Trump aims to undermine Biden's legitimacy even as legal challenges fizzle
Posted November 16, 2020 8:16 p.m. EST
CNN — When President Donald Trump learned at the end of last week that his lawyers were dropping their lawsuit seeking a review of ballots in Arizona, the news caught him by surprise.
Summoning members of his team to the Oval Office, where he has been spending afternoons and evenings lately when not in the adjoining dining room watching television, Trump demanded to know why it appeared he was giving up a battle he fully intends to continue waging.
Even as his legal pathway to challenging Joe Biden's electoral victory becomes thinner by the day -- and as some of his senior-most aides begin signaling publicly that Biden will take office in January -- Trump has shown little indication he plans to back off his false claim that he won the election.
Instead of an actual attempt to locate more votes or even to reverse the election results, Trump's legal efforts appear designed instead to seed conspiracy theories among his conservative supporters, raise additional money, preserve power over the Republican Party and cast a pall of illegitimacy over Biden's tenure -- the same shadow Trump has long complained darkened his own time in office.
Whether any of those outcomes is his express goal remains unclear. Many around him believe a dejected President is simply making an elaborate attempt at processing his trauma rather than executing a master plan. Asked last week how long his efforts might last, Trump suggested "two weeks, three weeks" -- though few believe he will ever acknowledge outright that he lost the election to Biden.
Within the President's circle, two camps had already begun emerging prior to Thursday's meeting in the Oval Office, which included Vice President Mike Pence.
Senior aides, including at the White House and on his campaign, had aligned with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter Ivanka in warning the President that his legal efforts amounted to a long shot that was exceedingly unlikely to change the outcome of the election.
But Trump was also hearing from his longtime lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump that the fight should continue and they could still win. They have argued the President owes it to his supporters -- including the thousands who marched in Washington this weekend -- to at least maintain the appearance that he is still in the fight. And they have floated ever-more-conspiratorial theories that could extend the fight.
The split came to a head during the Oval Office huddle, a session people briefed on the matter described as contentious even by Trump administration standards. At one point, Giuliani -- who was patched in on speaker phone -- called the Trump campaign lawyers liars for telling the President his odds of changing the outcome of the election were slim.
Justin Clark, the President's deputy campaign manager, fired back. "F***ing asshole," Clark labeled the former New York City mayor, whose involvement in Trump's post-election legal efforts has caused anger and exasperation among other advisers.
By the end of the week, Trump had made clear whose side he was taking. Giuliani is now spearheading "the legal effort to defend OUR RIGHT to FREE and FAIR ELECTIONS," Trump declared on Twitter. Throughout the weekend, the President issued tweet after tweet using lies to question the election results, and quickly reversed what had seemed like an inadvertent nod to Biden's victory.
"I concede NOTHING!" he blared on Sunday.
Trump's refusal to concede has had widespread consequences, from his successor's inability to access federal money to the spread of new conspiracy theories among his hard-core supporters.
But the extension of his reelection fight has also provided new cause for his campaign and the Republican National Committee to bombard supporters with requests for funds, and has laid bare the strength of Trump's grip on Republican lawmakers, most of whom continue refusing to acknowledge his loss.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was silent Monday walking onto the Senate floor when questioned by CNN if he agreed with Trump's false claim, made earlier on Twitter, that he "won the election."
While staffers inside the White House describe existing in a state of purgatory -- caught between a boss who refuses to admit defeat and the stark reality they'll be out of work in a matter of months -- Trump himself has only seen his post-presidency prospects become clearer, including the potential for launching a new media venture or the immediate announcement of a 2024 bid, both of which he's discussed in private over the past week.
Some Republicans view the President's attempts at contesting the election as a way for him to continue stoking his supporters and holding sway over a fiercely loyal and reliable bloc of voters, whether he decides to run for president again in four years or not. By maintaining the falsehood the election was stolen from him, Trump is able to continue wielding power over the party that a losing candidate -- or at least a candidate who admitted losing -- could not.
Crowds that gathered in Washington and other cities this weekend to protest the election results only seemed to lend fuel to the President's desire to keep fighting -- or at least to maintain the image that he wasn't defeated. After passing through the crowd in his motorcade on the way to his golf club in Virginia, Trump phoned his social media adviser Dan Scavino to marvel at the sight.
Dan Eberhart, an Arizona-based energy executive and a Republican donor, said he's been invited to the Trump campaign's daily surrogate calls, during which campaign officials seek to explain the recount and legal strategy and "keep hope alive." But he listens in only every other day or so.
Trump's reluctance to concede, Eberhart said, was becoming tiresome. "I'm kind of over it," he said. "I view the Trump world as a melting ice cube at the moment."
No sign of backing down
At the start of last week, White House officials and presidential allies believed the President was simply demonstrating his fighting spirit as he steadfastly refused to concede and ordered up legal challenges in several states. Many assumed -- perhaps naively -- that Trump would eventually allow a transition to occur, once a recount in Georgia concluded and other states certified their results.
Now people close to the President have expressed concern that he is buying into Giuliani's false claims that his legal efforts can change the election's outcome. He has shown no signs of backing down, even as those around him continue indicating that the end is near. Those allies have expressed worry that a sizable faction of the country thinks the election was stolen from Trump and that Biden isn't receiving national security briefings.
Giuliani did not respond to multiple attempts by CNN to reach him on Monday.
"If he had any character, I would say it's perfectly in character. It displeases him when reality doesn't conform to the image that he has of it," said John Bolton, the President's former national security adviser, on ABC. "I do not expect him to go graciously. I do expect him to go. But I think pretty soon we'll get the stab in the back theories. We'll get the dark conspiracy theories continued. And he will make life as difficult as he can for the incoming Biden administration."
Bolton departed the White House on bad terms with Trump. But even his successor on Monday seemed to acknowledge the likelihood that Trump would no longer be President come January 20.
"If there is a new administration, they deserve some time to come in and implement their policies," national security adviser Robert O'Brien said in a discussion at the Soufan Center's Global Security Forum that aired on Monday. "If the Biden-Harris ticket is determined to be the winner -- and obviously things look that way now -- we'll have a very professional transition from the National Security Council."
Trump has pinned his strategy around thin legal long shots in Michigan and Pennsylvania, but his campaign is already taking its last gasps in court in those cases, having failed repeatedly and seen its legal avenues shut off. In many of the places where Trump is contesting results, there aren't enough contestable votes to make a dent in the results as states near the deadlines for certification.
At least two small counties in Georgia finished their presidential recounts without finding any discrepancies. The audit process is expected to finish in the coming days, and Georgia's secretary of state says he plans to certify the official results by Friday, as required by state law.
A recount in Wisconsin, which the Trump campaign has said it will request, would cost them nearly $8 million, the state said on Monday, since the party requesting the recount must pay for it.
The Trump campaign is still mounting some appeals, but those are also unlikely to succeed, especially as the battleground states' deadlines to certify their election results approach in the coming weeks. The Electoral College is set to meet in mid-December, formalizing Biden's win.
A hearing is scheduled in a federal court in Pennsylvania on Tuesday about whether the Trump campaign's case there should be dismissed. That case initially was the boldest attempt by Trump to throw out or block the certification of votes in Pennsylvania, but Trump campaign lawyers cut back the case substantially over the weekend, after an appeals court shut down their ability to try to claim some election administration unfair under the Constitution. The case now focuses on the alleged unfairness of how counties in Pennsylvania handled absentee voting.
That has left Trump to try to push a baseless claim about election software produced by the firm Dominion, a conspiracy theory US government officials and Dominion have directly refuted but which Trump remains fixated upon, according to people familiar with the matter.
Several court cases from Trump allies that alleged voter fraud have also fallen apart, with four cases from voters in Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania dropped on Monday. The lawsuits had promised "expert reports" that might reveal fraud related to absentee ballots, but James Bopp Jr., a well-known conservative lawyer working on the suits on behalf of the voters, told CNN his team couldn't make the reports because they didn't have access to confidential lists of voters.
Nursing old grievances
Legal efforts aside, the President's refusal to concede stems in part from his perceived grievance that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama undermined his own presidency by saying Russia interfered in the 2016 election and could have impacted the outcome, people around him say.
Trump continues to hold a grudge against those he claims undercut his election by pointing to Russian interference efforts, and has suggested it is fair game to not recognize Biden as the President-elect, even though Clinton conceded on election night in 2016 and the Trump transition was able to begin immediately.
Trump is also continuing to process the emotional scars of losing to a candidate he repeatedly said during the campaign was an unworthy opponent whose win would amount to humiliation.
"The most important thing we need to keep in mind is that Donald is in a unique position for him," said Mary Trump, the President's niece who wrote a damning account of his family life. "He's never in his life been in a situation that he can't get out of either through using somebody else's money, using connections, using power. And not only is he in a unique position, he's in a position of being a loser, which in my family, certainly, as far as my grandfather was concerned, was the worst possible thing you could be."