My last trip with Trump
Washington DC - President Donald Trump -- he'd be President Trump for only another 180 minutes -- climbed the front steps of Air Force One. This icy cold January 20, the beautiful, glistening plane was taking him to Florida – and on a trip like no other.
Travel to a warm place during winter is never unwelcome. And luxury travel in a modified Boeing 747 where you can order your favorite food and simultaneously conduct nuclear war, should you need, well that's not bad either. But today everything was different. The itinerary was Washington, DC, to Palm Beach, Florida. Really, though, the plane was delivering Trump from the final hours of the most powerful, privileged job in the world to an uncertain, perhaps unpleasant future.
At Joint Base Andrews, the Air Force base where the presidential plane waited, Trump got a military sendoff: cannons firing, a band playing, a red carpet – the works. But all those trappings of being commander in chief were about to end. Indeed, among the many perks Trump would be losing at noon -- the moment Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president -- was the plane he'd just boarded.
As I followed Trump, using the smaller staircase at the rear reserved for press, Secret Service agents and lower level staff, I wondered how he was coping.
Trump has always been (or at least played at being) the most self-confident man on the planet. Yet he was leaving Washington in disgrace. The fancy military parade couldn't disguise that. His short speech couldn't disguise that. The forlorn crowd of just 500 or so chilly looking fans couldn't disguise that. “Have a good life. We'll see you soon,” he said. It didn't sound convincing.
Trump's one-term presidency ended in defeat, abandonment by many of his most powerful allies, and a record setting second impeachment for inciting his followers to rampage through Congress on January 6. His final Gallup approval rating of 34 percent is another record he'd probably rather ignore.
For a guy who has often made a point of mocking “losers,” it all amounts to quite the comeuppance. Now, here he was on his final flight as the 45th US president, skipping Biden's inauguration (the first outgoing president to snub his successor in a century and a half) and rushing to Florida. The reason for rushing was simple.
Trump wanted to make the whole trip in presidential vehicles: the Marine One helicopter from the White House to Andrews; Air Force One to Florida; and finally a presidential limousine to his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. He wanted to look like a president all the way. But like a presidential Cinderella, Trump needed to arrive by 12 or find himself sitting on a post-presidential pumpkin.
My hope, though, was that during the flight of just under two hours he'd come back to chat with us, the way he often had in the past. I wanted to see how he was. Despondent? Remorseful? Nostalgic? Vengeful? Would he spend the flight rage-calling his dwindling group of friends? Or could the plane ride, briefly leaving behind the turmoil below, possibly offer Trump a chance to reflect, to see things differently? I knew it would for me.
For Trump, this was the final flight of his presidency. For me, it was the first trip I'd taken at all -- including so much as going to the supermarket -- since catching Covid-19. I discovered I had Covid on New Year's Day. I'd driven early that morning to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, to join the pool of journalists covering Biden and, as always, we were given a rapid test before being allowed access. I tested positive.
Driving straight home, I isolated myself from my family, moving into our little used basement, which looks onto a small garden at the back. I really didn't feel bad, even wondering if the test had been wrong. But within 24 hours, the virus had kicked in. I was barely sentient. A couple days later, I started getting better, but I was still stuck: quarantine is meant to last 10 days. During the rampage by Trump's mob through Congress, I itched to be closer to the action.
In Russia and ex-Soviet states and Brazil, I've covered street revolts, “colored revolutions,” invasions of legislatures and, in the Caucasus, armed insurrection and war. I must have written hundreds of stories about tyrants, corrupt autocrats, angry crowds, warlords, brutal police, mutinous security services, assassins, populist rabble rousers, and any other variation on the theme of banana republics. And now, something similar was happening seven miles away. Me? I was gazing out at my bird feeder.
Air Force One left Andrews like a getaway car in a bank robbery. Air Force One always does. That's one of the best things about the plane. There's no fussing around taxiing and waiting in line. There's no one in the press cabin telling you to do up your seat belt, either. You can even stand if you like, though watch out: at that angle of take-off, you might slide right back into the toilets. As the Air Force pilots did their thing, sending Washington's suburbs slipping away, the surreal whirlwind of these last few weeks in the Covid/Trump/insurrection saga also seemed to fade.
I'd been up since 3:00 a.m. Washington, DC, has been turned into an armed camp since the pro-Trump riot, so getting to the White House, where the pool joined a motorcade to Joint Base Andrews, was a little like crossing a tense international border.
First I took a pre-dawn Uber from home to the edge of the “Green Zone.” Then I walked through deserted, heavily guarded streets into the “Red Zone,” and finally at 5:30 a.m. I penetrated the even tighter security of the White House itself. Along the way, I saw armed people in camouflage, armed people in black, and armed people in civilian clothes. Actually, everyone seemed to be armed other than me and the small group of journalists up at that hour.
Now, I was sitting back in Air Force One's big, comfy chair. Coffee and a delicious breakfast (“Southern style steak, eggs and grits”) were next -- well, unless the president came to talk. But no, he must want breakfast too, right? I relaxed. Glancing out at the soaring blue sky it seemed comical to be thousands of feet up in the air when only a few days earlier I'd been stuck underground, collecting trays of food left at my door, like a prisoner (albeit one with loving jailers). Yet, who knows: maybe the contrast wasn't so weird after all?
I mean, the history of 2020 and its January 2021 postscript could almost be written through various basement stories. There was Trump, for example. Back on May 29, when nationwide protests and riots against police brutality had reached his doorstep, Lafayette Square, Secret Service agents hustled him into the White House bunker as a precaution.
Trump wasn't actually in danger, but the incident symbolized how out of control things had got – and how out of touch the president seemed to be. On January 6, members of Congress, their aides and journalists covering them really were in peril when they rushed to seek safety, deep in the Capitol's tunnels while the president's violent supporters were on the loose above.
And then there was the most famous basement of all: Biden's makeshift campaign headquarters during the Covid lockdown. To Republicans, Biden's decision to stay home in Delaware summed up a failed candidacy. They said “Hidin' Biden” was too afraid to meet Trump in the open. They said his handlers were protecting him from making gaffes. They said he had no energy. “While I travel the country, Joe sleeps in his basement,” scorned Trump.
Yet the Biden basement story turned out very differently. On his video appearances, you could sense that the Biden family basement was cozy. That mattered in such nervous times. The books, photos and folded American flag in the background seemed to point to a regular, decent guy. And the candidate's technical problems, while laughed at by his opponents, were exactly what a lot of other people were going through in this bizarre time of Zoom and overloaded WiFi routers.
See what happened in the end? The guy in the basement wound up bringing a skyscraper tycoon down to earth.
Up in the air
Trump never did come back to chat. One of his few remaining staff told us he was shut away the whole time with his family. So I wasn't going to find out whether he was despondent or philosophical or anything else. And perhaps I never would have.
Getting to the truth has always been a problem with this singular man. I don't just mean the more than 30,000 false or misleading statements he made as president, according to the presumably exhausted fact checking team at The Washington Post. I mean the problem of seeing what's really inside a person who seems so open and yet, you sense, has never properly opened up.
Working at the White House, I was initially amazed to discover that the person I saw on screen -- the rambling, ranting, boasting, bullying (and let's face it often entertaining) performer -- was exactly the same person I saw in more intimate settings. Trump on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans and Trump talking with a dozen reporters in the Oval Office is the identical Trump.
Yet equally striking was that this most expressive of men almost never admitted to doubts or regrets or introspection of any kind. What was inside? Was Trump as genuine as he appeared or was he more like an actor who has so deeply inhabited his role that he can no longer get out? I don't suppose I'll ever know.
The collector's item
We landed in West Palm Beach at 10:54 a.m. and Trump and his family got into a presidential motorcade. The rolling White House comprises more than 30 vehicles, brimming with armed guards, medical facilities, communications facilities and staff of every description. The military officer with the nuclear codes is somewhere in there too.
As always, the sheer scale and efficiency of the motorcade -- which we journalists see from minivans at the back -- was impressive. Yet Trump's reign was ebbing rapidly away. Leaving the plane, I grabbed a couple boxes of the Trump M&M sweets they leave for us as souvenirs. On one side of the box is the M&M mascot carrying a Stars and Stripes. On the other is the presidential seal and Trump's signature in gold.
I usually take a box when I fly on Air Force One. The M&Ms make a fun present. Now they qualify as collector's items. I wondered, though: will anyone want them? Donald Trump will no doubt remain a loud voice in the American landscape. He may even resurrect himself, unlikely as that sounds, with another run in 2024.
But possibly, the very opposite could happen: he could find himself entangled miserably in already mounting lawsuits and business problems. Worst of all for a man of such out-sized ego, he may become known as a has-been. Reaching Mar-a-Lago, we found a decent sized crowd lining the road.
These Trump fans were the true believers, people who actually swallow his lie that Biden stole the presidential election in a plot so massive that half the country had to be involved and yet all the evidence was perfectly hidden. “We love you!” they chanted. The motorcade slowed almost to a stop. Trump was drinking in the warmth. But he couldn't stop for long.
Up in Washington, Biden took the oath of office at 11:48 a.m. Trump reached his club with 17 minutes to go.
At that moment, it was Biden who suddenly had all the access to Air Force One, the nuclear weapon codes, and everything else. Trump had become just a regular citizen. And we presidential pool journalists were now stranded in Florida, far from home.
I've been covering Trump for just over two years. Some of my colleagues standing in Palm Beach's balmy winter sun had done the full four years. The reality that it was all over was stunning.
Some days it had seemed to me that the “Donald's” reign would never end. I don't mean that in a good or bad way, just factual -- times when it seemed the media, the country, maybe the whole world had been subsumed into the Trump psychodrama, with no other reality left to inhabit. But it was all truly over. He was gone. For us, it was time now to catch taxis to the airport and get commercial flights back to Washington. The trip back wouldn't be like on Air Force One.
There'd be much taxiing around and waiting for takeoff slots. There'd be crew ordering us to fasten seatbelts. There'd be no gazing at the cabin door, hoping for the president to appear. But something great and exciting awaited: a new journey. A new journey for me and also for America. I'd escaped the basement. I was ready to see what happens next.
This blog was written by Sebastian Smith in Washington DC. Editors: Michaëla Cancela-Kieffer and Jennie Matthew in Paris