Walk toward the White House during the final days of the Trump presidency, and you’ll get an unmistakable feel of a government under siege. Buildings near Pennsylvania Avenue are boarded up in anticipation of street violence. Monuments are choked with fencing. A tall metal barricade has been erected at Lafayette Square, just north of the White House, and is covered top to bottom with signs—welcome proof that as Donald Trump maneuvers to defy the Twelfth Amendment and cling to power, the First is very much intact. You’re fired, one sign reads.
Guards let me through the White House’s north gate, lengthened and fortified last year, and inside the complex. I was there the morning after the release of a recorded phone call in which Trump attempted to coax and scare Georgia election officials into finding the votes needed to overcome Joe Biden’s victory margin and flip the state. Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, rebuffed him, just as a slew of courts have done over the past two months. For now, at least, democracy is holding; Trump is on his way out.
On a day like this, you’d expect the West Wing to be teeming with people. Normally you’d see aides crowding the hallways, or reporters in a single-file line outside Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s doorway. The West Wing halls accessible to the press have a desultory vibe, more like a temp agency than the beating heart of the free world. As I wandered, a handful of aides worked at their desks and talked quietly among themselves. Not one wore a mask, befitting the COVID-19 denialism that has turned the complex into a breeding ground of infection.