The resistance to building out an aggressive effort to push back on impeachment is reflective of a president both isolated and distracted by political grievances.
In his final days of his term, Trump is still spending time railing against the election that he lost to Joe Biden in November and surrounding himself with a handful of loyalists — among them Rudy Giuliani — who have been with him since the start, according to interviews with eight current and former Trump aides.
“Since the election, the day-to-day stuff as far as signing [executive orders] and focusing on policy has definitely waned because his focus has been on the election and overturning those results,” said the White House official. “We’re not obviously pursuing any policy or anything like that.”
And since Twitter banned his account, Trump has been making more calls than usual — not, as one former Trump aide said, “to more people” but rather, “the same people over and over again.”
“He’s talking to people who are willing to indulge him,” a former senior administration official said.
Even more than usual, Trump has not been engaged in work of the presidency, leaving much of the official business to others, including Vice President Mike Pence, who presided over a White House coronavirus task force meeting Monday as the pandemic’s toll surges with more than 3,000 deaths a day in the United States.
“Things requiring a presidential signature slowed down for sure, and he was just supremely self-absorbed,” said a former senior administration official. The official said that many conversations with Trump, even those about policy issues, have devolved into the president complaining about an election that he still won’t publicly admit he lost.
“There was a feeling of a traffic jam and more and more initiatives that were piling up, and that’s frustrating for everybody,” the former official said.
The relationship between Trump and Pence has also been strained since last Wednesday when the vice president refused to object to Biden’s win while presiding over a joint session of Congress to certify the election results. The president had not phoned Pence in the days since then — a snubbing that had left administration officials furious at Trump. But the two met Monday evening in the Oval Office.
“The two had a good conversation, discussing the week ahead and reflecting on the last four years of the administration’s work and accomplishments,” a senior administration official said. “They also agreed that those who stormed the Capitol do not represent the America First movement.”
Trump’s conversation with Pence wasn’t the only signal that he was trying to make amends amid the looming threat of impeachment and tying up the loose ends of his presidency elsewhere. The White House on Monday also said that Trump had “declared that an emergency exists in the District of Columbia” and ordered federal assistance to supplement efforts around the upcoming inauguration day. Trump also awarded Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) the Presidential Medal of Freedom and is set to visit Alamo, Texas, to see the U.S.-Mexico border wall Tuesday, which could be his last trip while in office.
But elsewhere, the acts of governing have slowed dramatically, including the ceremonial elements. Plans to award New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick the Presidential Medal of Freedom appeared scrapped after Belichick said he would not be attending. And the president’s daily public schedule has given no indication of actual events.
Since Dec. 23, the schedule has included 15 variations of the language: “President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings.” A former White House official said the language was inserted at Trump’s directive in order to give off the appearance of him being busy.
“It was [he] who ordered it to be done,” the official said, “and he wanted to combat that narrative [that he wasn’t working].”
The White House did not respond to specific questions about impeachment or accusations that Trump was not actively engaged in governing. Instead, spokesperson Judd Deere released a statement: “Over the last four years, President Trump has rolled back government regulations, built the strongest, most inclusive economy in history, brought much-needed agency accountability, is bringing our troops home, developed a safe, effective vaccine in record time, and changed the way domestic and international deal-making is done so that the results actually help hardworking Americans. This important work continues along with rebuilding our economy and fulfilling the promises he made that has led to a safer, stronger, more secure America.”
Overshadowing Trump’s final days is the threat of impeachment. A single article has already gathered at least 218 cosponsors in the House, according to a congressional aide involved in the process, meeting the majority needed for passage in the House. After a House vote, the article is expected to move to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated a trial likely won’t start until the chamber returns on Jan. 19.
When he was impeached the first time in 2019 over charges that used the powers of his office to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, Trump waged an aggressive defense with a team of lawyers, a war room, Republican lawmakers assisting in his defense, and hundreds of media interviews from aides to quell public opinion.
These days, Trump has surrounded himself with some of the original aides he relied on even before he entered the White House — senior policy adviser Stephen Miller; Director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office John McEntee; Director of Social Media Dan Scavino; and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
The number of staffers at the White House already had decreased because of the coronavirus, the holidays and the approaching end of the administration. Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s closest advisers, hasn’t worked out of the White House in weeks, two people said. She plans to leave her post this week.
Instead, Trump is relying heavily on advice from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, former top campaign aides Jason Miller and Steve Cortes, as well as a small team of lawyers, led by Giuliani, the former New York mayor, who continues to tell Trump he won the election even though he, in fact, lost, according to two people.
Republicans have long tried to convince Trump to sideline Giuliani — or “My Rudy,” as the president sometimes calls him — but to no success.
“The majority of the staff is just increasingly frustrated and over the situation and wants to get to the finish line and be done with all of it,” said a former White House official.
Meridith McGraw, Alex Isenstadt, Gabby Orr and Lara Seligman contributed to this report.