Donald Trump left the White House for the final time as president on Wednesday morning, hours after pardoning Steve Bannon, his former strategist, and dozens of others ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden.
The outgoing president and his wife Melania lifted off from the White House South Lawn at 8.18am on the Marine One presidential helicopter and flew to Joint Base Andrews — the military airport outside the capital — where Mr Trump held a small farewell event before departing for Florida, where the couple will reside.
“This has been an incredible four years. We have accomplished so much together,” Mr Trump told his family and a small gathering of his supporters.
Mr Trump wished Mr Biden’s administration success without mentioning his successor by name. “The future of this country has never been better,” he said. “I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they'll have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular.”
A Trump administration official said the president left a letter for Mr Biden in the White House, as is customary. The contents were not immediately disclosed. Mr Trump did not call Mr Biden after his election victory nor have the traditional White House meeting with his successor.
During his brief remarks, Mr Trump listed what he viewed as his key accomplishments and held open the possibility of a political comeback, but stopped short of announcing another run for the White House in 2024, saying: “We will be back in some form.”
“Have a good life. We’ll see you soon,” Mr Trump said at the conclusion of his speech. He then boarded Air Force One for his final flight as president, as the loudspeakers blared the song “YMCA” by Village People.
Just days after his historic second impeachment for inciting a mob that stormed the US Capitol on January 6, Mr Trump pardoned Mr Bannon, one of the most divisive and polarising people in his political orbit. The pardon was one of dozens issued at the last minute for former politicians, people convicted of drug offences, and the rapper Lil Wayne.
Mr Bannon was charged last year with defrauding hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters who donated to a crowdfunding campaign to build the wall on the US-Mexico border that Mr Trump touted in the 2016 race. Mr Bannon had pleaded not guilty and was released on bail awaiting trial.
Mr Trump did not issue pre-emptive pardons for himself or any of his family members, an idea he had floated in conversations with staff after losing the November election. Most constitutional scholars said he could not pardon himself, but the theory has never been tested in court.
The pardon of Mr Bannon will spark fierce criticism. He was one of the most divisive individuals in Mr Trump’s circle and ran the final leg of the president’s 2016 campaign, before he was later fired from the White House.
Mr Bannon’s Twitter account was suspended in November after he said Christopher Wray, the FBI director, and Anthony Fauci, a top member of the coronavirus task force, should be beheaded.
Mr Bannon said the heads of the men, who had contradicted Mr Trump on occasions, should be placed on pikes outside the White House to warn other officials not to cross the president.
The White House said in a statement listing well over 100 pardons and commutations that Mr Bannon was “an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen”.
Mr Trump also pardoned the Lil Wayne, who recently pleaded guilty to possessing a loaded, gold-plated handgun and faced up to 10 years in prison. The musician appeared to endorse Mr Trump for re-election when he posted a photograph of himself and the president on Twitter and said he backed Mr Trump’s criminal justice reform efforts and economic programme for African-Americans.
The list included a number of ex-politicians, including former California congressman Randall Cunningham, and Kwame Kilpatrick, the former Democratic mayor of Detroit, who was convicted in 2013 of two dozen charges that included extortion and racketeering.
Elliott Broidy, a former Republican National Committee deputy national finance chair, was also pardoned. He had been charged with failing to register as a lobbyist in connection with the corruption scandal surrounding 1MDB, the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.
Anthony Levandowski, the co-founder of Google’s self-driving car project, who was given an 18-month prison sentence for stealing trade secrets to help Uber last year, was also granted clemency.
Separately, Mr Trump issued an executive order rescinding an order he made in his first month in office that imposed strict restrictions on lobbying by former administration officials. The move came despite his claim four years ago that he would “drain the swamp” of lobbyists.
The long list of pardons came hours before Mr Trump was scheduled to depart the White House and fly to Florida, where he will take up his post-presidency residence at his Mar-a-Lago resort. The Senate is preparing to try Mr Trump after his impeachment by the House of Representatives for inciting the storming of the US Capitol building on January 6.
Other presidents have issued divisive pardons, including Bill Clinton, who gave clemency to Marc Rich, the founder of commodities trader Glencore, who was a fugitive from charges including racketeering.
But Mr Trump stands out in terms of the number of controversial pardons, according to Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard Law School professor. Prof Goldsmith found that the overwhelming majority Mr Trump has granted have been to people with whom the president had a connection.
Mr Trump also issued dozens of pardons and commutations in December. The list included Paul Manafort, his first campaign manager, and Roger Stone, the self-described political dirty trickster and a confidante of the president.
Mr Trump also pardoned four men who were convicted of killing Iraqi civilians in Baghdad while working for Blackwater, a private security company once owned by Erik Prince. Betsy DeVos, who served as Mr Trump’s education secretary, is Mr Prince’s sister.
Charles Kushner, the father of Jared Kushner, Mr Trump’s son-in-law, was pardoned last month as well.
The outgoing president also granted clemency to three former Republican US representatives who had been convicted of crimes.
A year ago, Mr Trump commuted the sentence of Rod Blagojevich, a former Democratic Illinois governor who was sentenced to 14 years in prison after being convicted of bribery and other charges. He also pardoned Michael Milken, the former “junk-bond king”, who in 1990 was convicted of securities fraud.
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