WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES) - Outgoing president Donald Trump departed the White House on Wednesday (Jan 20) morning for the last time as the commander in chief after four tumultuous years that shook the nation, choosing to leave town rather than face the reality that he lost reelection to President-elect Joe Biden.
The Marine One helicopter took off from the South Lawn of the White House at about 8.18am for the short flight to Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland, where the president held a farewell event with administration veterans and other supporters.
After that, he and his wife Melania Trump were to board Air Force One for the journey to Florida, where they will reside.
Mr Trump surrendered the building after a late night of signing last-minute pardons and other clemency orders for 143 people, including Mr Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist; Mr Elliott Broidy, one of his top fundraisers in 2016; and a series of politicians convicted of corruption.
The White House did not announce the pardons until after midnight and then followed up at 1.07am with an order revoking the ethics rules Mr Trump had imposed on his own former aides.
In slipping out of Washington before the festivities Wednesday, Mr Trump capped a norm-busting tenure by defying one last convention.
He refused to host the traditional coffee that presidents hold for their successors at the White House on the morning of the inauguration. And he opted to skip the swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol, normally a symbol of the American tradition of peaceful transfer of power that is attended by both departing and incoming presidents.
Supporters of Mr Trump were lined up outside Joint Base Andrews ahead of a send-off rally.
A small stage has been built beside the plane, backed by a row of American flags, much like at a political rally.
The White House had difficulty finding guests to attend the farewell ceremony for Mr Trump, who alienated allies and staff with unusual speed and frequency throughout his tenure.
Some key figures in his administration and partners on Capitol Hill – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and top House Republican Kevin McCarthy – declined the invitation, according to people familiar with the matter.
The White House made some curious choices for its invitation list.
Several former Trump aides who became outspoken critics of the president received invitations, including financier Anthony Scaramucci, who was briefly the White House communications director in 2017, but by 2019 was publicly advocating for Mr Trump’s impeachment.
Former Chief of Staff John Kelly and former National Security Advisor John Bolton and his deputy, Charlie Kupperman, were also invited. None of them attended.
While some fell out with Mr Trump over policy matters, others have distanced themselves from him since the violent insurrection two weeks ago that left five people dead, including a US Capitol Police officer.
The episode resulted in Mr Trump’s impeachment, making him the first president to be impeached twice. The Senate is expected to begin his trial after he is out of office.
Mr Trump told the crowd that people have "no idea how hard" his family had worked during his four years in office. He also said he will "be back in some form".
"What we've done has been amazing by any standard," he said, before pointing to changes he made to the US military.
“I will always fight for you. I will be watching, I will be listening, and I will tell you that the future of this country has never been better. I wish the new administration great luck,” Mr Trump said.
On the Covid-19 pandemic, Mr Trump said that the virus is a "horrible thing" and once again calls it the "China virus" but pays "great love" to families who have suffered greatly.
“We left it all, as the athletes would say, we left it all on the field,” he said. “We had a lot of obstacles, and we went through the obstacles.”