer of power in the US, Biden has said it’s a “good thing” Trump won’t observe his swearing-in.

Biden will arrive in Washington on Tuesday, where Trump isn’t expected to give him a meeting, according to people familiar with the matter, even though the president-elect will stay at Blair House across the street. All the nation’s other living former presidents except Jimmy Carter, who is 94, will join Biden at Arlington National Cemetery after the inauguration to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

The outgoing president has been transformed into a political pariah in Washington among all but his most loyal supporters in the wake of the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol, which was inspired by Trump’s refusal to accept defeat and recognise Biden’s victory in the November election.

Unemployment is more than a third higher than when he entered office. About 400,000 Americans are expected to be dead of Covid-19 by the time Trump leaves.

Yet Trump has left the door open for a second act in national politics, buoyed by the 74-million people who voted for his re-election despite his failure to contain the US coronavirus outbreak.

His popularity has fallen considerably since the election and the Capitol riot, however. Several polls have shown that as he leaves office, record low numbers of Americans — less than 40%, according to an average by RealClearPolitics — approve of his performance as president.

The final Gallup poll of Trump’s presidency, released on Monday, found him with 34% support on Monday — tied with Carter and George W Bush, who left office with the country mired in the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and Americans disillusioned with the Iraq War.

Trump’s attempts during his final weeks in office to tout his achievements, including his border wall and the withdrawal of US troops from the Middle East, were drowned out by the fallout from the riot. The violent storming of the Capitol left five people dead and showed the danger of Trump’s weeks-long campaign to whip his supporters into a frenzy over the election outcome.

Three quarters of Americans, including more than half of Republicans, say Trump bears some responsibility for the attack, according to a Pew Research Centre survey.

Military presence

The Washington Trump leaves behind now looks more like a military base than the seat of the world’s longest-standing democracy. Thousands of National Guard troops patrol the streets, while the Capitol, White House and large areas around them are fenced off to protect against another attack by Trump’s supporters.

And Trump can’t altogether escape the place himself. Rather than being fully unburdened from the pressures of the presidency upon leaving office, he’ll have to eventually defend himself in his historic second impeachment trial in the Senate over his incitement of the Capitol riot.

Barack Obama, by comparison, spent part of his first few weeks as a former president kite surfing in the Caribbean with British business mogul Richard Branson.

The tumult is a fitting coda for a presidency that constantly pushed the boundaries of normal and exacerbated the nation’s political and racial divisions. Trump’s ability to instigate an attack on the Capitol by his loyalists with baseless claims about the election illustrated how, wittingly or not, he unleashed dark forces that previously inhabited the fringes of American life.

9/11 every day

The coronavirus pandemic, which Trump all but ignored as he sought to overturn his election defeat, has meanwhile grown much worse in the final weeks of his presidency.

Daily US deaths from Covid-19 have topped 4,000 multiple times since the start of the new year — more dead Americans, each day, than the number killed in the September 11 2001, terror attacks. Hospitals across the country are bursting with patients suffering from the disease.

Trump claims the development of a coronavirus vaccine as one of his administration’s greatest achievements, but its rollout has been beset by distribution and bureaucratic failures. After top administration officials promised that more than 100-million doses of vaccine would be delivered by the end of the year, only about 14-million shots had been administered as of Monday, according to the Bloomberg vaccine tracker.

Trump has deflected blame, as he did throughout the crisis, instead faulting governors for not inoculating more people, faster. “They’re calling it a medical miracle,” Trump said of his administration’s vaccine effort in a speech last week near a segment of border wall in Alamo, Texas.

It will be the incoming Biden administration’s responsibility to speed up vaccinations and revive an economy still reeling from pandemic-related shutdowns. The president-elect has said 100-million people will receive a shot in the first 100 days of his term, a goal Trump administration officials call a low-ball figure since the nation is up to almost 900,000 doses a day already.

Jobless rate higher

At its peak, the Trump economy could boast one of the best job markets in decades. The unemployment rate was at a 50-year low, and women, people of colour and the disabled all shared in the gains. But as a result of the pandemic, he leaves behind a jobless rate almost double what it was a year ago — and substantially higher than when he took office — with more than 10-million Americans unemployed. And as the pandemic rages on, people continue to lose their jobs.

In the week ended January 9, nearly 1-million applications for state unemployment insurance were filed — as well as more than 250,000 for a federal programme covering those not traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits, such as gig workers.

The Covid-19 crisis has also left a swathe of the country struggling to pay bills and put food on the table. Almost 30-million Americans reported sometimes or often not having enough to eat, according to a Census Bureau survey in mid-December, and more than 17-million had little or no confidence in their ability to pay next month’s rent.

Taken together, the data shows how the pandemic that crushed Trump’s chances of re-election will also serve as Biden’s foremost challenge as president.

Garden of Heroes

Trump enters his post-White House life with key figures from the world of politics unwilling to associate with him following the Capitol riot. He has been cut off from major social media platforms, including Twitter, which will hurt his ability to grab the spotlight once he is out of office.

Before departing, the president issued a handful of last-minute executive actions. They include an order to create a statue garden for people Trump designated as American heroes, ranging from presidents to game show host Alex Trebek, and an order to discourage government agencies from seeking criminal prosecutions of regulatory violations. Both orders could be overruled by Biden.

Trump’s White House even released a new history of the country’s founding, written by a commission Trump appointed in 2020. The report, published on Martin Luther King Jr Day, defended the nation’s founders’ handling of slavery and argued that modern identity politics “creates new hierarchies as unjust as the old hierarchies of the antebellum South”.

He’s expected to issue a number of pardons on Tuesday, though White House counsel Pat Cipollone has resisted preparing pre-emptive grants of clemency for the president himself, family members or White House aides, according to people familiar with the matter.

Meanwhile, Trump has struggled to find legal representation for the upcoming impeachment trial, with some attorneys who represented him during his first impeachment no longer willing to associate with him.

He won’t have much time to cobble together a team. The Senate could begin its trial soon after Biden takes the oath of office on January 20. If convicted, Congress may bar him from running for federal office ever again.

Bloomberg

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