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Trump to flee Washington and seek refuge in a MAGA oasis: Florida

  • Author: Philip Rucker, Josh Dawsey, Ashley Parker, The Washington Post
  • Updated: January 16
  • Published January 16

President Donald Trump greets visitors and staff members as he walks to board Marine One and depart from the South Lawn at the White House on Tuesday, Jan 12, 2021. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump will leave Washington this week politically wounded, silenced on social media and essentially unwelcome in his lifelong hometown of New York.

By migrating instead to Palm Beach, Fla., Trump plans to inhabit an alternate reality of adoration and affirmation. The defeated president will take up residence at his gilded Mar-a-Lago Club, where dues-paying members applaud him whenever he eats meals or mingles on the deck. He is sure to take in the same celebratory fervor whenever he plays golf at one of the two Trump-branded courses nearby.

In Florida - one of only two top battleground states Trump won last November - Trump will be living in a veritable MAGA oasis, to use the acronym for his “Make American Great Again” campaign slogan. South Florida has fast become a hub of right-wing power brokers and media characters, and some of Trump’s adult children are making plans to move to the area.

Even as Trump broods privately over his second impeachment last week and the election he continues to falsely insist he won, his aides are at work to establish a Trump fiefdom in the Sunshine State aimed at maintaining his influence over Republican politics, according to allies and advisers, some of whom requested anonymity to reveal internal discussions.

Some of Trump’s associates are buzzing about a possible presidential library and museum - likely located, yes, in Florida - and about the birth of a family dynasty, should his children, Donald Jr. or Ivanka, someday run for political office. Florida is seen as a better launchpad for the Trumps than New York, given the outgoing president’s popularity in the former. Some in Trump’s orbit are talking up the idea of Ivanka possibly running for Senate in 2022, when the term of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., will be up.

Trump has become something of a pariah in the nation’s capital of Washington and its financial center of New York in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol that he incited, but Florida offers him a place to try to rehabilitate himself.

Newsmax chief executive Christopher Ruddy, a longtime Trump friend and Mar-a-Lago member, predicted that the president would remain a powerful force in politics and the media regardless of his current woes.

“We don’t know what legal issues are going to arise, but discounting those, I think he’s going to remain a global force,” Ruddy said. “I think he’s going to like being post-president more than he liked being president, because you have a lot of the perks without as many of the restrictions.”

Trump may have imagined a mischief-making, mega-rally farewell - complete with a tease about reclaiming the White House in 2024 - to draw attention from President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration and to remind fellow Republicans that he still rules the roost.

But there will be no such grand departure in the wake of the Capitol insurrection.

Trump instead is winding down his presidency largely out of public view, though he still intends to take some actions in his four days remaining as president. There remain sharp disputes among the president and his advisers about a final round of pardons he may issue, including for members of the Trump family, according to people familiar with the discussions. The president continues to talk about wanting to pardon himself, they said.

The White House is a fortress guarded by armed military ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration and now practically deserted. “It looks like a war zone around here,” one official said.

Aides spent last week boxing up their offices and desks - White House chief of staff Mark Meadows’ wife, Debbie, was spotted packing a taxidermy bird into an SUV. Aides posed for goodbye photos; snared oversized framed snapshots of Trump’s presidency from West Wing walls; and scavenged for challenge coins and other mementos.

Staffers stood on West Executive Drive for a big send-off Thursday for Larry Kudlow, the National Economic Council director and one of the most well-liked figures in the West Wing.

Four years of roaring commotion are ending in a whimper. An aggrieved Trump has told aides he is uninterested in doing ceremonial events, a senior administration official said.

Other than flying last Tuesday to Texas to autograph a piece of the soaring steel border wall his administration constructed, Trump has demurred on suggestions from advisers to spend his final days touting his achievements and attempting to burnish his legacy.

President Donald Trump tours a section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall under construction Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, in Alamo, Texas. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Rather, Trump has been consumed with anger over his impeachment Wednesday by the House for inciting the Capitol riot, advisers said. He is also upset by the silence from many of his most vigorous defenders, and is nursing feelings of betrayal from Republican congressional leaders, they said.

As aides visited with him to say goodbye and take farewell pictures, Trump complained bitterly about Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., and other Republicans who voted to impeach him. “They’ll have primaries, all of them,” one aide recalled Trump saying on Thursday.

Homing in on Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., who voted for impeachment, the president referred to himself in the third person and remarked, “You can’t vote against Trump in South Carolina,” according to the aide, who like some others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose private conversations.

Some aides have tried to explain to Trump that these and many other members of Congress are angry about the attack and scared for their lives, but the president has often returned to his popularity among Republican voters in their districts and has shown no remorse for his role in the riot, two officials said.

Aides said Trump has occasionally brought up the Georgia Senate races unprompted with them, arguing that he is not to blame for the two Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, losing both seats in the Jan. 5 runoff elections - and why the candidates, particularly Loeffler, were bad.

Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer, said the president’s state of victimhood fits the narrative he has concocted for his entire life.

“This is the end that he would have scripted for himself, actually,” D’Antonio said. “He has always imagined himself as an embattled person. He’s talked about life itself being a constant struggle for survival and how he’s surrounded by enemies . . . that the world conspires against him and that he is a lonely hero who is underappreciated and besieged.”

One of Trump’s final Oval Office visitors was Mike Lindell, the My Pillow founder and television pitchman, who showed up Friday afternoon brandishing notes that he said were from a lawyer, whom he would not identify, advising to institute “martial law” and install Trump loyalist Kash Patel in the CIA leadership.

Lindell, a vociferous supporter of the president, spent the afternoon at the White House but said in an interview that he left unsatisfied. “I had to make an appointment like everyone else,” he said. “People were lined up to see him.”

Lindell claimed ignorance about the contents of the memo, which was partially captured by a Washington Post photographer as Lindell waited to enter the White House.

“I didn’t know what was in it,” he said. “I didn’t know who some of the people even were.” He explained that the unnamed lawyer asked him, “If you get a meeting, can you drop this off?”

Lindell said he presented his information to the president for about five minutes before Trump referred him to White House Counsel’s Office. He also argued that China and Russia hacked the election, bringing a false article from The American Report, a conspiracy-theory right-wing website, as his evidence.

Lindell said he has been working with a large team to try to prove widespread voter fraud and falsely argued that Trump had won by 11 million votes. “I have spent a lot of money and gone down every rabbit hole in this country,” he said.

But Lindell said Trump was noncommittal on what he’d do with the information and told him to talk to the lawyers, who were dismissive and argued with him.

“They were skeptical,” Lindell said. “They were disinterested, very disinterested. They are giving the president the wrong advice.”

He said the lawyers did not allow him to see Trump again.

With Trump cocooned in the White House, Vice President Mike Pence has looked more like the commander in chief. He visited the Federal Emergency Management Agency headquarters last week for a briefing on inauguration security preparations and visited with National Guard soldiers stationed at the Capitol.

On Saturday, Pence departed on a two-day trip to Naval Air Station Lemoore in California and Fort Drum in New York to personally thank service members and to tout the administration’s foreign policy achievements.

Trump is leaving office with his popularity at one of the lowest points of his presidency. Just 38% of Americans approve of his job performance and 60% disapprove, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted after the Capitol attack and released on Friday. The survey found that 15% said Trump would be remembered by history as an “outstanding” president, while 48% said he would be remembered as “poor” and 11% as “below average.”

Trump, who has refused to participate in traditional transfer-of-power rituals, plans to leave Washington on Wednesday morning, just before Biden is inaugurated. Trump instead will stage his own departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews before his final trip aboard Air Force One. A military ceremony is being planned similar to the receptions visiting dignitaries receive for state visits.

In New York, residents have long shunned him and Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, last week announced the city was terminating its contracts with the Trump Organization because of the Capitol insurrection.

But in Florida, Trump looks to be surrounded by supporters, including some of his adult children.

Supporters of President Donald Trump watch as his motorcade passes by in West Palm Beach, Fla., Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. Trump is en route to Washington after visiting his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, are shopping for a house in Jupiter, Fla., about 15 miles from Palm Beach, according to a person familiar with their plans, confirming a New York Post report. Trump Jr.’s ex-wife, Vanessa, and their five children moved to the area last year, this person said.

Ivanka Trump and husband Jared Kushner, both White House senior advisers, recently purchased land owned by pop star Julio Iglesias in Indian Creek, a gated private island near Miami that is home to wealthy celebrities, business figures and professional athletes, including Jay-Z, Beyoncé and football star Tom Brady.

Daughter Tiffany Trump also is shopping for property in Miami, according to Page Six.

Trump will have a small post-presidential staff working for him in Florida, including a trio of White House aides - Cassidy Hutchinson, Nick Luna and Molly Michael - according to an administration official, who confirmed a Bloomberg report.

South Florida is home to talk-radio stars Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin, conservative commentator Ann Coulter and several Fox personalities, including Geraldo Rivera and Dan Bongino. And at least two of Trump’s Cabinet members - Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson - have homes in South Florida.

Broward and Palm Beach counties also are home to a growing number of Republican direct-mail firms as well as server farms and other companies that handle back-end processing for conservative digital operations.

And Newsmax - whose cable channel has seen a surge in viewers in recent months as Trump, angry over Fox News Channel’s coverage of the election and its aftermath, has urged his fans to migrate - is headquartered in West Palm Beach.

“It’s sort of like his home state, in a way,” Ruddy said. “There’s a lot of New Yorkers there, a lot of personal friends he has that live down there. It’s a New York environment.”

Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Tiffany Trump attend the Republican National Convention. (Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford)

In addition, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezinski, whose show Trump regularly watches and attacks despite their sharply critical assessments of him, spend time in South Florida and sometimes broadcast their show from there.

Rick Wilson, a longtime Republican strategist in Florida who is a senior adviser to the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, explained the state’s appeal to Trump - including that Florida’s Republican base is especially “Trumpy.”

“It fits in with Florida’s overall character of being the magnet for all insanity in the universe,” Wilson said. “We are what we are in the great state of Florida, and that is a state of lives restarting and second-chances and reboots and low property taxes and liberal bankruptcy laws and a fairly casual approach to public ethics. Florida, in some freakish, horrible way, is the Trumpiest of states. This is the logical place for them to come.”

Trump has floated a 2024 bid and his campaign and the Republican Party raised more than $200 million after the election with fundraising bids to help overturn it. Much of that money will go to Save America, a leadership PAC Trump set up after the election that will allow him to support candidates and maintain political influence after leaving office.

Speculation is also coursing through Trump World about a possible presidential library and museum. No announcements have been made, but two people familiar with internal discussions said it is likely to be located in Florida and run by Dan Scavino, one of Trump’s longest-serving and most loyal aides who advises him on social media and most recently served as deputy White House chief of staff.

One of these people, who was a top fundraiser on Trump’s campaign, said the president has told supporters he wants to raise $2 billion for the library - a far greater sum than has been raised for past presidential libraries - and thinks he can collect it in small-dollar donations from his grass-roots supporters.

“I thought to myself, what is this alternative fantasy life you’re living?” this fundraiser said. “I have no clue where they think they’ll get this money raised. Anyone who gives to him will be radioactive.”

Asked about raising money for the library, another former top Trump fundraiser wrote in a text message: “Insane.” This person noted that, “except for the wackos, everybody’s running for the hills.”

The mood in the West Wing has been generally dour, aides said, with many deeply upset over the president’s actions on Jan. 6 and frantically searching to find a job.

Aides said Trump has been working only sporadically in the Oval Office, spending a lot of time lately in the residence. He also has been bouncing around the West Wing taking pictures with departing staffers.

One senior administration official who visited with the president last week described his mood as decent. But when asked whether it seemed like he had made peace with the fact that his presidency was coming to an end, this official said, “I doubt it. It’s probably just like a moment there.”

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