By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason
PALM BEACH, Fla./WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump disappeared on Wednesday behind the walls of his club in Palm Beach, Florida, ending a tumultuous presidency stained by two impeachments, deep political divisions and a pandemic that has caused 400,000 U.S. deaths.
The Republican president departed the White House with his wife, Melania, saying it had been a great honor to serve and giving a final wave as he boarded the Marine One helicopter for Joint Base Andrews, where he delivered farewell remarks.
"So just a goodbye. We love you. We will be back in some form," Trump told supporters before boarding Air Force One for the flight to Florida. "Have a good life. We will see you soon."
The plane then taxied and lifted off as Frank Sinatra's classic song "My Way" played over the loudspeakers. Air Force One later flew low to give Trump an aerial view of his post-presidential home at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
Before leaving the White House, Trump left a note for his successor, Democrat Joe Biden, a spokesman said, following one small bit of traditional protocol related to the peaceful transfer of power that Trump had otherwise eschewed. Trump has declined to mention Biden's name even as he wished the incoming administration luck on his way out of office.
"The president wrote a very generous letter," Biden told reporters later in the Oval Office. "Because it was private, I won't talk about it until I talk to him. But it was generous."
Trump, 74, departed hours before Biden's inauguration. That made him the first outgoing president since 1869 to skip the Inauguration Day ceremony that marks the formal transfer of power, in a final display of pique at his failure to win the Nov. 3 election.
Trump's motorcade slow-rolled past a long line of supporters on his way to Mar-a-Lago. His arrival there was timed to get behind its walls before his term as president expired at noon.
"I will always fight for you. I will be watching. I will be listening. And I will tell you that the future of this country has never been better," Trump said in his farewell remarks. "I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they'll have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular."
SENATE TRIAL LOOMS
Trump has a long way to go to rebuild an image left in tatters by his presidency, particularly the final months. He has a unique place in history - as the only president ever impeached twice.
The Senate is on track to hold a trial on the impeachment charge brought by the Democratic-led House of Representatives that Trump incited an insurrection in connection with the Jan. 6 deadly storming of the U.S. Capitol by his supporters. Its outcome could determine whether he will be disqualified from running again for president.
"He is going to be an asterisk president, a one-termer who did more damage than good," said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
Trump maintained to his last days in office that the election was stolen from him, according to sources familiar with the situation.
Courts have rejected his campaign's unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud and his vice president, Mike Pence, led Congress in certifying Biden's victory over Trump's objections.
The Washington that Trump left behind was guarded by 25,000 National Guard troops, while the National Mall, traditionally thronged with spectators on Inauguration Day, was closed to the public because of threats of further violence.
While preoccupied with fighting the election results, Trump failed to control the spiraling coronavirus outbreak in the United States, which has the most deaths of any country. Pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions have also cost millions of Americans their jobs.
Trump on Wednesday acknowledged the suffering caused by the pandemic. He had downplayed the risks of the coronavirus in the pandemic's early stages and did not model consistent wearing of a mask to stop its spread.
Trump, a former real estate tycoon who owns 17 golf resorts around the world, faces a gigantic task rebuilding his brand.
The New York Times reported that many of his resorts have been losing millions of dollars and that hundreds of millions in debt must be repaid within a few years.
He must also decide how to stay involved in politics, as he has promised to do. He has talked of using a super PAC (political action committee) to support candidates who try to oust Republicans who he believes crossed him politically.
But it remains to be seen whether he can maintain his grip on the party.
"I would predict in the not-too-distant future that American political candidates will be more motivated to show that they are unlike Trump than candidates after 1974 were to show that they were unlike (Richard) Nixon," said presidential historian Michael Beschloss. Nixon resigned in 1974 over the Watergate scandal.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Mary Milliken, Paul Simao and Peter Cooney)