Updated 12/23/20, 10:42 a.m.
WASHINGTON — The video message that plunged Washington into chaos was filmed in secret.
President Donald Trump stood in the White House's Diplomatic Reception Room, holiday garland and gleaming ornaments draped on the fireplace behind him, and spoke into the camera not to deliver warm Christmas wishes, but to threaten to detonate Congress' $900 billion COVID-19 relief and year-end package.
The video was released without warning Tuesday night, its recording orchestrated by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and kept from all but a handful of aides. Few Republicans or even White House staffers knew Wednesday what Trump planned next, a return to the around-the-clock chaos of his first months in office.
The moment was also a flashback to the start of Trump's political career, when he delivered direct assaults on GOP leadership and aimed to blow up the party's establishment. Now Trump appears willing to do that again on his way out of office, potentially sabotaging his party's chances of controlling the Senate as he lashed out in anger at those he believes have not supported his efforts to overturn the election.
Since his defeat to Democrat Joe Biden, Trump has been holed up in the White House with an ever-shrinking circle of aides and allies, including some pushing fraudulent conspiracy theories about the election. He has ignored the surging pandemic that is killing 3,000 Americans a day and done little to promote the use of the vaccines that are being counted on to bring it to an end.
His focus instead has largely been on trying to overturn Biden's victory, embracing baseless conspiracy theories, pushing futile legal challenges and undermining confidence in the tenets of American democracy and the peaceful transfer of power.
The president, who has not held a public event in 10 days, was scheduled to depart Wednesday afternoon for more than a week at Mar-a-Lago, his coastal Florida estate. But aides were uncertain if Trump would follow through or cancel just hours before Air Force One was to take off.
"There are mixed signals from the White House leaving more confusion than calm," Biden said on Wednesday.
Indeed, Trump stoked more confusion on Tuesday night when he released two videos, one falsely declaring that he won the election in a "landslide" and the other calling on lawmakers to increase direct payments for most Americans from $600 to $2,000 for individuals and $4,000 for couples, measures most Republicans strongly oppose.
The payments are included in sweeping legislation passed by Congress earlier this week. Trump himself played little role in the negotiations, though the White House had initially sent signals that he would sign the bill.
But the president's focus has remained on the election and he has grown increasingly frustrated with Republicans who are acknowledging Biden's victory. He also complained to allies in recent days that Vice President Mike Pence, who by any measure has spent four years demonstrating loyalty to Trump, was not doing enough to defend him. And he said he was pleased by the departure of Attorney General William Barr, who had not supported his calls for a special counsel to look into election fraud.
Trump has been buoyed by support from some House Republicans who are entertaining options for snarling congressional certification of Biden's victory in early January. Any such effort would be futile in blocking Biden, but would likely deepen the disinformation campaign Trump and his allies have launched since Election Day to undercut the incoming president's legitimacy.
Whether Trump is threatening to hold up the relief bill simply to spite Republicans is unclear. But the timing of his declarations is particularly problematic for the party, given the upcoming Senate runoffs in Georgia, which will determine whether Republicans can keep control of the chamber.
There are also personal political considerations at play for Trump. Aides believed that fighting to put more money in the hands of average Americans could boost his popularity and populist credentials for whatever his potential next move might be, including a possible presidential run in 2024.