Trump departs Washington in final hours as president, travels to Florida

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Shannon Pettypiece and Jane C. Timm
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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump arrived in Florida just before 11 a.m. on Wednesday, with an hour left in his presidency, as he opted to skip the swearing in and instead retreat to his residence on the coast.

Air Force One buzzed Mar-a-Lago shortly before landing. Trump departed Washington in the morning, delivering a send-off speech to supporters at Joint Base Andrews and then boarded Air Force One as president a final time.

"It is my greatest honor and privilege to have been your president," he said to cheers. "I wish the new administration great luck and great success, and I think they'll have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular."

The tone was a shift from previous weeks, in which Trump continued to insist without evidence that he did not lose the election, an insistence that culminated in a mob of his supporters attacking the Capitol in an effort to stop President-elect Joe Biden's election from becoming official.

In what are likely his final acts, the White House announced that Trump approved lifting some aluminum tariffs on the United Arab Emirates. He also gave a pardon to Albert J. Pirro, Jr., the ex-husband of Fox News host Jeanine Pirro and one of Trump's former real estate lawyers who was convicted of tax fraud more than 20 years ago.

Breaking with decades of tradition, Trump will not participate in the peaceful transition of power and is skipping the inauguration. He opted for a rally-like setup at the military airfield, complete with large speakers blasting his campaign playlist, American flags, and several hundred gathered supporters.

He did not mention Biden by name in his remarks, instead urging supporters to credit him for future economic and coronavirus victories.

"You're going to see some incredible things happening. And remember us when you see these things happening, if you would," Trump said.

Trump's brief speech diverged from the prepared words aides had distributed ahead of the send-off. His remarks were off-the-cuff, and somewhat somber in tone. Trump touted a few items of his presidential legacy, including Space Force and judicial confirmation, and said his team had "left it all, as the athletes would say, we've left it all on the field."

He thanked his family, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, first lady Melania Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence, and hinted at his own political future.

"We will be back in some form," he said,

The outgoing president typically departs shortly after the incoming president is sworn in, on a special air mission government jet. But Trump, who fought bitterly to overturn the results of the 2020 election, opted to orchestrate an alternative fanfare-filled exit while he was still commander in chief and flew on Air Force One en route to his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida.

"Have a good life. We will see you soon," Trump said. His plane departed to the sounds of Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

There were a number of notable absences at the send-off: Pence did not attend, along with several former senior aides who were invited. A White House official and source familiar with the matter told NBC News on Tuesday that it was not logistically feasible for Pence to attend the sendoff as well as the inauguration.

The president’s final days were unusually quiet. Banned from posting on social media accounts, Trump and his frequent missives — which often upended the business of government — were absent. His last public event before Wednesday’s departure from the White House was a week ago, when he went to the U.S.-Mexico border to tout his border wall construction.

Pence has assumed many of the duties traditional reserved for the outgoing commander in chief, like thanking troops at Fort Drum over the weekend. He will continue that ceremonial role during Wednesday’s inauguration.

Trump did, however, leave Biden a note at the White House, a longstanding tradition of outgoing presidents, White House Deputy Press Secretary Judd Deere confirmed to NBC News, though the contents of that note were not made public.

In the White House, staffers and movers are finalizing the transition of the residence and West Wing, packing up and disinfecting, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, ahead of the Biden administration's arrival shortly after noon.

Moments after Trump's exit from office became officials, the Chinese government announced sanctions against 28 outgoing Trump administration officials, barring them from entering the country, including former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, trade adviser Peter Navarro, and former campaign aide Stephen Bannon.