WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump was ensconced in the White House residence Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, raging about perceived betrayals, as an array of top aides weighed resigning and some senior administration officials began conversations about invoking the 25th Amendment – an extraordinary measure that would remove the president before Trump’s term expires on Jan. 20.
A deep, simmering unease coursed through the administration over the president’s refusal to accept his election loss and his role in inciting a mob to storm the Capitol, disrupting the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden. One administration official described Trump’s behavior Wednesday as that of “a total monster,” while another said the situation was “insane” and “beyond the pale.”
Fearful that if Trump remains in office – even for a few days, he could take actions that could cause further violence and death – senior administration officials were discussing Wednesday night whether the Cabinet might invoke the 25th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to force him out, said a person involved in the conversations.
A former senior administration official briefed on the talks confirmed that preliminary discussions of the 25th Amendment were underway, although this person cautioned that they were informal and that there was no indication of an immediate plan of action. Both of these people, like some others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter.
Under the 25th Amendment, the president can be removed from office by the vice president plus a majority of the Cabinet, or by the vice president and a body established by Congress, if they determine he “is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., on Thursday called on Vice President Mike Pence and the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to ensure that “we have a sane captain of the ship” because Trump has become “unmoored not just from his duty or even his oath, but from reality itself.”
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf on Thursday issued the strongest critique of Trump yet from within the Cabinet. Calling Wednesday’s events “tragic and sickening,” Wolf wrote in a statement, “I implore the President and all elected officials to strongly condemn the violence that took place yesterday.” He vowed to remain in his position to ensure an orderly transition to the Biden administration.
William Barr, who resigned last month as attorney general, issued an even sharper condemnation of the president he served. He called Trump’s conduct “a betrayal of his office and supporters,” adding in a statement to The Associated Press that “orchestrating a mob to pressure Congress is inexcusable.”
Mick Mulvaney, a former member of Trump’s Cabinet as acting White House chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget, announced Thursday morning that he has resigned from his post as U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland. He said on CNBC that he informed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “I can’t do it. I can’t stay.”
“Those who choose to stay, and I have talked with some of them, are choosing to stay because they’re worried the president might put someone worse in,” Mulvaney said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” He added that Trump was “not the same as he was eight months ago.”
Referring to Trump’s incitement of a mob of supporters to occupy the Capitol, Mulvaney said: “We didn’t sign up for what you saw last night. We signed up for making America great again. We signed up for lower taxes and less regulation. The president has a long list of successes that we can be proud of. But all of that went away yesterday.”
A trio of senior White House aides – national security adviser Robert O’Brien, deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger and deputy chief of staff Chris Liddell – were contemplating resigning, according to three senior administration officials.
Their possible departures, which were first reported by CNN, could trigger a cascade of other resignations from inside the already hollowed-out West Wing.
O’Brien, traveling in Florida, was appalled at the Capitol mob and angry that Trump attacked Pence even while he and lawmakers were under siege, one person familiar with his thinking said Wednesday. O’Brien tweeted support for Pence and did not mention Trump.
“I just spoke with Vice President Pence. He is a genuinely fine and decent man,” O’Brien tweeted from his personal account. “He exhibited courage today as he did at the Capitol on 9/11 as a Congressman. I am proud to serve with him.”
Two of first lady Melania Trump’s top aides abruptly resigned Wednesday night in what one close adviser to the president interpreted as a sign of their disapproval of Wednesday’s events. Stephanie Grisham, a longtime Trump family loyalist who served as White House press secretary and most recently as the first lady’s chief of staff; and Anna Cristina Niceta, the White House social secretary, separately announced their resignations, also first reported by CNN.
In addition, deputy White House press secretary Sarah Matthews announced her resignation, saying she was honored to serve the Trump administration but “deeply disturbed” by the storming of the Capitol.
“People were looking for a reason to stay, and now he’s given them an excuse to go,” a close Trump adviser said of the president.
Aides mortified by their boss’s conduct said they were weighing whether to resign or to stay in office to help ensure the transition to the Biden administration. One official said Trump would have to issue a statement committing to a transfer of power and to prosecuting the rioters to keep some of his top aides on the job for his final 13 days in office. Officials were urging him late Wednesday to release a statement committing to a peaceful transition.
Trump issued a statement overnight once Biden was certified the winner, the product of considerable discussion with some of his advisers. It read: “Even though I totally disagree with the outcome of the election, and the facts bear me out, nevertheless there will be an orderly transition on January 20th. I have always said we would continue our fight to ensure that only legal votes were counted. While this represents the end of the greatest first term in presidential history, it’s only the beginning of our fight to Make America Great Again.”
There was little communication among the White House staff, other than a message instructing officials to leave early and stay safe. Considerable internal anger was directed toward chief of staff Mark Meadows, according to four aides, both because of what many view as his incompetence in managing the White House and his willingness to prop Trump up while indulging his false election fraud claims.
People who interacted with Trump on Wednesday said they found him in a fragile and volatile state. He spent the afternoon and evening cocooned at the White House and listening only to a small coterie of loyal aides – including Meadows, deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino, personnel director Johnny McEntee and policy adviser Stephen Miller. Many of his top confidants – Meadows, son-in-law Jared Kushner and first lady Melania Trump, among others – were publicly silent.
“He’s got a bunker mentality now, he really does,” the close adviser said.
As rioters broke through police barricades and occupied the Capitol, paralyzing the business of Congress, aides said Trump resisted entreaties from some of his advisers to condemn the marauders and refused to be reasoned with.
“He kept saying: ‘The vast majority of them are peaceful. What about the riots this summer? What about the other side? No one cared when they were rioting. My people are peaceful. My people aren’t thugs,’ ” an administration official said. “He didn’t want to condemn his people.”
“He was a total monster today,” this official added, describing the president’s handling of Wednesday’s coup attempt as less defensible than his equivocal response to the deadly white supremacist rally in 2017 in Charlottesville.
Some aides were mortified that Trump was so slow, and resistant, to telling his supporters to vacate the Capitol, and believed he did irreparable damage to his presidency and legacy.
Aides and a range of lawmakers begged Trump to call on his supporters to stop rioting at the Capitol. Some former aides echoed those pleas on Twitter, tagging the president presumably in hopes he might see their messages.
“The best thing @realDonaldTrump could do right now is to address the nation from the Oval Office and condemn the riots. A peaceful transition of power is essential to the country and needs to take place on 1/20,” former White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney wrote.
Alyssa Farah, the recently departed White House communications director, wrote: “Condemn this now, @realDonaldTrump – you are the only one they will listen to. For our country!”
White House aides tried to get Trump to call into Fox News Channel, but he refused. He at first did not want to say anything, but was persuaded to send some tweets. Then they scripted a video message for him to record, which he agreed to distribute on Twitter. But the president ad-libbed by including references to false voter fraud claims that they had asked him not to include, the administration official said. Twitter later locked his account, enraging the president.
“He didn’t want to say anything or do anything to rise to the moment,” the official said. “He’s so driven by this notion that he’s been treated unfairly that he can’t see the bigger picture.”
This official described Trump as so mad at Pence “he couldn’t see straight.” Several White House aides were upset that the president chose to attack Pence when the vice president, secured at an undisclosed location at the Capitol, was in harm’s way.
A former senior administration official briefed on the president’s private conversations said: “The thing he was most upset about and couldn’t get over all day was the Pence betrayal. . . . All day, it was a theme of, ‘I made this guy, I saved him from a political death, and here he stabbed me in the back.’ “
Trump’s fury extended to Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short. The president told aides he wanted to bar Short – who was with the vice president all day at the Capitol – from the White House grounds, according to an official with knowledge of the president’s remarks.
Short has told others he would not care if he was barred.
Another former senior administration official speculated that the day’s events made Pence more popular than Trump. “One man acted like a toddler and the other acted like the second-highest-ranking constitutional official in the nation,” the official said.
John F. Kelly, another former White House chief of staff who has shied away from rebuking Trump over other transgressions, suggested the president’s leadership was wanting.
“Three men made comments today, two of them very helpful and meaningful, and should be remembered,” Kelly said. Senate Majority Leader Mitch “McConnell’s remarks this afternoon, just before the riots, were, I think, words for the ages – and not from a politician, but from a statesman. President-elect Biden’s were presidential and right to the heart of what we have to do to heal ourselves.”
Kelly also seemed to voice regret about Trump’s election.
“We need to look infinitely harder at who we elect to any office in our land – at the office seeker’s character, at their morals, at their ethical record, their integrity, their honesty, their flaws, what they have said about women, and minorities, why they are seeking office in the first place, and only then consider the policies they espouse,” Kelly said.
– – –
The Washington Post’s Anne Gearan contributed to this report.