WASHINGTON — Shortly before the 2020 election was called for President Donald Trump’s rival, the president’s campaign manager told staff to “stay at the ready” and prepare for protests in battleground states “at a moment’s notice.”
But privately, people close to Trump acknowledged it was over, with one adviser telling McClatchy that only a “handful” of aides still believed that there was a way for Trump to win.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, who just tested positive for the coronavirus, was said to be walking a tightrope.
“Meadows knows it’s over but is pretending in front of Trump that he still has a shot,” the adviser said.
Meadows did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s inner circle has tightened in recent days, as factions emerged among his senior advisers inside and outside the White House on how to move forward. One group was said to be urging the president to hold off on conceding, while the other was telling him the nation cannot endure a protracted struggle.
Another Trump adviser told McClatchy that the president was unlikely to concede unless his children told him to do so.
The camp that was said to favor conceding graciously was being increasingly kept at arm’s length, with Trump primarily listening to the group, that included his children, telling him to continue the fight, according to people familiar with the conversations.
“It is close enough that both camps can make a plausible argument,” the Trump adviser said. “His nature is to fight.”
The loudest of the president’s children has been his eldest son Donald Trump Jr., who defended his father’s unfounded allegations of mass fraud in the election and has told people he believes his father should pursue legal options. The president’s eldest daughter Ivanka Trump said that every legal ballot should be counted.
Her husband, Jared Kushner, who is a senior adviser to the president, was among those in Trump’s inner circle encouraging the president not to concede until he had exhausted legal options.
“They’re going to see whatever legal avenues exist, and if not, then that will be that,” a person familiar with that group’s position said.
Bill Stepien, Trump’s campaign manager, told campaign staff that the fight was not over and there were actions that could help.
“There are a lot of ways to help,” Stepien said in a call to staff on Saturday morning. “We’re staying in the fight.”
Stepien said that staff could be called on to “support rallies that we are propping up in states around the country.”
“Just be at the ready. At a moment’s notice we may need your help, your support on the ground, waving the flag and yelling the president’s name in support,” Stepien said.
Trump was at his Virginia golf course when the race was called for his Democratic rival, Joe Biden. He sent a statement through his campaign that the election was not over.
“We are engaged on challenges to make sure, again, that the vote was counted right and that your rights are protected to make sure that we all have confidence in the outcome of this election,” deputy campaign manager Justin Clark told campaign staff in the Saturday call.
But one campaign adviser said that all but a few of the president’s top allies understood that Biden would be the next president and that realization had begun to sink in on Thursday.
“I think he’s unlikely to ever publicly say I lost,” the adviser said of Trump, adding that even if he did concede, he would always say Democrats “stole it from him.”
Trump’s campaign filed roughly a dozen lawsuits in five closely contested states that broke toward Biden as early and absentee votes were counted, primarily in Pennsylvania, which was called for the Democratic candidate on Saturday and secured his election.
But several of those lawsuits have already been tossed out, and the ones that remain have little chance of affecting the outcome of a race in which Biden increased his margin of victory by the day.
If Trump were to win every lawsuit he has filed since the election, it would not be enough to reverse Biden’s lead in the states that have put him over the top in the Electoral College, according to a McClatchy analysis of the lawsuits.
In Pennsylvania, the Trump campaign is asking for mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day to be dismissed. But only 3,000 to 4,000 of those ballots were received by the state. Biden’s margin of victory, so far, is roughly ten times that number.
In Georgia, where Biden’s margin remains small, a lawsuit over the handling of a mere 53 ballots was dismissed by a local judge. In Michigan, a case that claimed Republican observers were obstructed from overseeing ballot counting was dismissed.
The Trump campaign has said that a ballot counting software in Michigan and Georgia was suspect, and may have included a “glitch” that changed thousands of votes. But they offered no evidence, and no legal action has been taken yet that reflects their public complaints.
Biden, meanwhile, announced that he would address the nation as its president-elect in the evening from the Chase Center in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. “With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation,” he told his supporters in an email.
“Donald Trump does not get to decide the winner of elections,” Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Biden, told reporters in Wilmington. “The people decide, voters in the country decide, as we have long said, and voters have made their choice very clear.”
(McClatchy data reporter Ben Wieder contributed reporting.)
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