WASHINGTON – The facts were indisputable: President Donald Trump had lost.
But Trump refused to see it that way. Sequestered in the White House and brooding out of public view after his election defeat, rageful and at times delirious in a torrent of private conversations, Trump was, in the telling of one close adviser, like “Mad King George, muttering, ‘I won. I won. I won.’ “
However cleareyed that Trump’s aides may have been about his loss to President-elect Joe Biden, many of them nonetheless indulged their boss and encouraged him to keep fighting with legal appeals. They were “happy to scratch his itch,” this adviser said. “If he thinks he won, it’s like, ‘Shh . . . we won’t tell him.’ “
Trump campaign pollster John McLaughlin, for instance, discussed with Trump a poll he had conducted after the election that showed Trump with a positive approval rating, a plurality of the country who thought the media had been “unfair and biased against him” and a majority of voters who believed their lives were better than four years earlier, according to two people familiar with the conversation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. As expected, Trump lapped it up.
The result was an election aftermath without precedent in U.S. history. With his denial of the outcome, despite a string of courtroom defeats, Trump endangered America’s democracy, threatened to undermine national security and public health, and duped millions of his supporters into believing, perhaps permanently, that Biden was elected illegitimately.
Trump’s allegations and the hostility of his rhetoric – and his singular power to persuade and galvanize his followers – generated extraordinary pressure on state and local election officials to embrace his fraud allegations and take steps to block certification of the results. When some of them refused, they accepted security details for protection from the threats they were receiving.
“It was like a rumor Whac-A-Mole,” said Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Despite being a Republican who voted for Trump, Raffensperger said he refused repeated attempts by Trump allies to get him to cross ethical lines. “I don’t think I had a choice. My job is to follow the law. We’re not going to get pushed off the needle on doing that. Integrity still matters.”
All the while, Trump largely abdicated the responsibilities of the job he was fighting so hard to keep, chief among them managing the coronavirus pandemic as the numbers of infections and deaths soared across the country. In an ironic twist, the Trump adviser tapped to coordinate the post-election legal and communications campaign, David Bossie, tested positive for the virus a few days into his assignment and was sidelined.
Only on Nov. 23 did Trump reluctantly agree to initiate a peaceful transfer of power by permitting the federal government to officially begin Biden’s transition – yet still he protested that he was the true victor.
The 20 days between the election on Nov. 3 and the greenlighting of Biden’s transition exemplified some of the hallmarks of life in Trump’s White House: a government paralyzed by the president’s fragile emotional state; advisers nourishing his fables; expletive-laden feuds between factions of aides and advisers; and a pernicious blurring of truth and fantasy.
Though Trump ultimately failed in his quest to steal the election, his weeks-long jeremiad succeeded in undermining faith in elections and the legitimacy of Biden’s victory.
This account of one of the final chapters in Trump’s presidency is based on interviews with 32 senior administration officials, campaign aides and other advisers to the president, as well as other key figures in his legal fight, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details about private discussions and to candidly assess the situation.
In the days after the election, as Trump scrambled for an escape hatch from reality, the president largely ignored his campaign staff and the professional lawyers who had guided him through the Russia investigation and the impeachment trial, as well as the army of attorneys who stood ready to file legitimate court challenges.
Instead, Trump empowered loyalists who were willing to tell him what he wanted to hear – that he would have won in a landslide had the election not been rigged and stolen – and then to sacrifice their reputations by waging a campaign in courtrooms and in the media to convince the public of this delusion.
The effort culminated on Nov. 19, when lawyers Rudolph W. Giuliani, Jenna Ellis and Sidney Powell spoke on the president’s behalf at the headquarters of the Republican National Committee to allege a far-reaching and coordinated plot to steal the election for Biden. They argued that Democratic leaders rigged the vote in a number of majority-Black cities, and that voting machines were tampered with by communist forces in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader who died seven years ago.
There was no evidence to support any of these claims.
The Venezuelan tale was too fantastical even for Trump, a man predisposed to conspiracy theories who for years has feverishly spread fiction. Advisers described the president as unsure about the latest gambit – made worse by the fact that what looked like black hair dye mixed with sweat had formed a trail dripping down both sides of Giuliani’s face during the news conference. Trump thought the presentation made him “look like a joke,” according to one campaign official who discussed it with him.
“I, like everyone else, have yet to see any evidence of it, but it’s a thriller – you’ve got Chávez, seven years after his death, orchestrating this international conspiracy that politicians in both parties are funding,” a Republican official said facetiously. “It’s an insane story.”
Aides said the president was especially disappointed in Powell when Tucker Carlson, host of Fox News’s most-watched program, assailed her credibility on the air after she declined to provide any evidence to support her fraud claims.
Trump pushed Powell out. And, after days of prodding by advisers, he agreed to permit the General Services Administration to formally initiate the Biden transition – a procedural step that amounted to a surrender. Aides said this was the closest Trump would probably come to conceding the election.
Yet even that incomplete surrender was short-lived. Trump went on to falsely claim that he “won,” that the election was “a total scam” and that his legal challenges would continue “full speed ahead.” He spent part of Thanksgiving calling advisers to ask if they believed he really had lost the election, according to a person familiar with the calls. “Do you think it was stolen?” the person said Trump asked on the holiday.
But, his advisers acknowledged, that was largely noise from a president still coming to terms with losing. As November was coming to a close, Biden rolled out his Cabinet picks, states certified his wins, electors planned to make it official when the electoral college meets Dec. 14 and federal judges spoke out.
A simple and clear refutation of the president came Friday from a Trump appointee, when Judge Stephanos Bibas of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit wrote a unanimous opinion rejecting the president’s request for an emergency injunction to overturn the certification of Pennsylvania’s election results.
“Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy,” Bibas wrote. “Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
For Trump, it was over.
“Not only did our institutions hold, but the most determined effort by a president to overturn the people’s verdict in American history really didn’t get anywhere,” said William Galston, chair of the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution. “It’s not that it fell short. It didn’t get anywhere. This, to me, is remarkable.”
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Trump’s devolution into disbelief of the results began on election night in the White House, where he joined campaign manager Bill Stepien, senior advisers Jared Kushner and Jason Miller, and other top aides in a makeshift war room to monitor returns.
In the run-up to the election, Trump was aware of the fact – or likelihood, according to polls – that he could lose. He commented a number of times to aides, “Oh, wouldn’t it be embarrassing to lose to this guy?”
But in the final stretch of the campaign, nearly everyone – including the president – believed he was going to win. And early on election night, Trump and his team thought they were witnessing a repeat of 2016, when he defied polls and expectations to build an insurmountable lead in the electoral college.
Then Fox News called Arizona for Biden.
“He was yelling at everyone,” a senior administration official recalled of Trump’s reaction. “He was like, ‘What the hell? We were supposed to be winning Arizona. What’s going on?’ He told Jared to call [News Corp. Executive Chairman Rupert] Murdoch.”
Efforts by Kushner and others on the Trump team to convince Fox to take back its Arizona call failed.
Trump and his advisers were furious, in part because calling Arizona for Biden undermined Trump’s scattershot plan to declare victory on election night if it looked like he had sizable leads in enough states.
With Biden now just one state away from clinching a majority 270 votes in the electoral college and the media narrative turned sharply against him, Trump decided to claim fraud. And his team set out to try to prove it.
Throughout the summer and fall, Trump had laid the groundwork for claiming a “rigged” election, as he often termed it, warning of widespread fraud. Former chief of staff John Kelly told others that Trump was “getting his excuse ready for when he loses the election,” according to a person who heard his comments.
In June, during an Oval Office meeting with political advisers and outside consultants, Trump raised the prospect of suing state governments for how they administer elections and said he could not believe they were allowed to change the rules. All the states, he said, should follow the same rules. Advisers told him that he did not want the federal government in charge of elections.
Trump also was given several presentations by his campaign advisers about the likely surge in mail-in ballots – in part because many Americans felt safer during the pandemic voting by mail than in person – and was told they would overwhelmingly go against him, according to a former campaign official.
Advisers and allies, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., encouraged Trump to try to close the gap in mail-in voting, arguing that he would need some of his voters, primarily seniors, to vote early by mail. But Trump instead exhorted his supporters not to vote by mail, claiming they could not trust that their ballots would be counted.
“It was sort of insane,” the former campaign official said.
Ultimately, it was the late count of mail-in ballots that erased Trump’s early leads in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other battleground states and propelled Biden to victory. As Trump watched his margins shrink and then reverse, he became enraged, and he saw a conspiracy theory at play.
“You really have to understand Trump’s psychology,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a longtime Trump associate and former White House communications director who is now estranged from the president. “The classic symptoms of an outsider is, there has to be a conspiracy. It’s not my shortcomings, but there’s a cabal against me. That’s why he’s prone to these conspiracy theories.”
This fall, deputy campaign manager Justin Clark, Republican National Committee counsel Justin Riemer and others laid plans for post-election litigation, lining up law firms across the country for possible recounts and ballot challenges, people familiar with the work said. This was the kind of preparatory work presidential campaigns typically do before elections. Giuliani, Ellis and Powell were not involved.
This team had some wins in court against Democrats in a flurry of lawsuits in the months leading up to the election, on issues ranging from absentee ballot deadlines to signature-matching rules.
But Trump’s success rate in court would change considerably after Nov. 3. The arguments that began pouring in from Giuliani and others on Trump’s post-election legal team left federal judges befuddled. In one Pennsylvania case, some lawyers left the Trump team before Giuliani argued the case to a judge. Giuliani had met with the lawyers and wanted to make arguments they were uncomfortable making, campaign advisers said.
For example, the Trump campaign argued in federal court in Philadelphia two days after the election to stop the count because Republican observers had been barred. Under sharp questioning from Judge Paul Diamond, however, campaign lawyers conceded that Trump in fact had “a nonzero number of people in the room,” leaving Diamond audibly exasperated.
“I’m sorry, then what’s your problem?” Diamond asked.
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In the days following the election, few states drew Trump’s attention like Georgia, a once-reliable bastion of Republican votes that he carried in 2016 but appeared likely to lose narrowly to Biden as late-remaining votes were tallied.
And few people attracted Trump’s anger like Gov. Brian Kemp, the state’s Republican governor who rode the president’s coattails to his own narrow victory in 2018.
A number of Trump allies tried to pressure Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, into putting his thumb on the scale. Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler – both forced into runoff elections on Jan. 5 – demanded Raffensperger’s resignation. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a Trump friend who chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee, called Raffensperger to seemingly encourage him to find a way to toss legal ballots.
But Kemp, who preceded Raffensperger as secretary of state, would not do Trump’s bidding. “He wouldn’t be governor if it wasn’t for me,” Trump fumed to advisers earlier this month as he plotted out a call to scream at Kemp.
In the call, Trump urged Kemp to do more to fight for him in Georgia, publicly echo his claims of fraud and appear more regularly on television. Kemp was noncommittal, a person familiar with the call said.
Raffensperger said he knew Georgia was going to be thrust into the national spotlight on Election Day, when dramatically fewer people turned out to vote in person than the Trump campaign needed for a clear win following a surge of mail voting dominated by Democratic voters.
But he said it had never occurred to him to go along with Trump’s unproven allegations because of his duty to administer elections. Raffensperger said his strategy was to keep his head down and follow the law.
“People made wild accusations about the voting systems that we have in Georgia,” Raffensperger said. “They were asking, ‘How do we get to 270? How do you get it to Congress so they can make a determination?’ ” But, he added, “I’m not supposed to put my thumb on the Republican side.”
Trump fixated on a false conspiracy theory that the machines manufactured by Dominion Voting Systems and used in Georgia and other states had been programmed to count Trump votes as Biden votes. In myriad private conversations, the president would find a way to come back to Dominion. He was obsessed.
“Do you think there’s really something here? I’m hearing . . . ” Trump would say, according to one senior official who discussed it with him.
Raffensperger said Republicans were only harming themselves by questioning the integrity of the Dominion machines. He warned that these kinds of baseless allegations could discourage Republicans from voting in the Senate runoffs. “People need to get a grip on reality,” he said.
More troubling to Raffensperger were the many threats he and his wife, Tricia, have received over the past few weeks – and a break-in at another family member’s home. All of it has prompted him to accept a state security detail.
“If Republicans don’t start condemning this stuff, then I think they’re really complicit in it,” he said. “It’s time to stand up and be counted. Are you going to stand for righteousness? Are you going to stand for integrity? Or are you going to stand for the wild mob? You wanted to condemn the wild mob when it’s on the left side. What are you going to do when it’s on our side?”
On Nov. 20, after Raffensperger certified the state’s results, Kemp announced that he would make a televised statement, stoking fears that the president might have finally gotten to the governor.
“This can’t be good,” Jordan Fuchs, a Raffensperger deputy, wrote in a text message.
But Kemp held firm and formalized the certification.
“As governor, I have a solemn responsibility to follow the law, and that is what I will continue to do,” Kemp said. “We must all work together to ensure citizens have confidence in future elections in our state.”
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On Nov. 7, four days after the election, every major news organization projected that Biden would win the presidency. At the same time, Giuliani stood before news cameras in the parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia, near an adult-video shop and a crematorium, to detail alleged examples of voter fraud.
The contrast that day between Giuliani’s humble, eccentric surroundings and Biden’s and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s victory speeches on a grand, blue-lit stage in Wilmington, Del., underscored the virtual impossibility of Trump’s quest to overturn the results.
Also that day, Stepien, Clark, Miller and Bossie briefed Trump on a potential legal strategy for the president’s approval. They explained that prevailing would be difficult and involve complicated plays in every state that could stretch into December. They estimated a “5 to 10 percent chance of winning,” one person involved in the meeting said.
Trump signaled that he understood and agreed to the strategy.
Around this time, some lawyers around Trump began to suddenly disappear from the effort in what some aides characterized as an attempt to protect their reputations. Former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, who had appeared at a news conference with Giuliani right after the election, ceased her involvement after the first week.
“Literally only the fringy of the fringe are willing to do pressers, and that’s when it became clear there was no ‘there’ there,” a senior administration official said.
A turning point for the Trump campaign’s legal efforts came on Nov. 13, when its core team of professional lawyers saw the writing on the wall. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit in Philadelphia delivered a stinging defeat to Trump allies in a lawsuit trying to invalidate all Pennsylvania ballots received after Election Day.
The decision didn’t just reject the claim; it denied the plaintiffs standing in any federal challenge under the Constitution’s electors clause – an outcome that Trump’s legal team recognized as a potentially fatal blow to many of the campaign’s challenges in the state.
This is when a gulf emerged between the outlooks of most lawyers on the team and of Giuliani, whom many of the other lawyers thought seemed “deranged” and ill-prepared to litigate, according to a person familiar with the campaign’s legal team. Some of the Trump campaign and Republican party lawyers sought to even avoid meetings with Giuliani and his team. When asked for evidence internally for their most explosive claims, Giuliani and Powell could not provide it, the other advisers said.
Giuliani and his protegee, Ellis, both striving to please the president, insisted that Trump’s fight was not over. Someone familiar with their strategy said they were “performing for an audience of one,” and that Trump held Giuliani in high regard as “a fighter” and as “his peer.”
Tensions within Trump’s team came to a head that weekend, when Giuliani and Ellis staged what the senior administration official called “a hostile takeover” of what remained of the Trump campaign.
On the afternoon of Nov. 13, a Friday, Trump called Giuliani from the Oval Office while other advisers were present, including Vice President Mike Pence; White House counsel Pat Cipollone; Johnny McEntee, the director of presidential personnel; and Clark.
Giuliani, who was on speakerphone, told the president that he could win and that his other advisers were lying to him about his chances. Clark called Giuliani an expletive and said he was feeding the president bad information. The meeting ended without a clear path, according to people familiar with the discussion.
The next day, a Saturday, Trump tweeted out that Giuliani, Ellis, Powell and others were now in charge of his legal strategy. Ellis startled aides by entering the campaign’s Arlington, Va., headquarters and instructing staffers that they must now listen to her and Giuliani.
“They came in one day and were like, ‘We have the president’s direct order. Don’t take an order if it doesn’t come from us,’ ” a senior administration official recalled.
Clark and Miller pushed back, the official said. Ellis threatened to call Trump, to which Miller replied, “Sure, let’s do this,” said a campaign adviser.
It was a fiery altercation, not unlike the many that had played out over the past four years in the corridors of the West Wing. The outcome was that Giuliani and Ellis, as well as Powell – the “elite strike force,” as they dubbed themselves – became the faces of the president’s increasingly unrealistic attempts to subvert democracy.
The strategy, according to a second senior administration official, was, “Anyone who is willing to go out and say, ‘They stole it,’ roll them out. Rudy Giuliani, Jenna Ellis, Sidney Powell. Send [former acting director of national intelligence] Ric Grenell out West. Send [American Conservative Union Chairman] Matt Schlapp somewhere. Just roll everybody up who is willing to do it into a clown car, and when it’s time for a press conference, roll them out.”
Trump and his allies made a series of brazen legal challenges, including in Nevada, where conservative activist Sharron Angle asked a court to block certification of the results in Clark County, by far the state’s most populous county, and order a wholesale do-over of the election.
Clark County Judge Gloria Sturman was incredulous.
“How do you get to that’s sufficient to throw out an entire election?” she said. She noted the practical implications of failing to certify the election, including that every official elected on Nov. 3 would be unable to take office in the new year, including herself.
Sturman denied the request. Not only was there no evidence to support the claims of widespread voter fraud, she said, but “as a matter of public policy, this is just a bad idea.”
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As Trump’s legal challenges failed in court, he employed another tactic to try to reverse the result: a public pressure campaign on state and local Republican officials to manipulate the electoral system on his behalf.
“As was the case throughout his business career, he viewed the rules as instruments to be manipulated to achieve his chosen ends,” said Galston of the Brookings Institution.
Trump’s highest-profile play came in Michigan, where Biden was the projected winner and led by more than 150,000 votes. On Nov. 17, Trump called a Republican member of the board of canvassers in Wayne County, which is where Detroit is located and is the state’s most populous county. After speaking with the president, the board member, Monica Palmer, attempted to rescind her vote to certify Biden’s win in Wayne.
Then Trump invited the leaders of Michigan’s Republican-controlled state Senate and House to meet him at the White House, apparently hoping to coax them to block certification of the results or perhaps even to ignore Biden’s popular-vote win and seat Trump electors if the state’s canvassing board deadlocked. Such a move was on shaky legal ground, but that didn’t stop the president from trying.
Republican and Democratic leaders, including current and former governors and members of Congress, immediately launched a full-court press to urge the legislative leaders to resist Trump’s entreaties. The nonpartisan Voter Protection Program was so worried that it commissioned a poll to find out how Michiganders felt about his intervention. The survey found that a bipartisan majority did not like Trump intervening and believed that Biden won the state.
House Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said they accepted the invitation as a courtesy and issued a joint statement immediately after the meeting: “We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan.”
A person familiar with their thinking said they felt they could not decline the president’s invitation – plus they saw an opportunity to deliver to Trump “a flavor of the truth and what he wasn’t hearing in his own echo chamber,” as well as to make a pitch for coronavirus relief for their state.
There was never a moment when the lawmakers contemplated stepping in on Trump’s behalf, because Michigan law does not allow it, this person said. Before the trip, lawyers for the lawmakers told their colleagues in the legislature that there was nothing feasible in what Trump was trying to do, and that it was “absolute crazy talk” for the Michigan officials to contemplate defying the will of the voters, this person added.
Trump was scattered in the meeting, interrupting to talk about the coronavirus when the lawmakers were talking about the election, and then talking about the election when they were talking about the coronavirus, this person said. The lawmakers left with the impression that the president understood little about Michigan law, but also that his blinders had fallen off about his prospects for reversing the outcome, this person added.
No representatives from Trump’s campaign attended the meeting, and advisers talked Trump out of scheduling a similar one with Pennsylvania officials.
The weekend of Nov. 21 and on Monday, Nov. 23, Trump faced mounting pressure from Republican senators and former national security officials – as well as from some of his most trusted advisers – to end his stalemate with Biden and authorize the General Services Administration to initiate the transition. The bureaucratic step would allow Biden and his administration-in-waiting to tap public funds to run their transition, receive security briefings and gain access to federal agencies to prepare for the Jan. 20 takeover.
Trump was reluctant, believing that by authorizing the transition, he would in effect be conceding the election. Over multiple days, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Cipollone and Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s personal attorneys, explained to Trump that the transition had nothing to do with conceding, and that legitimate challenges could continue, according to someone familiar with the conversations.
Late on Nov. 23, Trump announced that he had allowed the transition to move forward because it was “in the best interest of our Country,” but he kept up his fight over the election results.
The next day, after a conversation with Giuliani, Trump decided to visit Gettysburg, Pa., on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving, for a news conference at a Wyndham Hotel to highlight alleged voter fraud. The plan caught many close to the president by surprise, including RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, three officials said. Some tried to talk Trump out of the trip, but he thought it was a good idea to appear with Giuliani.
A few hours before he was scheduled to depart, the trip was scuttled. “Bullet dodged,” said one campaign adviser. “It would have been a total humiliation.”
That afternoon, Trump called in to the meeting of GOP state senators at the Wyndham, where Giuliani and Ellis were addressing attendees. He spoke via a scratchy connection to Ellis’s cellphone, which she played on speaker. At one point, the line beeped to signal another caller.
“If you were a Republican poll watcher, you were treated like a dog,” Trump complained, using one of his favorite put-downs, even though many people treat dogs well, like members of their own families.
“This election was lost by the Democrats,” he said, falsely. “They cheated.”
Trump demanded that state officials overturn the results – but the count had already been certified. Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes will be awarded to Biden.
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The Washington Post’s Emma Brown, Beth Reinhard and Michael Scherer in Washington and Tom Hamburger in Detroit contributed to this report.