Trump slows Biden transition with denials, lawsuits

Chris Megerian, Eli Stokols
·8 min read
The White House in Washington, Saturday Nov 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
President Trump has not held any public events since losing the election. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

As the morning sun bathed the White House grounds on an unseasonably warm November Monday, the rattle of construction could be heard nearby as workers began erecting the viewing stands for the next president's inaugural ceremony.

But inside the building, President Trump was still refusing to acknowledge that it would be Joe Biden, not him, taking the oath of office on Jan. 20.

Two days after Biden's victory became clear, Trump continued to sulk out of sight, tweeting baseless allegations of fraud in some states and suggesting he didn't really lose in others.

"Wisconsin is looking very good," he wrote, and "Georgia will be a big presidential win." But Pennsylvania's vote-counting process was "unthinkable and illegal," he claimed, while "Nevada is turning out to be a cesspool of Fake Votes."

"Stay tuned!"

Trump's administration is refusing to cooperate with Biden's transition team, withholding federal resources that normally flow freely after a campaign ends. The agency that manages the transfer of power, the General Services Administration, said "an ascertainment has not yet been made" that the election is over.

The delay has left Biden with only bare-bones assistance as he prepares to take office amid a global pandemic and a nationwide recession.

"America’s national security and economic interests depend on the federal government signaling clearly and swiftly that the United States government will respect the will of the American people and engage in a smooth and peaceful transfer of power,” said Cameron French, a spokesman for the Biden transition team.

Timothy A. Naftali, a historian at New York University, said this is the first time in American history that a defeated president has refused to recognize the outcome of an election.

"Trump's petulance is hurting the country, because we need the next government to be as prepared as possible," Naftali said.

The president's unsubstantiated claims about voter fraud received some validation from Atty. Gen. William Barr, who sent a letter to federal prosecutors authorizing them to "pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities" before election results are officially certified. Barr wrote that the Justice Department has not concluded "that voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election," but "clear and apparently credible allegations" should be swiftly investigated if there's a possibility they played a decisive role.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a lawyer for President Trump, has spread baseless allegations about voter fraud.
Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, a lawyer for President Trump, has spread baseless allegations about voter fraud. (Associated Press)

The president appeared focused on a multi-state legal assault against the election results. His campaign sued Pennsylvania election officials on Monday, alleging that Republican observers were kept too far away to properly watch how ballots were being processed. The lawsuit also said rules on how voters could fix problems with mail ballots were unevenly applied, making it easier for Democrats than Republicans to make sure their votes counted.

At the announcement of the lawsuit at the Republican National Committee's Washington office, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany — who said she was appearing in her personal capacity — suggested that Pennsylvania officials and Democrats are "welcoming fraud and you are welcoming illegal voting." Fox News swiftly cut away, with host Neil Cavuto telling viewers, "Unless she has more details to back that up, I can't in good countenance continue showing you this."

So far Trump's legal offensive has failed to gain traction. Judges quickly rejected his team's lawsuits in Georgia, Michigan and Nevada in the days after voting ended. Another one in Arizona remains ongoing, alleging that voters received improper instructions about how to use voting machines.

It's unlikely that any of the lawsuits have called into question enough votes to swing the results. Biden leads Trump by roughly 45,000 votes in Pennsylvania, 15,000 in Arizona, 36,000 in Nevada and 146,000 in Michigan.

At the president's campaign headquarters in Rosslyn, Va., top officials tried to reassure staff that plans to contest the election were ongoing. "We're still in this fight," said Bill Stepien, the campaign manager, according to a source present at the meeting.

The campaign has not ruled out holding postelection political rallies, with Trump continuing to assert that he has won, but so far there are no plans for the president to hit the road. Tim Murtaugh, the campaign's communications director, said they're looking for "organic shows of support" such as boat parades.

The staff plastered campaign headquarters with a purported front page of the Washington Times from 2000 that announced "President Gore," intended to suggest the media shouldn't rush to call the outcome of any election. But the front page was fake, and the campaign was embarrassed when Murtaugh tweeted out — then deleted — pictures of it covering the office walls. The pages were taken down at the headquarters as well, the campaign source said, and Stepien was frustrated by the "amateurish" effort.

President Trump looks at supporters as he leaves his Virginia golf course over the weekend.
President Trump looks at supporters as he leaves his Virginia golf course over the weekend. (Steve Helber / Associated Press)

As Trump refuses to accept the election result, he's demanded that the rest of the Republican Party indulge his denial. Most have obliged, by either supporting the president or remaining quiet about their misgivings.

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted that he told his team "it ain’t over til it’s over ... and this AIN’T over!” And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) broke his silence to say that he supports Trump's attempts to challenge the results.

"President Trump is 100% within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options," he said on the Senate floor.

Yet while McConnell refused to acknowledge Biden's victory, he hosted an event on Capitol Hill for Republican Senate candidates who won their races.

Other members of Trump's party continued to make inflammatory and unsubstantiated allegations about voting problems.

Matt Schlapp, head of the American Conservative Union, said without providing any evidence that he heard from a whistleblower, whom he did not name, that a van from Biden's campaign pulled up to an election office in Nevada while officials were counting votes. "The doors of the van were open, ballots were clearly visible, ballots were open with letter openers, and ballots were refilled and sealed in envelopes," he said.

Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, Republicans from Georgia who both face runoff elections Jan. 5 because they fell short of the majority vote required under state law, demanded that their state's top elections official, also a Republican, resign from his post. Biden is leading in the state by a slim 12,000 votes, and there could be a recount.

"There have been too many failures in Georgia elections this year and the most recent election has shined a national light on the problems," the two senators said.

Neither Perdue nor Loeffler specified any problems, and a Trump campaign lawsuit alleging that late-arriving mail ballots were improperly mixed with ones delivered on time was rejected last week.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) poses with newly elected Republican senators on Monday.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) poses with newly elected Republican senators on Monday even though he's failed to acknowledge Joe Biden's victory. (Ken Cedeno / Pool via Associated Press)

Trump's team, which was short on cash near the end of the presidential race, has turned the attack on the election into a fundraising opportunity. "The blatant voter fraud throughout corrupt Democrat-run cities is unprecedented," said one of several emails blasted out to supporters. "The Left has proven that there is nothing they will not do to rip power away from the American People."

The fine print on the donation page said more than half of the money would go toward retiring the campaign's debt, not to legal battles.

"I would look at any effort to raise money at this point with serious skepticism, especially when they're sending out 15 emails a day," said Rick Tyler, a Republican consultant and Trump critic who worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). "It's clear that they're either retiring debt or worse, but I expect little or no money will actually be spent trying to reverse the result of the election."

Trump's denial about the election result echoed his denial about the threat of the coronavirus, which was once again spreading within his inner circle. Multiple people who attended the president's election-night event inside the White House — where few wore masks or kept their distance from one another — have tested positive in recent days.

They include Mark Meadows, Trump's chief of staff, a handful of other staff members and David Bossie, who was recently named to lead the campaign's legal effort. Also infected was Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Deputy Chief of Staff Coalter Baker said Carson "is in good spirits and feels fortunate to have access to effective therapeutics which aid and markedly speed his recovery.”

Meanwhile, after weeks of reports that Trump might engage in a postelection purge of administration officials seen as insufficiently loyal, on Monday afternoon he abruptly fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, tweeting that the Pentagon chief "has been terminated." Esper had angered the president this year by resisting his desire to crack down on racial justice protests with active duty military forces.

Times staff writers Noah Bierman and Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.