WASHINGTON — This might have been the most anticipated White House turkey-pardoning ceremony ever.
For starters, President Donald Trump has been scarcely seen without golf clubs since Election Day. So, the annual ritual of sparing two turkeys offered a rare chance to glimpse the lame-duck leader in public.
“Thanksgiving is a very special day for turkeys,” Trump said in the Rose Garden on Tuesday afternoon. “Not a very good one, if you think about it.” Except for two fortunate feathered recipients of the president’s largesse.
It felt almost normal, refreshingly pro forma. With a zest for showmanship, Trump had always seemed in his element on these cornball occasions, no matter what other turmoil happened to be upending his presidency at the moment.
But Trump’s recent reclusiveness had also given the festivities a measure of Groundhog Day drama: Would the Punxsutawney president strike a light and conciliatory tone, signaling a mild period of transition into the Biden administration? Or would he continue with the defiant and rancorous posture he has exhibited in the more than 550 tweets he has unleashed since Nov. 3, ensuring several more disruptive weeks of a presidency in dark winter?
The cliffhanger infused the hokey White House tradition with genuine theatrics — just as the master of ceremonies relishes. Speculation had swirled in recent days that the president might make incendiary news by pardoning humans like Paul Manafort (his former campaign chairman, convicted of tax and bank fraud) along with his innocent feathered friends Corn and Cob (imported from Iowa, 42 and 41 pounds, with 35- and 34-inch wingspans).
If nothing else, the spectacle offered a respite from the daily onslaught of Trump’s legal challenges, as well as the carefully produced announcements of President-elect Joe Biden’s new cabinet officials — several of whom were being introduced in Wilmington, Delaware, as the president and first lady, Melania Trump, were making their way out to the Rose Garden at about 2:30 p.m.
The president began by announcing again that the Dow Jones Industrial Average had broken 30,000 for the first time. (He had first announced it an hour and a half earlier in an appearance in the White House briefing room that lasted barely a minute.) Although the market appeared to be reacting to the Government Services Administration’s decision Monday night that the transition to the Biden administration could formally begin, Trump wrapped himself in the news.
“I just want to congratulate everybody,” Trump said, a throwback to preelection days, when he would boast constantly about the performance of the stock market, as if it offered some running testimonial to his performance in office.
Voters have since rendered a harsher verdict. Recent weeks have, by all accounts, been difficult for a president whose self-definition as a “winner” has been dented by a battering of courtroom defeats, rising vote deficits and scattered abandonment by former Republican allies.
At the very least, the White House turkey tradition offered the comfort of ritual. It was started by President Harry S. Truman in 1947, though President John F. Kennedy was the first to spare the honored bird. President George H.W. Bush was the first to officially use the word “pardon” in 1989.
Trump wore a navy blue overcoat and bright red tie in the chill of the late November afternoon. He made no mention of the election or the president-elect. He seemed slightly subdued but for the most part in decent spirits.
He described this as “a time that is very unusual,” which seemed apt enough.
“We’re here to continue a beloved annual tradition,” the president said, ushering in the featured, feathered portion of the ceremony.
He mentioned that Corn and Cob had been selected from a presidential flock that included some “real beauties” and noted that they came from Iowa.
“I love the state of Iowa,” Trump said, by way of buttering up the home of the butterballs. (He is said to be considering a comeback campaign in 2024.)
“We love our farmers,” he added, for good measure.
After a few minutes, the president and first lady stepped out from behind the Rose Garden podium and approached the guest of honor.
“Look at that beautiful, beautiful bird,” Trump marveled as he gestured toward Corn, who was perched a few feet away. (Cob was not immediately visible to onlookers.)
“Oh, that is a lucky bird,” he continued. “Wow.”
“Thank you, Corn,” Trump said as he briefly laid his forgiving hand upon the rich white plume of his beneficiary.
The president and first lady waved to the friendly crowd as they took leave of Corn, who at that moment did manage a brief serenade of gobbles.
Trump flashed a thumbs-up for the cameras and did not respond to two shouted questions from reporters: one about whether he might invite Biden for a White House visit and the other about whether he might soon be pardoning himself.
At this same event last year, the president had said that “I expect this pardon will be a very popular one with the media. After all, turkeys are closely related to vultures.”
In other words, Trump had likened reporters to vultures.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.