Donald Trump intended his final public appearance as president to be a display of vast support from a devoted mass movement – but instead, he was seen off by a thin crowd of well-wishers.
The early morning ceremony, from which Mr Trump flew to Florida on Air Force One, was meant to be an upbeat send-off with a cheering throng of fans. However, in the days leading up to it, reports emerged that even Trump dissenters like former press secretary Anthony Scaramucci were receiving invitations, while others had been offered the chance to bring five guests.
Sure enough, come the morning, the area near the plane was far from full. As a visibly dejected Mr Trump addressed his audience, One commentator, CNN’s Jim Acosta, called it “definitely the smallest crowd size of the Trump presidency”.
Mr Trump notoriously began his presidency by raging at reports that the crowd at his inauguration was smaller than any in recent memory. He sent his then-press secretary Sean Spicer into the White House briefing room to falsely claim that Mr Trump’s swearing-in commanded “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe”.
This was provably untrue, and immediately drew ridicule from the press and public alike. However, the White House doubled down, with senior aide Kellyanne Conway telling NBC that the administration had simply used “alternative facts”.
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Mr Trump’s fixation on crowd size resurfaced periodically throughout his presidency. The most notorious incident was a disastrous rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on 20 June 2020, his first major event since the coronavirus pandemic had forced much of the country into lockdown.
The campaign planned the rally of a display of muscle, and was so sure that the arena would be stuffed with supporters that an overflow area was constructed and speakers – including Nigel Farage – specifically booked to address the outdoor crowd.
But in the end, the event was a humiliating washout. The arena was around two-thirds empty and the overflow stage went unused. Upon his return to Washington, Mr Trump was filmed walking sullenly from Marine One to the White House, tie in hand and head hanging.
Once the post-convention campaign kicked into gear, Mr Trump returned to the trail, holding more and more large rallies as election day drew near even as the coronavirus death toll surged in many of the areas he targeted.
Calling crowds “the real polls” as his numbers tanked in the home stretch, he relentlessly mocked Joe Biden for not drawing comparable crowds and instead campaigning virtually to avoid spreading Covid-19 at large events.
And after the election, as he and most of his top advocates disputed the result, they frequently cited the size of his rallies as evidence that he could not possibly have lost.
As the assembled crowd on inauguration day cheered him, the president offered them a characteristically gnomic farewell.
“So just a goodbye,” he said. “We love you. We will be back in some form… Have a good life, we will see you soon.”
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