U.S. President Donald Trump is aware his fight to overturn the election is winding down, according to people familiar with the matter, but he isn’t ready to end the effort as he fundraises off the furor, directing much of the proceeds to his political action committee.
Still, Trump appears to be staking out a path that will end with him departing the White House without ever formally conceding to Democrat Joe Biden. He’s continuing to insist that the result was “rigged” as he plots his next steps.
The president has salted a string of hints into recent remarks that he’s coming to grips with the reality Biden will be the next president.
On Thursday, taking questions from reporters for the first time since Election Day, Trump actually uttered the words “Biden administration.”
But during a 25-minute news conference, he still indignantly insisted that he actually won the election while also signaling he’d accept his fate as the first one-term president since George H. W. Bush.
“Certainly I will, and you know that,” Trump said when asked if he would leave the White House upon Biden’s inauguration.
After a round of golf Friday and a fresh flurry of tweets stoking doubts about the election result, Trump headed to Camp David in Maryland for what could be his last visit as president to the wooded presidential retreat. All of his adult children and several close aides were already there, according to pictures posted on Instagram.
After an administration defined by Trump’s taste for showmanship, he’s kept an extraordinarily low profile since the election — golfing frequently, holding few public events, and until Thursday, avoiding his customary jousting with reporters.
Trump’s circle of campaign advisers has shrunk to his most die-hard loyalists, chiefly Rudy Giuliani, said people familiar with the matter. His campaign apparatus has begun shutting down, and his campaign manager hasn’t held a press call in three weeks.
In an interview with Newsmax Friday night, Giuliani vowed to take the battle to state lawmakers. “We’re going to each one of these state legislators and we’re saying: If you certify that vote, you’re certifying a false statement,” he said.
Trump realizes that he faces nearly impossible odds in reversing the results of the election, said Barry Bennett, a Republican strategist who worked on the president’s 2016 campaign.
“He’s a realist in that respect. That doesn’t make the pain any easier and it doesn’t make the suspicion any less,” Bennett said. Trump and his most ardent supporters will continue to doubt the legitimacy of the election, he said.
The campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, is now mostly vacant, populated by a skeleton crew of legal, financial and compliance staff in wind-down mode. Much of the rented furniture has been returned.
Clock running down
Trump acknowledged Thursday that he is running out of time to demonstrate and detail the widespread fraud he’s alleged, supposedly affecting millions of votes across several states, including at least two governed by Republicans.
There’s no public evidence election fraud on any significant scale, and Trump’s legal challenges have almost uniformly flopped. He was dealt a new blow on Friday in Pennsylvania by a three-judge panel, all Republicans, who rejected his bid to overturn certification of the state’s election results.
“Voters, not lawyers, choose the president. Ballots, not briefs, decide elections,” the court said in an opinion written by Judge Stephanos Bibas, whom Trump appointed.
Yet Trump still rejects the results. On Friday, while motorcading to his northern Virginia golf course, Trump demanded in a tweet that Biden “prove” the 80 million votes cast for him were legitimate. In fact, as each successive state’s election authorities certify their results, that proof is accumulating.
The Electoral College is to vote on Dec. 14. Certificates recording the electoral vote results in each state must be received by the president of the Senate no later than Dec. 23. Biden is already certified as the winner, or leading, in states totaling 306 electoral votes, well above the victory threshold of 270. Among the states scheduled to certify next week are the battlegrounds of Arizona and Wisconsin.
Giuliani is leading Trump’s legal efforts, flanked by Jenna Ellis, a staunch Trump supporter and Twitter provocateur.
The contracts of many campaign staff ended Nov. 15, as planned, people familiar with the matter said. A core group remains, including campaign manager Bill Stepien, deputy campaign manager Justin Clark, campaign adviser Jason Miller, communications director Tim Murtaugh, and general counsel Matt Morgan.
At a closed-door meeting earlier this month, Giuliani clashed with campaign brass, who he said were underselling Trump’s chances of success, two people familiar with the exchange said.
During the meeting, senior campaign officials shared what they believed to be the reality: Trump had at best a very narrow path to invalidate results in several states and flip the results of the election. Giuliani called them liars, according to the people. Clark retorted with an expletive.
One official said the campaign’s leaders are skeptical that Giuliani’s effort will succeed. The campaign declined to comment.
The campaign’s most recent news conference was Nov. 19, a chaotic affair at Republican National Committee headquarters with Ellis, attorney Sidney Powell, and Guiliani, who sweated rivulets of black hair dye. The Trump campaign’s leadership had no hand in planning that event, two people familiar with the matter said.
Giuliani and Ellis have since cut ties with Powell, who is fundraising for her own renegade legal effort. She filed typo-ridden lawsuits in Michigan and Georgia this week alleging massive election fraud.
The Trump campaign last held a press call on Nov. 12, with Morgan. Stepien last briefed reporters on Nov. 5. Clark and Morgan had been leading the legal effort after the election, but have ceded the role to Giuliani.
Among a series of legal setbacks endured by the campaign while attempting to discredit Biden’s win, the law firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP disavowed the effort on Nov. 12 and withdrew from a lawsuit. Trump named Giuliani his top legal emissary two days later.
Giuliani and Ellis attended an unofficial hearing on the election on Wednesday that Republican state lawmakers in Pennsylvania staged in Gettysburg, twice dialing up Trump on speakerphone. Addressing the gathering from the Oval Office, the president — who’d considered flying in for the event, held at a Wyndham hotel — endorsed their sprawling but unsubstantiated claims of fraud and called flatly for the state’s vote to be overturned.
Ellis has also appealed to state lawmakers to overrule voters and appoint a slate of Trump-friendly electors, something many experts in constitutional law say is illegal. She has pledged Trump will take his legal battle to the Supreme Court, which could happen within days.
Trump will return to the campaign trail this week. He will hold a rally in Georgia on Dec. 5 for Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, incumbent Republicans facing runoffs elections on Jan. 5. Democrats would need to win both races to take control of the Senate.
Trump has mused with aides about whether to attend Biden’s inauguration, people familiar with the matter said. The president said Thursday he had made a decision, but wouldn’t tell reporters. His staff will urge him to go, so he’s likely to end up doing so, two officials said.
Trump declined on Thursday to discuss whether he’ll run again in 2024.
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