WASHINGTON — Trying to repair his tarnished legacy, President Donald Trump trumpeted his administration's accomplishments and wished his successor luck in a farewell video as he spent his final full day in office preparing to issue a flurry of pardons in a near-deserted White House, surrounded by an extraordinary security presence outside.
"This week we inaugurate a new administration and pray for its success in keeping America safe and prosperous," Trump said in the video "farewell address," released by the White House less than 24 hours before President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. "We extend our best wishes. And we also want them to have luck — a very important word."
Trump, who spent months trying to delegitimize Biden's win with baseless allegations of mass voter fraud, repeatedly refenced the "next administration," but declined to utter Biden's name. Many of Trump's supporters continue to believe the election was stolen from him, even though a long list of judges, Republican state officials and even Trump's own government have said there is no evidence to support that claim.
Trump was also expected to spend his final hours granting clemency to as many as 100 people, according to two people briefed on the plans. The list of pardons and commutations is expected to include names unfamiliar to the American public — regular people who have spent years languishing in prison — as well as politically connected friends and allies like those he's pardoned in the past.
Trump in his address tried to cast his presidency as a triumph for everyday people as he highlighted what he sees as his top achievements, including efforts to normalize relations in the Middle East, the development of coronavirus vaccinations and the creation of a new Space Force. And he tried to defend the endless controversies that have consumed the last four years as justified.
"As President, my top priority, my constant concern, has always been the best interests of American workers and American families," he said. "I did not seek the easiest course; by far, it was actually the most difficult. I did not seek the path that would get the least criticism. I took on the tough battles, the hardest fights, the most difficult choices because that's what you elected me to do."
Trump also made clear that he has no plans of going quietly into the night, telling his supporters that, as he prepares "to hand power over to a new administration at noon on Wednesday, I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning. There's never been anything like it."
Trump has remained largely out of sight since his supporters stormed the Capitol building earlier this month, trying to halt the peaceful transfer of power. Aides had urged him to spend his final days in office participating in a series of legacy-burnishing events. But Trump, who remains consumed with anger and grievance over his election loss, largely refused. He has not been seen in public since last week, when he traveled to Texas for one last photo opportunity at the border wall he pushed so adamantly throughout his presidency. In the end, he spent less than 45 minutes on the ground there and spoke just 21 minutes.
Trump is set to leave Washington early Wednesday morning after a grand farewell event at nearby Joint Base Andrews. Once there, he will board Air Force One for a final time, flying to Florida and becoming the first outgoing president in more than a century to skip the inauguration of his successor.
But it remains unclear how many people will be there to see him off. Several former administration officials-turned-Trump critics have expressed surprise that they received invitations. And even Vice President Mike Pence will be absent. A person familiar with his schedule cited the logistical challenges of getting from the base back to D.C. for Biden's inauguration ceremonies, which Pence will be attending.
Trump has also refused to take part in any of the symbolic passing-of-the-torch traditions that have been the capstones of the peaceful transition of power from one administration to the next. He is boycotting not just the ceremony at the Capitol, but also passed on inviting the Bidens to the White House for a get-to-know-you meeting. And it remains unclear whether he will write Biden a personal welcome letter, like the one he received from former President Obama when he moved in.
Denied his Twitter bullhorn and with little else planned, Trump did participate in multiple meetings over the long weekend to discuss pending clemency actions, according to a White House official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity because the action had yet to be made public.
Trump was personally involved in the effort to sift through requests, mostly from first-time drug offenders sentenced to life, rejecting some applications and greenlighting others, according to one of the people involved in the effort. Also playing a key role has been the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, who personally met with advocates, reviewed cases and brought them to the Department of Justice and pardon attorney.
Trump had been expected to move forward with additional pardons and commutations earlier this month, but discussions were put on hold after the insurrection at the Capitol by pro-Trump rioters incited by the president's fiery and baseless election challenges. That threw an already paralyzed White House into even further chaos.
Trump has since been impeached for a second time and a sense of wariness has set in, with the president's inner circle fearful of doing anything that could provoke a conviction in the Senate that would potentially bar him from ever holding office again.
That would curtail any chance of a 2024 comeback run that Trump had hoped would at least stoke the rumors of a campaign to remain relevant and a GOP kingmaker. Trump aides nervously watched Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's Tuesday denunciation of the president's words that incited the riot; if McConnell, who has not signaled how he will vote in the trial, opts to convict, enough Republicans may follow suit to oust Trump, who does not have his Twitter account to keep his adopted party in line.
A long list of Trump staffers have already packed their offices and departed the White House, leaving the West Wing deserted — a warren of empty offices and bare walls — surrounded by an unprecedented security apparatus with National Guard troops, military vehicles and checkpoints aimed at staving off further violence.
Moving trucks were spotted in Florida on Monday arriving at Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club.