Donald Trump’s arrival in Washington Thursday on the eve of his inauguration as the 45th president snapped the capital city into its new reality, as the buoyant business mogul celebrated his unlikely political ascent with signature bravado and spontaneity.
Kicking off three days of carefully orchestrated inaugural proceedings infused with pomp and guided by precision and protocol, the president-elect reveled in the moment and delivered a tribute to the populist movement that propelled him into office.
“We all got tired of seeing what was happening and we wanted change, but we wanted real change,” Trump said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. “It’s a movement like we’ve never seen anywhere in the world, they say.”
Exhorting thousands of supporters at the conclusion of an evening concert that was punctuated by a glimmering fireworks display, Trump vowed, “We’re going to work together, and we are going to make America great again — and, I’ll add, greater than ever before.”
Trump and his extended family signaled a new era in the country’s governance as they stepped off a military plane at Joint Base Andrews. They headed directly to his Pennsylvania Avenue property, the Trump International Hotel, where the president-elect irreverently toasted his Cabinet nominees.
“We have by far the highest IQ of any Cabinet ever assembled,” Trump said in a characteristically grandiose — and unprovable — declaration before several hundred supporters, lawmakers and allies at an official luncheon. He scanned the room for familiar faces and riffed on each individually, as if he were delivering a toast.
Trump narrated his journey and the day’s festivities on Twitter. “On my way!” Trump tweeted as he headed in the afternoon to Arlington National Cemetery, where he and Vice President-elect Mike Pence laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. They both stood in silence with their hands over their hearts as a bugler played taps.
As Trump put the finishing touches on the inaugural address he will deliver from the steps of the Capitol after taking the oath of office at noon Friday, Pence and their incoming administration were preparing to assume control of the federal government.
Addressing reporters Thursday from the transition team’s Washington headquarters, Pence said, “It is a momentous day before a historic day.”
The vice president-elect noted that all 21 Cabinet nominations have been made and that 536 “beachhead” officials are ready to report for duty at federal departments and agencies.
President Obama’s appointees packed up their belongings and vacated their offices Thursday, although the Trump team is retaining 50 of them in critical positions throughout the government to ensure continuity until Trump can more fully staff his administration. The temporary holdovers include Brett McGurk, a special envoy coordinating the war against the Islamic State; Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center; and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.
“Our job is to be ready on Day One,” Pence said. “The American people can be confident that we will be. . . . It’s going to be a very humbling and moving day for the president-elect, his family and for mine. But let me tell you, we are all ready to go to work.”
Trump and his team on Thursday sent signals suggesting an attempt to begin repairing relations with groups he demonized throughout his transition, including the intelligence community and the media. Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, calmly answered questions for an hour in his first formal briefing with journalists and confirmed that Trump would soon visit the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Va., to express his gratitude to career intelligence officers.
While the bureaucrats-to-be were working, Trump supporters from throughout the country who had descended on Washington were partying at the concert at the Lincoln Memorial, which was bathed in patriotic lighting. Throngs of people extended toward the Washington Monument as an assortment of military bands and recording artists performed.
As Trump and his wife, Melania, descended the monument’s steps at sunset, the president-elect saluted the marble statue of President Abraham Lincoln, flashed a tight smile and pumped his fist in the air to the roar of the crowd and the Rolling Stones’ “Heart of Stone” playing from the speakers.
But the concert served as a reminder of Trump’s limited popularity. Despite his electoral-college victory, a majority of voters cast their ballot for someone else in November’s election. Trump is the least-popular incoming president in at least four decades, with 40 percent of Americans holding a favorable impression of him and 54 percent holding an unfavorable one, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week.
Entertainers such as Elton John, Celine Dion and the rock band Kiss said publicly that they turned down invitations to perform at inaugural festivities. One artist scheduled to perform at the Lincoln Memorial concert — Broadway’s Jennifer Holliday — dropped out last week, the day after the announcement, saying she had heard concerns from the gay community about the message her participation would send.
The concert headliners were country singers Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood and the rock band 3 Doors Down, which performed one of its hits, “Broken,” the lyrics of which echoed Trump’s appeal to disenchanted Americans:
“This is the call to the broken/To all the ones who’ve been thrown away/This is the call to the broken/Stand up and take back your world today.”
Trump used his various social-media platforms to promote the concert, and at 3:21 p.m., less than an hour before it began, he tweeted to his more than 20 million followers to join him on the Mall, “no tickets required.”
Thousands of people heeded his call, yet there were large pockets of empty space along the reflecting pool. Adhering to its usual policy, the National Park Service did not provide crowd size estimates.
Even if it was not a historic turnout, the reality-television-producer-turned-politician appeared to relish the spotlight. As Greenwood sang his signature song, “God Bless the USA,” Trump swayed, smiled and flashed a thumbs-up — though he appeared bored at other times as he fidgeted from his seat behind bulletproof glass.
Thomas E. Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the day’s events signaled that “this man is going to do it his way.”
“Everything points to this incredible sense of grandiosity,” Mann said. “He’s telling the country, ‘Get used to it.’ ”
Past presidents began arriving in Washington to witness Trump’s swearing-in, including Jimmy Carter, who was spotted aboard a commercial Delta flight from Atlanta. Hillary Clinton, who was Trump’s Democratic opponent, and Bill Clinton were planning to attend.
George H.W. Bush will not be making the trip. He and his wife, Barbara, were hospitalized in Houston this week. The former president was in stable condition Thursday and hoping to be discharged from the intensive-care unit in coming days, while the former first lady was recovering from bronchitis, spokesman Jim McGrath said.
Trump’s aides said he has taken personal ownership of his speech, writing and rewriting drafts himself with the help of a few advisers, and practiced delivering it before teleprompters this week at Trump Tower in New York.
“It’s going to be a very personal and sincere statement,” Spicer said. “I think it’s going to be less of an agenda and more of a philosophical document — a vision of where he sees the country, the proper role of government, the role of citizens.”
Trump and Pence are planning to begin the day Friday at a church service at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, which sits on Lafayette Square across from the White House and has been frequented by presidents. From there, they will have tea with the Obamas on the South Portico of the White House before making their way down Pennsylvania Avenue for the Capitol, where Trump will be sworn in.
Following his inaugural address, Trump will attend a congressional luncheon in the Capitol and see off the Obamas, who are heading to Palm Springs, Calif., for a vacation. The Trumps will then watch the inaugural parade — which aides say is expected to last about 90 minutes, among the shortest on record — from a reviewing stand outside the White House. Trump will attend three official inaugural balls in the evening.
On Saturday morning, the new president will to attend a traditional national prayer service at Washington National Cathedral before spending the rest of the weekend settling into his new home and meeting with his advisers.
Pence marveled to reporters: “Sometimes people stop me on the street they say, ‘How you holding up? I can’t imagine how busy you are.’ And I just tell them, ‘Well, you just have to understand, the energy and the enthusiasm of Donald Trump is contagious.’”