When the White House essentially relocated to Air Force One over the final weeks of the campaign, President Donald Trump had a common reaction whenever he saw his rival Joe Biden appear on one of the airplane’s many televisions.
“Imagine losing to him?” he would ask no one in particular as he hurtled toward another regional airport in another battleground state, according to sources onboard.
When his large-screen television flashed poll numbers showing an unmoving deficit to Biden, Trump sometimes brought his fist down on his wooden desk, jolting the glass of Diet Coke that always seemed to be nearby.
“Can you imagine?” he would holler, sometimes adding a curse.
Trump no longer has to imagine. Around midday Saturday, CNN and other news outlets projected Biden had secured enough electoral votes to become the 46th president, depriving Trump of a second term.
Trump was at his golf course in Virginia, zipped into a dark sweater despite the unseasonable warmth, when the call was made. Posing with a bride whose wedding was underway in the clubhouse, Trump appeared placid, according to footage capturing the moment.
“Have a great life, right?” he said, walking away as the party cheered. “You’re young, you’re beautiful.”
The story of Trump’s loss is both familiar in its pattern of self-destructive decisions and altogether surprising in how little the President appeared to prepare himself emotionally for defeat by a man he deemed entirely unworthy.
Trump so far has refused to accept the election results, waging a legal strategy to contest them in courts and issuing false allegations of fraud. There are currently no plans to invite Biden to the Oval Office for the traditional meeting between the incoming and outgoing presidents, a historic sign of the peaceful transfer of power. Aides instead are working to craft ways for the President to feel validated even in loss, including through more rallies.
But after claiming publicly and falsely that he won the election, sources say Trump is not denying the outcome privately. And two people said Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser who oversaw his campaign from the White House, has approached Trump about conceding the election.
Another source familiar with the conversations told CNN on Sunday that first lady Melania Trump has also joined the growing chorus of President Trump’s inner circle advising him that the time has come for him to accept the loss.
Despite all that, the President has urged his legal team to continue pursuing legal challenges, and signed off on the news conference Rudy Giuliani conducted in the dusty dirt parking lot of a landscaping company in Philadelphia on Saturday.
Throughout his second run for office, which technically began the day his presidency started in 2017, Trump appeared convinced the formula that had won him the White House during his first-ever political race would work again. He did not alter his calculus – which included overtly racist rhetoric and an inclination for division – to account for being the incumbent. He forged ahead as normal while the worst public health crisis in a century beset the nation.
The limitations of Trump’s political acumen were not shared by everyone on his team, many of whom worked fruitlessly to calibrate a message focused on accomplishments rather than grievances. Many Republicans attempted to steer the President away from attacking mail-in ballots, fearful they could depress his support in a pandemic, according to people familiar with the conversations.
But in the end, those closest to Trump accommodated his whims and obliged his obsessions, including his insistence on not wearing a mask in public and his demand to convene massive rallies as coronavirus cases spiked. Even viral contagion in the West Wing, and Trump’s own three-night hospitalization with the disease, did little to alter his virus-be-damned approach.
In a political operation where managing Trump’s mood swings became a central responsibility, the task of presenting the President with realistic expectations fell to the wayside. As printers aboard Air Force One spat out charts and data in the final stretch meant to sustain the President’s gusto, the more grim projections that showed his narrow electoral paths were left out, aides said. For a campaign whose financial troubles meant tough choices on where to place television ads, a reliable buy became the Washington cable market, where the President was certain to see.
Even as recently as last week, Trump’s advisers used tightening polls to convey momentum in their conversations with the President. He was motivated by the larger and larger crowds who gathered for his rallies, describing the scenes like a rock concert that repeated itself multiple times per day.
“There’s never been anything like this has ever happened in the history of politics,” he said last week in North Carolina, “and I don’t have a guitar.”
Trump entered Election Day convinced of victory, despite polls showing him with only a narrow path to 270 electoral votes. Boosted by large crowds at the 17 rallies he completed in the final four days of the campaign, Trump was certain the same factors that had propelled him into office in 2016 were at work again this time around.
Jetting back from Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the early morning hours on Tuesday, Trump was in an enthusiastic mood, surrounded by so many family members and supporters that the larger version of Air Force One had to be flown in to shuttle everyone back to Washington.
Beers and bourbons were poured in the main conference room as the thrill of Trump’s final rally lingered, people on the plane said. The President remained in his office to watch cable news and look forward to what he believed would be a celebratory day ahead.
But by morning, the President seemed tired, having arrived back to the White House around 3 a.m. ET. He was 45 minutes late to an Election Day phone call on the Fox News morning show – a good-luck charm, he believed, since he had done the same thing in 2016. Trump’s voice sounded scratchy and he appeared focused primarily on the headaches of the job he’d just spent four years working to retain.
“By far the most difficult country to deal with is the US,” he said. “It’s not even close.” More appealing, Trump suggested, were the crowds of supporters chanting they loved him: “People liked Ronald Reagan, but that never happened to him.”
Later, he delayed a planned visit to his campaign headquarters by several hours, holed up instead at the White House, where a team of advisers had established an election day “war room” on the grounds to keep the President updated with the latest data.
“How’s Pennsylvania?” he asked repeatedly after advisers presented him with information about more favorable races in Texas and Florida, according to an official.
There were early signs the evening might not proceed as hoped. While 400 people had been invited to a would-be victory party on the White House state floor, far fewer actually attended, including several Fox News personalities and members of the President’s Cabinet.
Trump acknowledged afterward that he had felt good early in the evening, as guests nibbled on pigs in a blanket and french fries and early results showed him edging Biden. Trump made a brief appearance at the party early in the evening before retreating upstairs to his private residence. There, he conferred with a smaller group of campaign and White House advisers about how to proceed, officials said.
Other members of Trump’s inner circle, including members of his family, held a more private results-viewing party from the family dining room, where large televisions had been wheeled in and a sofa set up.
Trump’s early confidence turned to indignation when Fox News, the network airing on large televisions set up throughout the White House, projected Biden would win Arizona. Kushner, was in contact with Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch to complain about the decision. Kellyanne Conway and other top advisers also phoned Fox News personalities to complain.
Trump’s likely loss in Arizona – and his potential loss in Georgia, where the close results currently favoring Biden appear headed for a recount – appeared to Democrats like karma, given the President’s antagonizing of those states’ late political lions, Republican Sen. John McCain and Democratic Rep. John Lewis. At least one Trump ally had encouraged the President earlier in his term to attempt to reconcile with widow Cindy McCain. But he refused, and she endorsed Biden.
It was evident by midnight that a call wasn’t likely that evening, and Trump hadn’t decided whether to address his guests – and the nation – until he saw Biden make a short statement from Wilmington calling for patience.
Unwilling to cede the spotlight, Trump announced on Twitter that he would make his own statement. Intense deliberations followed between the President and his advisers over what he would say when he emerged in the East Room, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump’s speech came around 2:30 a.m. ET. While teleprompters were set up for him to read from, he appeared to ad-lib much of his speech.
“Literally we were just all set to get outside and just celebrate something that was so beautiful, so good,” he said, adding later: “And all of a sudden I said, ‘What happened to the election? It’s off.’ “
Since then, Trump has not altered his message. Hours before the race was called for Biden on Saturday, the President claimed falsely on Twitter that he’d won the election “BY A LOT!”
Trump has alternated between despondence and anger in the days since Tuesday, according to people who have spoken to him. He’s questioned why his legal team appears composed of amateurs. And he has refused to contemplate writing a concession speech.
On Friday, aides were considering how to best convey to the President the reality that he’d lost, including discussing which person might be best to reckon with him. But others who’d spoken to Trump said it was evident he knew he has no electoral path to victory and is simply planning to exhaust his legal options.
Advisers expect a furious bout of finger-pointing in the coming days, even as the President mounts his quixotic legal battle, which appears designed more to undermine the election’s legitimacy than to surface actual votes.
The recriminations will almost certainly be led by Trump himself, who had from the beginning of the campaign questioned the strength of his team even as he ignored much of their advice and ran the type of race he preferred.
From the earliest days of the general election, Trump complained in private that Biden’s staff was stocked with “killers” who he said made his own team look weak by comparison. While Trump has dismissed the campaign’s financial concerns in public, in private he has asked his team how – despite what he viewed as his own efforts at soliciting funds – his campaign was falling behind Biden in cash.
Huddled with advisers in the Oval Office on a late April Friday, Trump screamed into a speakerphone at his then-campaign manager, Brad Parscale, berating him for a recent spate of damaging poll numbers and even at one point threatening to sue, people familiar with the conversation said.
At the time, Trump was fuming over an onslaught of criticism he was facing for suggesting a day earlier that ingesting disinfectant might prove effective against coronavirus. The episode illustrated what, to many, was Trump’s unwillingness to internalize the self-harm he was inflicting while casting blame in all directions.
Throughout his campaign, the President steadfastly refused to accept the advice that many of his advisers presented about moderating his behavior and rhetoric as polls showed his support evaporating among senior citizens and suburban women.
He similarly shrugged off prepared speech texts or talking points meant to hammer issues like the economy and law and order, choosing instead to wage a sustained attack on Biden’s mental acuity and to air his litany of grievances, which framed him as a victim and were frequently met with only mild affirmation by his rally crowds.
The disconnect was on full display at the first presidential debate in Cleveland, when Trump cast aside his preparation and staged an angry spectacle that drew near-immediate consternation from his team. Trump departed the debate believing he had won, according to those familiar, but watching clips of himself on television afterward led to a realization he had badly erred. He conceded he could tone it down in subsequent encounters with Biden.
But a dispute over the format of the second debate led to its cancellation, an episode that Trump later conceded had been a misstep, given his comparatively stable performance in the final encounter. At the last debate, held in Nashville, aides set up his draped-off holding area with blown-up photos of his rallies, hoping the images of large supportive crowds would put him in a better mood.
A midsummer shakeup of his senior campaign staff, including replacing Parscale with Bill Stepien as campaign manager, did little to improve Trump’s view of his team. The staffing shuffle was precipitated by the President’s disastrous rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which some aides had advised against, fearing the arena selected by the campaign would be difficult to fill in the middle of a pandemic.
Trump ignored that advice, and boosted expectations for the crowd while speaking in public over the preceding week. But once Air Force One lifted off for the rally, the President received a report that only about 25 people were assembled in the overflow space the campaign had reserved for a crowd Trump had claimed five days earlier would top 40,000. And he learned that six of his campaign’s staffers were self-quarantining after being exposed to coronavirus.
Two hours before the rally was set to begin, people who had signed up for tickets received an urgent text message from the Trump campaign: “The Great American Comeback Celebration’s almost here!” it read. “There’s still space!”
Afterward, rallies were put back on hold. But by mid-September, even as the country was experiencing a new spike in Covid-19 cases, there was hardly a discussion among Trump’s advisers about scaling down the campaign events that had become the President’s political trademark.
Trump was flying back from one of those rallies, held on a tarmac in Minnesota, when one of his senior-most aides, Hope Hicks, began experiencing symptoms that led her to isolate in a separate cabin aboard Air Force One.
Hicks eventually tested positive for coronavirus. Hours later, the President himself revealed he was infected, launching a days-long saga that amounted to the most serious known health crisis for an American president in decades.
Placed on supplemental oxygen at the White House, Trump resisted going to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where his doctors were advising he be transferred. It was only after they argued he was better off leaving under his own power – before requiring ambulatory assistance – that he acquiesced.
But even in the confines of the hospital’s presidential suite, Trump seemed intent on flouting coronavirus recommendations. With the avid support of his chief of staff – who later tested positive for coronavirus himself – and his social media adviser, Trump climbed into his secure SUV without a mask and rolled slowly past a crowd of supporters gathered at the roadside, waving frantically.
There weren’t many supporters present when the President returned to the White House from the golf course on Saturday. Peering out the window of the same SUV, Trump instead saw crowds raising their middle fingers as he pulled through the gates.
The square in front of the mansion, painted with the words “Black Lives Matter,” was packed with revelers ecstatic that Trump’s days as President are ending. It was a vastly different scene from what had occurred there in June, when, after a survey by Attorney General William Barr, pepper spray and flash bangs were used to disperse crowds shortly before Trump staged a photo op with a Bible outside St. John’s Church.
The yellow Georgian building is where presidents – including Trump – traditionally attend prayer services before being sworn in. In January, it’s likely where Biden will start his own Inauguration Day.
Looking out over the joyful scene on Saturday, a Secret Service agent seemed relieved.
“I had my riot gear,” he said.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Kaitlan Collins, Jeremy Diamond, Pamela Brown, Kate Bennett, Sarah Westwood, Betsy Klein, Ryan Nobles, Donald Judd and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.