In November 2018, after a vote that did not matter enough to him to push conspiracy theories about the outcome, President Trump stood in the Rose Garden and delivered the hard truth.
“This was a fair election,” he said to a bird named Carrots, sidelined at the annual White House turkey pardon after being snubbed in an online contest over which privileged poultry (Peas or Carrots) would star in the ritual. “Unfortunately, Carrots refused to concede and demanded a recount, and we’re still fighting with Carrots.”
The crowd laughed, and Mr. Trump smirked a little. Such hammy pageantry in stately settings, aides say, has long been a part of the job he especially enjoys. He gripped his lectern for the punchline, thumbs behind the presidential seal.
“We’ve come to a conclusion,” Mr. Trump said grandly. “Carrots, I’m sorry to tell you, the result did not change. It’s too bad for Carrots.”
Two years later, after an election result that was too bad for Mr. Trump, he has been less willing to accept the cold math of whom the people want to see at the White House.
In the weeks since Election Day, the president and his allies have set off on a groundless and dangerous effort to overturn the will of an electorate that rejected him, moving to undercut basic tenets of American democracy to cling to an office he did not expect to win four years ago and has not particularly treasured since, by most accounts.
On Monday, after the administrator of the General Services Administration formally designated President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the apparent winner of the election, Mr. Trump blessed the move on Twitter while still vowing to move ahead with legal challenges.
Yet the president’s desperate gambit until this point has been so all-consuming, his aversion to losing so well known, that little attention has been paid to a knotty question underpinning it all: What, exactly, was he holding onto? Why fight so hard, and put the country through so much, to keep a position he has often not appeared to want?
In some ways, Mr. Trump had seemed to imagine his Washington life more closely resembling a rolling turkey pardon — the pomp and splendor, yes, but also a world largely amenable to his boss-man bearing and binary whims: This bird is spared. Those birds are not. He’d have his people call the turkey people and hammer out the fine print later. But through it all, his word would be final.
This instinct has likewise fueled Mr. Trump’s affection for people-pardoning: He has used his pardon and clemency powers with abandon to reward allies and others whose causes are backed by celebrities. He is still considering a wave of such pardons for the final weeks of his tenure.
But for Mr. Trump, the more consistent reality of the presidency, laced with briefings and congressional obstacles and impeachment and criticism, has never quite measured up.
He has generally relished the aspects of the job that allow him to preside over something, fowl-based or otherwise — forums well suited to a leader for whom attention can seem less a wish than a psychic need.
The trappings and the title have plainly pleased him the most, placing him at the center of major celebrations for the mere fact of being president. He has marveled at the Bastille Day parade in Paris, taken to the “beautiful phones” at the White House and delighted in serving fast food to college football champions. In July, Mr. Trump, who has for years pressed the federal government to stage an elaborate fireworks display at Mount Rushmore, finally got his way.
He has also amused himself showing off Air Force One and the Lincoln Bedroom. Then there is the study off the Oval Office, which he converted into a small dining room — the space, he has informed guests with a twinkle, where Monica Lewinsky would visit President Bill Clinton.
Jeff Flake, a Republican former senator from Arizona who spoke forcefully against Mr. Trump before leaving office, recalled Mr. Trump’s manifest glee at posing for pictures in his work space.
“He loves having people go into the Oval Office — him sitting with a thumbs up and for them to stand,” he said. “He seemed to never tire of that, of showing people the Oval Office and getting that picture.”
The president’s furious bid to keep power, Mr. Flake suggested, reflected Mr. Trump’s realization that his future celebrity might never match the present. “No matter how much fame he had before, it didn’t compare,” he said. “Once he had it, it’s tough to give up.”
Certainly Mr. Trump’s predecessors have appreciated many perks of the post, holding court with favored entertainers or athletes at the White House and growing fond of their privileged temporary address. But this president has taken a more conspicuous shine to such advantages than most.
It is little secret that the mechanics of government never much animated Mr. Trump. He has been on most sides of most major political issues throughout his adult life, depending on the day. His re-election campaign barely bothered with a detailed vision for a prospective second term, focusing far more often on cultural grievance and race-baiting rally fare.
While he has effectively abdicated any leadership role in steering the nation’s coronavirus response — generally processing its devastation this year through the lens of how the pandemic would affect him politically — the president plans to see to it that the turkey pardon proceeds as scheduled on Tuesday.
It stands to be one of his few public appearances in recent weeks amid runaway virus case numbers and his continued assault on the integrity of the election. Mr. Trump has maintained a light public schedule since Nov. 3 and has often seemed downcast at his handful of engagements, including an announcement about the push to develop coronavirus vaccines, which he had promoted aggressively during the campaign.
Besides his regular golf outings on the weekends, the man who has historically seemed to need human interaction for sustenance — the audience for his perpetual show — is demonstrating little interest in being around others when he cannot point to something he can credibly call a win.
But then, the image of Mr. Trump merrily addressing turkeys in this context might register as a fitting turn for an executive end-stage that has constantly commingled calamity and absurdity.
It is also something of a culmination after three years of turkey pardons that have at times doubled as surprisingly telling snapshots of Mr. Trump’s frame of mind at various points in his presidency, with cutting asides and easy smiles in equal measure.
“From what I’ve seen,” said Beth Breeding, a spokeswoman for the National Turkey Federation, “the president seems to have really enjoyed them.”
At the event in 2017, as Mr. Trump was working to reverse as much of the Obama legacy as he could, he joked that the White House Counsel’s Office had reminded him that the former president’s turkey pardons could not be revoked.
In 2018, with congressional investigations looming as Democrats prepared to take control of the House, the president said he had warned Peas and Carrots that “House Democrats are likely to issue them both subpoenas” despite his clemency.
And in 2019, as an impeachment inquiry and the upcoming election weighed on him, Mr. Trump opened with a bit of self-congratulation (“it’s always nice to begin by saying the stock market is up again”), allowed his mind to wander to the emotional comforts of his victory in 2016 (“very great day”) and complained bitterly about Representative Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
By the end, though, the president was fulfilling the part of the job that always made the most sense to him: master of ceremonies. He placed his hand over a turkey named Butter, used the word “hereby” to infuse the proceedings with requisite gravitas (“I hereby grant you a full and complete pardon”) and started clapping on his way back inside.
“That was great,” Mr. Trump said, watching the crowd watch him. “Lot of fun.”