President Donald Trump made two public appearances on Tuesday, something that’s become increasingly rare since he lost the election. He appeared fleetingly in the White House briefing room to talk about the stock market and progress on coronavirus vaccines, and later participated in the annual presidential turkey pardon, where he spoke about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.
But there was a glaring omission during his remarks in both appearances: he never once mentioned the election. Nor did Trump reference his refusal to concede or that his lawyers are continuing to fight long-shot court battles over the results. Trump still hasn’t spoken publicly about the election results outside of his tweets, now more than two weeks after the race was called for President-elect Joe Biden.
In the past, Trump has made topical jokes at the presidential turkey pardons or referenced the news of the day. At last year’s turkey pardon, he talked about his impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill. At the 2018 pardon, he made light of election recounts, around the time he had made baseless claims that voter fraud impacted the 2018 midterm elections. “Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we’re still fighting with Carrots,” Trump joked that year, referring to the turkey who lost the designation as the official Thanksgiving turkey to be pardoned. (Carrots was still able to retire peacefully as a backup with Peas, the turkey who was pardoned).
But this year, during his pardon of a turkey named Corn in the Rose Garden, Trump avoided the comedy routine, instead thanking health care workers and the armed forces and talking about a spirit of gratitude during the holiday. “Every American can be united in thanksgiving to God for the incredible gifts He has bestowed upon us: the blessings of family, community and this exceptional, beautiful and great country,” Trump said.
Earlier in the day, the White House abruptly announced Trump would be speaking from the press briefing room, with just a few minutes notice. When Trump came out, he talked for just over one minute about stock market gains and progress on coronavirus vaccines, and then left without taking questions or referencing the election during the remarkably brief appearance. (Journalists shouted questions as Trump left both the press briefing room and the turkey pardon, including about whether he will concede.)
The moment reflects, in a sense, a transition in transition. Trump’s emergence on Tuesday came on the first day of the official federal transition. After a fraught delay due to Trump’s legal fight and refusal to concede, on Nov. 23, Emily Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration, declared Biden the apparent winner of the election and triggered the formal start of the transition period.
That precipitated a tweet from Trump that was the closest he’s come to acknowledging the reality that he lost the election: “Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good… …fight, and I believe we will prevail!” he tweeted. “Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”
The formal transition has begun, but Trump has made clear he won’t go gracefully, avoiding journalists’ questions and hunkering down since he became a lame-duck president. For 17 days since the election was called for Biden on Nov. 7, Trump has hardly been seen in public and largely stepped back from the duties of his office, even as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage throughout the United States. He has played golf for six of those days, and he had no public events listed on his schedule for ten of them.
Meanwhile, Trump has tweeted numerous baseless claims of voter fraud while his legal team has engaged in an increasingly spurious, damaging, and ultimately doomed fight to overturn election results in key states.
It has been an unprecedented transition period, experts say. “Previous defeated candidates, including defeated presidents seeking re-election, have always said, in a sense, the American people have spoken,” says Timothy Naftali, a history professor at New York University. “This president, in the end, cares more about Donald Trump than he does about anyone else.”
While saying goodbye to the office can be difficult for any outgoing president, most of them have ultimately seen it in their own best interest to facilitate an orderly, respectful transition. “An incumbent president has generally seen it in his own interest in terms of his legacy of preserving the presidency as an institution to work to have continuity,” says Martha Kumar, an expert in White House communications and presidential transitions.
Trump evidently hasn’t made the same calculation. But he’s running out of ways to avoid accepting his loss. As both Corn and the alternate turkey Cob are now set to live out the rest of their days at Iowa State University, Trump will soon have to reckon with his own post-White House life.