President Donald Trump has spent the hours since Joe Biden was declared his successor in an increasingly lonely environment: Resisting family members’ calls to concede, fending off criticism from every corner of Washington and watching surrogates who once marveled at his stubborn defiance go dark on the airwaves.
For the second time this weekend, the president left the White House in the morning for an outing at his Virginia golf club — a “safe space,” as one administration official described it — for him to weigh his next steps. In recent days, the defeated incumbent has been confronted with a torrent of conflicting advice over how he should spend the remaining months of his presidency. Some in his inner circle have encouraged him to battle the election results until the bitter end, while others privately insist he should simply concede to protect his legacy.
Within Trump’s own family, there appear to be divisions. Trump’s wife, Melania, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, have been urging the president to think seriously about an exit strategy, according to two people briefed on their discussions. But Trump’s sons Donald Jr. and Eric have continued pugnaciously tweeting away.
At Trump’s campaign, many aides are coming to grips with the reality of a loss. But at campaign headquarters on Sunday, staffers were met with walls covered in print-outs of Trump tweets and a doctored newspaper front page encouraging them to fight on — an idea that came from the highest ranks of the Trump campaign, according to a person familiar with the episode.
Others, like Vice President Mike Pence, have simply gone dark, raising eyebrows among Trump allies.
It’s the same fractious Trump universe that has existed for over four years, in which a consistent message often falls victim to warring factions orbiting Trump. It’s the way numerous decisions have been made during Trump’s presidency: competing power centers push their own agenda publicly and privately, and eventually Trump settles on his preferred approach.
The divides were clearer than ever Sunday morning. As the Trump campaign blasted out a trio of text messages imploring the president’s supporters to financially assist his efforts to “fight back,” and Trump retweeted unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud on Twitter, some of his top allies began publicly congratulating Biden as the incoming commander in chief. Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose effusive praise for the president has often separated him from other world leaders, said in a tweet on Sunday he was “look[ing] forward to working with” Biden “to further strengthen the special alliance between the U.S. and Israel.”
Hours after Netanyahu’s tweet, the president reiterated his grievances on Twitter, accusing the media of predetermining the election outcome.
“Since when does the Lamestream Media call who our next president will be? We have all learned a lot in the last two weeks!” he wrote at 2 p.m. from his golf club, where a contingent of MAGA demonstrators had sprouted up with flags and homemade signs endorsing the president’s baseless claims of a “rigged” election.
“Election fraud kills American democracy,” read one sign outside the Sterling, Va., country club.
“We want Trump!” chanted other supporters.
But in television appearances over the weekend, some prominent White House allies seemed less convinced of the president’s theories on election fraud and skeptical that his campaign’s legal push to challenge the outcome would yield the desired results.
“Friendship doesn’t mean that you’re blind,” said former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a longtime friend of the president who said the window is closing for Trump to provide evidence of widespread voter fraud to justify his refusal to concede.
“It was so important early on to say to the president, ‘If your basis for not conceding is that there was voter fraud, then show us,’” Christie told ABC’s “This Week.” “Because if you can’t show us, we can’t do this. We can’t back you blindly without evidence.”
On Fox News, guests who have long endorsed Trump’s tactics and defended his administration expressed doubt about the protracted legal battle he has vowed to pursue. Thus far, Trump campaign lawsuits in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Georgia have had little impact, with election lawyers saying the suits have minimal merit and a vanishing chance of succeeding.
Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor who served as a Republican witness during Trump’s impeachment, said on Fox News that the president’s team was “hunting elephants with derringers” as they search for instances of mass voter fraud or misconduct at ballot-counting locations.
“We need something a little more high-caliber if you’re going to take down an election result or determination. So we’re waiting for that evidence to come forward,” Turley said.
Former George W. Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen, a consistent pro-Trump voice on the conservative news channel, recognized Biden as president-elect and said he hoped the incoming Democratic leader could “bring people together.” Some Trump aides who spent the weeks leading up to Election Day breathlessly defending their boss avoided TV appearances altogether, citing concerns about Hatch Act restrictions that preclude government officials from participating in certain partisan activities — a barrier that hadn’t seemed to matter before Nov. 3.
The sudden absence of one top Trump ally was particularly confounding to aides inside the president’s campaign who’ve subscribed to his claims of a “stolen” election.
“Where the hell is Mike Pence?” a senior Trump campaign official wrote in a text message Sunday afternoon, noting the vice president has been missing-in-action save for a single tweet on Nov. 5 calling for “every legal vote” to be counted.
But as Pence maintained a low profile — spending time with Trump at White House but avoiding public appearances — and other allies of the president accepted defeat, Trump found support in other corners.
When staffers arrived at his campaign headquarters Sunday morning, for instance, they were confronted by dozens of printed-out Trump tweets and a faux newspaper front page encouraging them to disregard the outcome and continue fighting on the president’s behalf. “PRESIDENT GORE” read the front-page headline of a Washington Times edition from 2000 that was xeroxed and hung all over the Virginia office space.
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh deleted a tweet flaunting the newspaper display after the Times noted the image — which came from a newspaper headline about President George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 — had been doctored.
Meanwhile, some Trump allies appearing on the Sunday show circuit echoed the president’s refusal to accept the election results. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich claimed Biden will “have to do a lot to convince Republicans that this is anything except a left-wing power grab financed by people like George Soros.”
“Frankly, I think this is a corrupt stolen election,” Gingrich said during a segment on Fox News.
Other Republicans cast the decision by several networks to call the race for Biden on Saturday morning as premature. Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said Americans will know who won “when all lawful votes have been counted, recounts finished and allegations of fraud addressed,” while House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) asserted “the election is not final” until the president’s lawsuits have been resolved.
As of Sunday, however, Trump’s legal team was still struggling to mount a legal offensive backed by tangible evidence of voter fraud. And some of those closest to Trump, including Melania Trump and Kushner, have been suggesting he look for an eventual off ramp.
While they publicly support the president’s decision to pursue legal recourse, they have nudged him away from condemning the transition of power that must occur before Biden’s January inauguration and have mused about ways in which Trump could concede without explicitly acknowledging he lost.
Still, the president seemed far from ready to concede in any fashion Sunday afternoon. Upon returning to the White House following his round of golf, Trump tweeted a story from the far-right outlet Breitbart News about a team of investigators who were dispatched to a Georgia county over the weekend after officials discovered an alleged issue with the reporting of ballots.
The story concluded that the issue had been resolved.
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