President Donald Trump is turning to political pressure and theatrics in an attempt to manifest the election results he wants, having made almost no progress in the courts.
A Thursday press conference featuring Rudy Giuliani was filled with eye-popping — and untrue — voter-fraud claims sure to be clipped for cable news and late-night shows. A Wednesday courtroom appearance by Giuliani was heavy on partisan diatribes and cheering supporters, but light on legal arcana. And the president is calling and inviting to the White House state lawmakers involved in certifying the election.
It’s a strategy that is grabbing attention, generating headlines and convincing many Trump acolytes that Joe Biden is not president-elect. But behind the scenes, many of Trump’s own aides are shrugging, shaking their heads and chuckling at the media giving such prominence to the quixotic efforts of a showman.
“It turned into a circus with conspiracy theories,” said one person close to the campaign after watching Giuliani’s press conference, ostensibly held to give an update on the Trump campaign’s legal strategy. “Some of it was indefensible and hearsay, and dilutes any argument we were trying to make.”
A top Republican party official watching the news conference simply texted a shrug emoticon after witnessing it.
The result is a White House in limbo, according to interviews with over a dozen current and former administration officials, campaign aides and allies of the president. Those around Trump are caught between the president’s crusade to overturn election results — or perhaps to simply make a show of fighting to sow doubt in the results — and the need to address pressing public business like the coronavirus pandemic and final administration actions, not to mention find new employment.
Meanwhile, the president is being egged on by a handful of diehard loyalists and longtime aides like Giuliani, senior aide Stephen Miller and Trump social-media guru Dan Scavino, indicating no retreat is in sight.
Trump has now canceled three trips to his Mar-a-Lago resort after several aides and allies urged him he had to stay in Washington to show he was serious about contesting the election, according to three people familiar with the situation. The president had been expected to travel to Mar-a-Lago for most weekends after the Nov. 3 election, but has now canceled each time — once blaming the weather — and will stay in D.C. for Thanksgiving.
“I think he’s probably hunkering down to focus on this fight,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally.
“Just not the right time if you’re fighting,” added a former Trump aide who remains close to the campaign. “How serious of a fight is it if you’re partying at Mar-a-Lago?”
On Fox News, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany offered a different explanation, insisting the president is remaining in Washington to work on the coronavirus response and plans to draw down troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — both issues he has previously worked on from his resort.
“It’s amazing he doesn’t go down there,” said Laurence Leamer, author of “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace.” “It’s his spiritual home, and he’s created his own reality there where it’s nothing but people stroking him — something he needs right now.”
At the White House, Trump has been most attentive to his campaign’s legal fight, leaving his public schedule barren save for one briefing where he didn’t take questions. He’s filled the time with phone calls to friends and allies, in addition to occasional meetings in the Oval Office. One White House official said the president’s election-fight myopia is a mistake at a time when Covid cases are surging, arguing this is a moment to be holding events on public health.
Others around Trump were at one point urging him to resume his MAGA rallies that had become ubiquitous in the weeks before the election. But the campaign is currently spending millions on its lawsuits and recount efforts in various states, making a pricey MAGA rally less appealing.
So Trump has spent three weeks at the White House, bolstering his campaign’s legal campaign to overturn the election with a slew of tweets highlighting misleading evidence of voter fraud, promoting baseless theories about a “rigged” system and falsely claiming that he won the election.
In recent days, though, the Trump team’s strategy has migrated from letting Trump’s army of lawyers file suits and collect evidence throughout the country — a plan that had been in place since this summer — to simply letting Giuliani run the show, with Trump as his Washington hype man.
The change signaled a shift from an incremental approach — challenging a few votes here and there to get margins close enough for recounts — to a “the-whole-system-is-corrupt” approach. The campaign filed a new iteration of its most high-profile suit in Pennsylvania, restoring the broadest claims of voter fraud and eschewing a more targeted approach.
The revisions came after a second law firm pulled out from representing Trump, facing criticism that the lawsuits, more than two dozen of them, were largely meritless and failing to gain any traction.
And by Thursday, it was clear that Giuliani was fully in charge. At a press conference, he ticked through a variety of confusing and fact-free voter-fraud conspiracies, mentioning everyone from dead Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez to liberal billionaire George Soros.
“I guess we’re the senior lawyers,” Giuliani told a packed room of reporters at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington.
Giuliani’s elevation has left numerous Republicans around Trump exasperated, with many campaign aides and allies admitting privately that the fight is likely lost.
“They are put in an impossible situation with Rudy,” said a Republican close to the campaign. “He is running everything now.”
Giuliani’s invective has yet to win any court battles. On Thursday, for instance, the Trump campaign withdrew its last remaining federal lawsuit in Michigan after having no substantive success with similar pieces of litigation across other swing states.
Still, it has succeeded in the court of public opinion. According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, over half of Republicans said Trump “rightfully won” the U.S. election. So even as staffers privately begin to accept defeat, there is incentive for Trump to plow forward.
Trump’s outreach to state lawmakers is part of that push, according to a campaign official familiar with the situation. The official said some Trump aides and allies are encouraging Trump to invite state lawmakers from key swing states — who have a role in certifying their state results — to the White House.
There, Trump can lean on them to circumvent the official vote count and simply appoint electors who would award the state’s electoral votes to Trump. Typically, state legislatures, as a formality, simply sign off on the electors chosen by the winning party once the vote tally is complete. States must settle on their electors by Dec. 8, before the Electoral College meets to vote on Dec. 14.
On Friday, Trump will make his first foray in this venture, hosting the top-two leaders of Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature at the White House, according to a senior administration official. Both lawmakers have previously told local media outlets they are not looking at appointing Trump-friendly electors.
There are two other battleground states Biden won with Republican legislatures and Democratic governors Trump could turn to next — Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Several high-profile surrogates have mentioned the possibility of these legislatures getting involved, but Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman has already shot down the idea. The state’s attorney general, a Democrat, has also ruled it out.
A former Trump aide close to the campaign said if Pennsylvania with its 20 electoral votes won’t go along with the idea, then the president can’t succeed and he knows it. The former aide said Trump just wants the attention and to stay in the news cycle.
“He won’t relinquish the A block,” the person said.
The messy situation has left White House and campaign staffers in a bind, said a former Trump aide close to the campaign. They increasingly realize their work is essentially done but are unable to look for a new job for fear of being fired.
“They should be free to provide a livelihood for their families,” the former aide said. “People are ready for their next chapter.”
“It’s accepting of the inevitable — and a desire to move on,” added a Republican close to the campaign.
Gingrich, who supports Giuliani and Trump’s efforts to contest the election, acknowledged that staffers are caught in a tough spot.
“They are in limbo,” he said. “All of us are in limbo until this thing works itself out.”
Nancy Cook contributed to this report.