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OpinionEditorial

The Trump presidency draws to a close

President Donald Trump at the White House on

President Donald Trump at the White House on Jan. 9, 2020. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

It was a split-screen for an exhausted, divided nation: As the incoming president solemnly honored the pandemic dead, the outgoing one focused a YouTube farewell address on the things his administration achieved.

The U.S. death count from the coronavirus passed 400,000 on Tuesday, and President-elect Joe Biden acknowledged the sober moment in a brief, national memorial that focused on healing as the sun set in the capital. Shortly before, President Donald Trump released a video in which he offered brief thoughts about those lost, but avoided taking responsibility for the virus’ stunning toll and expressed little empathy for its victims.

Trump rightly took credit for the speed with which American scientists unveiled vaccines, along with their international partners. But he still does not see that as the defining crisis of his presidency, he failed — downplaying the importance of wearing masks, politicizing science, not mobilizing the nation.

It was a failure emblematic of a tumultuous presidency, one that revealed the nation’s many problems with race and identity, one that governed by grievance, not with grace.

That presidency included two impeachments, a historic record. It included the Jan. 6 domestic attack on the U.S. Capitol, when rioters were encouraged by a president who decried a "rigged" election just a short walk away. It included the rollback of critical environmental protections, the heartbreaking separations of immigrant parents and their children, the comfort given to white supremacy, the degradation of the American reputation on the world stage.

In his farewell speech, Trump denounced political violence and wished luck to the "new administration," yet he could not bring himself to name the man who defeated him, or offer his full support in meeting the challenges of the future. And he ended by saying that the movement that swept him into office four years ago is "only just beginning." It’s hardly just a rhetorical flourish from a man who told supporters "we will never give up, we will never concede" just before the Capitol riot.

Tuesday was his final full day in office, and the Trump era is drawing to a close. Trump’s last chapters remain to be written but his legacy is bleak. The former New Yorker thought of himself as a builder but he was unable to build tall. He turned again and again to the echo chamber of the movement he marshaled and in doing so he failed to heal the carnage of a pandemic or calm the nerves of a fraught nation in his wake.

Now he watches the extraordinary and grim scene of thousands of troops gathering in D.C. to safeguard the peaceful transition of power, as the National Cathedral’s bell tolls to honor the thousands of Americans dead. On Wednesday, Biden will take the oath of office, not before cheering crowds because that is not possible in pandemic America, but with many cheering wholeheartedly for a new beginning.

— The editorial board

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