WASHINGTON – For 40 hours, President Donald Trump fumed in private and tweeted his grievances in all caps.
When he at last emerged, it was to stand behind the presidential seal in the White House and deliver a diatribe most notable for his litany of false statements about the election and his attempt to cast doubt on the integrity of the democratic process.
As votes continued to be counted and Democrat Joe Biden edged closer to victory, Trump lashed out Thursday evening in a performance that suggested he knew his prospects for a second term were slipping away.
“If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us," Trump claimed. In fact, there is no evidence that any votes cast illegally are being counted or that the process is unfair and corrupt.
The ballot-counting process across the country largely has been running smoothly with no evidence of widespread fraud or problems.
Trump delivered his statement before reporters in the White House briefing room and left without taking questions. It came after Trump and his allies spent a second day watching and waiting with the rest of the nation as vote totals pushed further in Biden’s direction in some key battlegrounds.
With just a handful of states yet to be decided, Biden had a clear advantage over Trump, but the president still retained a narrow path to the 270 electoral votes needed to win reelection. The Associated Press has not declared a winner, and it could take several more days for the vote count to conclude and a clear winner to emerge.
As expected, many of the votes being counted last are mail-in ballots, which take longer to process and overwhelmingly favor Democrats. Trump's voters were far more likely to vote in-person after the president spent months casting aspersions on mail-in voting.
Before Thursday evening, Trump had not been seen in public since his unfounded declaration of victory in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.
Since then, the mood in the White House has shifted dramatically. Some aides in the West Wing have wearily eyed returns, losing confidence that outstanding states would break Trump’s way.
Trump spent the last two days monitoring the results and calling allies, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey. White House spokesperson Judd Deere said the president was “working” but declined to elaborate.
Trump's preoccupation with the election results was evident from his tweets throughout the day.
“STOP THE COUNT!” he proclaimed. But the president has no authority over vote counting, and halting the count at that moment would have resulted in a swift victory for Biden.
“ANY VOTE THAT CAME IN AFTER ELECTION DAY WILL NOT BE COUNTED!” he later wrote. That seemed to advocate tossing out untold legally cast votes, including those from service members stationed overseas. Many states accept mail-in ballots after Election Day as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.
Trump's all-caps declarations had the tone of a last stand from a man who abhors losing. They mirrored a last-ditch legal effort waged by his campaign in several key undecided battlegrounds that was largely dismissed by experts as superficial and unlikely to shift the outcome in any meaningful way.
Still, Trump's team outwardly expressed optimism.
"Donald Trump is alive and well,” Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a call with reporters Thursday morning. He predicted Trump would win Pennsylvania and other states that were too early to call.
Behind the scenes, however, the mood was more somber, with White House and campaign staff glued to television screens and watching results trickle in. Some in the West Wing were all but resigned to the idea of a Trump loss and have been discussing future employment prospects even as others continue to make unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud.
Many White House and senior Republican officials were in the dark about what Trump planned to say in his evening speech. And privately, some expressed consternation that Trump was publicly undermining faith in the democratic process.
Biden himself responded: “No one is going to take our democracy away from us. Not now, not ever."
After delivering his statement, the president stopped for a few minutes in the White House press office behind the briefing room and appeared to be watching his coverage live on television.
Trump had no other public events Thursday. And he made no reference to the surging coronavirus pandemic as confirmed new positive cases climbed to an all-time high.
Biden received a private briefing on the virus Thursday afternoon before emerging to tell the American public to be patient in awaiting the election results.
Trump's campaign was dispatching loyalists like former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former director of national intelligence Ric Grenell to hold press conferences in states where they are mounting legal challenges.
The campaign also bombarded supporters with fundraising messages warning of unsubstantiated Democratic efforts to “steal” the outcome. The effort had raised well over $10 million, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to discuss it publicly. At least some of the money was earmarked for paying down general election debt.
Allies of the president, including his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., used Twitter to call out what the younger Trump labeled, “The total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls.’"
“They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead,” he wrote.
Trump Jr., who has also been discussed as a potential future candidate, made clear the family has no interest in calmly waiting for votes to be counted.
“The best thing for America’s future is for @realDonaldTrump to go to total war over this election to expose all of the fraud, cheating, dead/no longer in state voters, that has been going on for far too long,” he wrote. “It’s time to clean up this mess & stop looking like a banana republic!”