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Trump Faces Uncertain Future as He Leaves White House

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/20/2021 Andrew Restuccia, Rebecca Ballhaus
a group of people standing around each other © alex edelman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

WASHINGTON—Donald Trump began his presidency as a Washington outsider and is ending it as one, with his future political prospects and influence diminished by his unsuccessful campaign to overturn his election loss.

Polls indicate that Mr. Trump leaves office retaining strong support among rank-and-file Republicans. But he has alienated several of his closest allies after urging protesters to march on the Capitol in what became a violent riot, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), Vice President Mike Pence and at least two of his cabinet members who resigned in protest.

Mr. Trump on Wednesday became one of only a handful of presidents to skip his successor’s inauguration.

Instead, with the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” blaring, he boarded a plane early Wednesday morning for Florida, where he is set to spend his post-presidency life at the Mar-a-Lago resort that he once dubbed the “Southern White House.” He left a note for his successor before leaving; a spokesman declined to say what it said.

“We will be back in some form,” Mr. Trump vowed in his final remarks as president, at an event that included more than 200 service members, a 21-gun salute, a color guard and other ceremonial units. He said he wished the new administration “great luck and success” and added: “I hope they don’t raise your taxes, but if they do—I told you so.”

The president, who once had a penchant for sparring with the press in near-daily events, hadn’t been seen in public for more than a week.

At 12:01 p.m. Wednesday his presidency ended as Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States.

Past presidents have often pulled back from public life in the immediate aftermath of their presidencies to allow the new commander-in-chief to govern without commentary from his predecessor. Mr. Trump, people close to him said, isn’t expected to remain silent for long.

Mr. Trump has mused to associates that he is interested in starting a new political party, which he has said he wants to call the Patriot Party, according to people with knowledge of the matter. It is unclear how serious Mr. Trump is about the idea, which would require a significant investment of time and resources.

Mr. Trump plans to maintain a small staff of former White House officials in Florida and has begun talking to associates about raising money for his presidential library, people familiar with the matter said. In conversations with advisers in recent months, he discussed delivering paid speeches and is expected to be involved to some extent in the Trump Organization, the company that his son Eric has been running.

Some of the business’s most lucrative assets have been suffering due to the pandemic and face looming debt payments. They now are contending with increased pressure in the wake of the riot. Mr. Trump and his family also will have to confront various state-level investigations into their business practices.

It isn’t clear whether he will join his fellow former presidents in the ceremonial events and charitable efforts that frequently bring that small group together. Mr. Trump won’t be there Wednesday afternoon when Mr. Biden is joined at Arlington National Cemetery by former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Mr. Trump rose to power in 2016 with the help of a historically small number of advisers and with tepid support from Republican Party leaders he frequently criticized, to the delight of many GOP voters who were drawn to him because he challenged the establishment.

In his early years in office, he at times tried to expand his circle, inviting lawmakers in both parties to meetings in the White House, launching advisory groups with the nation’s most powerful chief executives and establishing his grip on the Republican Party, often by using his Twitter account to attack those who opposed him.

Over the years, though he retained the political loyalty of most Republican elected officials, his efforts to establish personal relationships around Washington waned, as his administration saw an unprecedented level of turnover and the president grew increasingly incensed by investigations into his actions in office, his campaign and his businesses.

It was his monthslong effort to overturn his election loss to Mr. Biden, however, that finally narrowed his inner circle back to a handful of key loyalists.

Mr. McConnell on Tuesday blamed the president for provoking the mob that stormed the Capitol. Last week, an unprecedented 10 Republicans joined House Democrats in voting to impeach him, and dozens of administration officials have resigned in protest, many of them issuing public denunciations of his handling of the riot.

Mr. Trump over the last four years steered the Republican Party away from a decades-old style of conservatism to one centered around populism and nationalism, pushing policies that restricted immigration and reduced U.S. troop levels abroad. Along the way, he boosted the party’s support among working-class voters.

“It is a shame it ended like it did because the policies worked,” said Mick Mulvaney, Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff for more than a year who resigned from a subsequent special envoy post in the wake of the riot. He ticked off the administration’s policy changes, including on deregulation and foreign policy, but said: “My guess is the first thing history will mention is the riots. And rightly so. Tax reform doesn’t offset armed insurrection.”

Historians and veterans of past White Houses said Mr. Trump’s decision not to attend the inauguration could send a message to his supporters that he doesn’t accept the results of the election and doesn’t view Mr. Biden as a legitimate leader—even as he said in a farewell address that he would pray for Mr. Biden’s success.

“It is a very, very important symbol,” said Andy Card, who served as deputy chief of staff to George H.W. Bush and chief of staff to George W. Bush. Mr. Card said the peaceful transfer or power and all the rituals associated with it send a powerful message to the world about the health of the country.

In the weeks since the attack on the Capitol, advisers to the president say they have been frustrated at his failure to take any responsibility for inciting the mob, saying it has cast a shadow over the administration’s other efforts.

“It could have been so different. He could have been a kingmaker,” said one White House official, who said the president’s actions and rhetoric had “spiraled out of control” in recent months, spurred on by the group of conspiratorial advisers he surrounded himself with in the aftermath of his election loss.

Aides worked to arrange the elaborate send-off Wednesday at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after the president made clear he wanted a lavish ceremony, people familiar with the conversations said.

The White House sent several Trump allies—and some former Trump allies—invitations to the early-morning event, allowing them to bring as many as five guests, a move that some recipients viewed as an effort to boost the attendance. A couple hundred supporters gathered on the tarmac Wednesday morning.

Among the recipients of an invitation to the send-off was John Kelly, who served as Mr. Trump’s chief of staff for about 18 months and in an October interview called him the “most flawed person” he had ever known.

Asked if he planned to go, Mr. Kelly replied: “Are you kidding?”

Mr. Pence didn’t attend the Joint Base Andrews send-off either. He attended the inauguration ceremony later that morning.

White House officials and people close to the president say the relationship between Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence has been irrevocably damaged after the president publicly criticized him for refusing to stand in the way of the congressional certification of Mr. Biden’s victory.

Though the two men didn’t speak for days after the riot, they had several conversations in the last days of Mr. Trump’s presidency, including a meeting in the Oval Office on Thursday and a phone call on Friday, an administration official said.

While people close to the president say he has been more subdued in the weeks leading up to his departure, he has continued not to take responsibility—publicly or privately—for the violence at the Capitol. Advisers have also cautioned the president against doing anything that would prompt more Republicans to support convicting him in his Senate impeachment trial and banning him from running for office again.

Instead, the president remained focused on settling scores with Republicans who voted to impeach him, according to people familiar with the matter. In farewell conversations with top aides, he has often returned to the subject of the election, insisting that he won, even as officials tried to steer the conversation to other matters, some of the people said.

As staffers departed in recent weeks, some were given a gift bag with mementos, including a key dubbed the “key to the White House.” By Wednesday morning, much of the West Wing was deserted and the walls, which once were plastered with large photos of the president with world leaders, were bare.

Though he has mused about starting a new party, Mr. Trump has at other times been fixated in private conversations on how to retain his grip on the Republican Party. That pursuit has been complicated by recent events, but most Trump advisers say there is no sign that his devoted base of supporters is going away, even if Mr. Trump is no longer welcome within the Republican establishment.

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted Jan. 15-17 found that 73% of GOP voters said they approved of the way Mr. Trump was handling the presidency. The survey also found that 59% of voters overall believed Mr. Trump shouldn’t be allowed to hold elected office in the future.

“Have a good life,” Mr. Trump said as he concluded his final speech as president Wednesday morning. “We’ll see you soon.”

Write to Andrew Restuccia at Andrew.Restuccia@wsj.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

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