WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s motorcade was just pulling into the Trump National Golf Club in suburban Virginia on Saturday morning when news organizations ended days of waiting and declared that he had lost the presidency to Joe Biden.
Aides called Trump to let him know that their predictions over the past several days had come true: Every major news outlet had projected Biden to be the winner. But the president, who an hour earlier had said on Twitter that “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!,” was not surprised, they said. And he did not change his plans to go ahead with legal challenges to the election results that several of his own advisers warned him were long shots at best, or to play golf.
The aides said Trump had no plans to immediately deliver the kind of concession speech that has become traditional in past presidential elections, and his campaign vowed to continue waging the legal battle across the country. In a statement issued while he was still on the golf course, Trump said Biden was trying to “falsely pose” as the winner.
“The simple fact is this election is far from over,” the president said, “Beginning Monday, our campaign will start prosecuting our case in court to ensure election laws are fully upheld and the rightful winner is seated.”
Trump’s advisers said the president has refused to acknowledge that he has lost, maintaining his baseless accusation that Democrats had stolen the election.
But they do not believe he will try in any way to block Biden from taking office, and said that if he has not delivered a formal concession speech by the time he departs, pressure may mount on his Republican allies, family members and friends to convince him that he must give in to the inevitable and let the American people know that he accepts their judgment.
Even some of Trump’s oldest advisers, like former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, have said publicly that he needed to have actual evidence to make the claims he has been making about the election.
“This kind of thing, all it does is inflame without informing. And we cannot permit inflammation without information,” Christie said on ABC News on Thursday night.
Now that Biden has been declared the winner, White House advisers must confront the reality that Trump will be a lame-duck president for the next 2 1/2 months.
Since early Wednesday morning, when Trump angrily declared the election to be a “fraud” on the public, he has split his time between the Oval Office and the presidential residence, watching television coverage and brooding.
Besides his children, he has spoken by phone and at the White House with a coterie of advisers, including former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, his campaign manager, Bill Stepien, his deputy campaign manager, Justin Clark, his adviser Hope Hicks, and Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee.
Vice President Mike Pence spent part of Friday in the Oval Office with Trump, but the president’s chief of staff, Mark Meadows, who tested positive for the coronavirus the day after the election, has been working remotely on the campaign’s current legal challenges.
Trump’s advisers did succeed in persuading Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, to stand down from some of his public allegations about fraud. But Giuliani appealed to Trump, and the president signed off on his holding a news conference in Philadelphia that started just after news outlets called the presidential race for Biden.
Some aides were candid with Trump that there was not much of a path forward, even though they said they would continue on. Only a few had doubted that Biden was likely to win, among them the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, people who spoke with Trump said.
As he played golf Saturday, aides said, Trump was surprisingly calm, given the news he had received when he arrived at the club.
But that was before he watched television coverage of Biden’s victory. Nearly two hours after an uneventful return to the White House, Trump again began posting angry, and false, tweets insisting that he had won the election and complaining that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WERE SENT TO PEOPLE WHO NEVER ASKED FOR THEM!”
Several Trump advisers said that while they now wanted to give the president space to process the loss, they were exhausted after four years of tumult, and were eager for clarity about what would come next.
Some aides began to focus on what they believed Trump could cite as accomplishments even in defeat, including the fact that he received the second-most votes in American history and that he drew a new batch of voters into the Republican Party.
Confined almost entirely to the White House since Election Day, Trump is eager to get out of Washington, and after musing about holding a rally this week, aides said he was likely to travel to his private club, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, Florida, instead. But the president has no intention of ending the boisterous demonstrations of support that he has held throughout his presidency and that always seem to energize him.
It was unclear whether Trump would follow tradition and invite Biden to the White House for a symbolic meeting like the one he had with President Barack Obama during his own transition four years ago. It is also tradition for the departing president to attend the inauguration of his successor, but Trump has ignored many of the norms of the office.
Biden, as a former vice president, does not require the tour of the White House that Trump did. Such a meeting would send a signal that could help reduce the anger of the president’s supporters over his defeat — but it would be a gesture strikingly out of character for a president who has so often sought to inflame passions.
Democrats are concerned that an array of steps traditionally involved in a presidential transition could be ignored or disrupted by Trump administration officials. But the initial stages of the transition have begun without any disruptions.
A top White House adviser, Chris Liddell, has been leading transition planning for the Trump administration, but Trump has not been involved, one White House official said, in part because of his superstitions about planning before an election, and in part because officials feared he would try to meddle with them.
As Trump’s motorcade arrived back at the White House Saturday afternoon, passing crowds of Biden supporters applauding the president’s ouster, Trump’s aides were still in varying degrees of shock about the outcome of a race that many had believed he would win.
Some of those aides had already started to leave in anticipation of a loss. Ja’Ron Smith, the most senior Black official in the West Wing and a deputy assistant to the president, sent an email to colleagues Friday saying that he was departing. One of his colleagues said it had been long planned, but others saw it as the beginning of a slow exodus as Inauguration Day draws closer.
Trump, for his part, showed no sign of ending his hunt for allegations of fraud that could lend credence to lawsuits he wants filed in a number of states. A campaign official said that Stepien and Kushner had David Bossie, the head of the conservative group Citizens United and a longtime Trump ally, to lead efforts to contest vote counts in several states.
Some of the president’s allies in the Senate said they understood why he felt entrenched.
“I don’t blame him one bit for fighting for every single vote,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D.
Some of the president’s campaign donors disagreed. “President Trump should go against his nature and call off the legal dogs,” said Dan Eberhart, a Trump supporter and donor, who called Biden’s victory “unfortunate.”
But even before he leaves the White House, one of Trump’s most powerful forms of communication has been diminished. Twitter has grown increasingly aggressive about flagging the president’s false statements about “illegal ballots” and demands that local state election officials stop counting ballots prematurely.
A spokesperson for Twitter, Nick Pacilio, said in a statement that the company had flagged the president’s tweets “for making potentially misleading claims about an election.
“This action is in line with our civic integrity policy,” the statement continued, “and as is standard with this warning, we will significantly restrict engagements on these tweets.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
© 2020 The New York Times Company