By Gabby Orr and Meridith McGraw
POLITICO . Sat, November 7, 2020, 12:51 AM GMT+1
Inside the Trump campaign’s headquarters Friday morning, a painful reality began to sink in.
As senior campaign officials huddled with attorneys to discuss President Donald Trump’s legal options with his opponent closing in on 270 electoral votes, others in the Virginia office building polished off their resumes and wondered when, if ever, their candidate might concede. The president, who currently sits at 214 Electoral College votes, has refused to accept a potential election loss and unleashed a legal offensive not seen in a presidential cycle since 2000.
But across the office, acceptance was starting to take hold.
“Barring any major cases of voter fraud or something drastic, this is over, and it’s been over for a day. Most people are aware. Some folks are taking a bit longer to accept it,” said a senior Trump campaign official. “There are a lot of people just sitting and staring at their desks.”
“My sense is that we lost,” added a former Trump aide, who on election night and the days after thought the president would win. The former aide said he shared Trump’s belief that pandemic-driven voting rule changes had negatively impacted his bid for reelection, but said the president no longer has a viable path to victory.
“It’s an uphill battle,” this person said.
Trump’s dwindling circle of believers comes at a critical moment for the president’s legacy, which his allies fear could be permanently tarnished if he presses too long with a court battle that plunges the nation into political crisis and fails to yield his desired result. Only a small number of those in the president’s inner circle — namely former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and advisers Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie — have adamantly encouraged Trump not to concede.
The bleak atmosphere that has taken hold inside Trump’s campaign operation reached a new level Thursday night, after the president convened a last-minute news conference from the White House briefing room to falsely insist he won the 2020 election and further amplify unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud. His appearance was followed by Democratic challenger Joe Biden taking the lead in Pennsylvania and Georgia early Friday morning, putting him on a path to the presidency, as well as calls from top allies to furnish proof of legitimate voter fraud.
“If you’re going to say those things from behind the podium at the White House, it’s his right to do it, it’s his right to pursue legal action. But show us the evidence,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Friday on ABC News. “This kind of thing, all it does is inflame without informing and we cannot permit inflammation without information.”
Christie also accused the Trump campaign of lacking a clear legal strategy or leadership as top surrogates and Republican attorneys laid out their cases in haphazard TV appearances and disorganized press conferences.
“One of the things you’re seeing here is the absence of Don McGahn,” Christie said, referring to the former White House and campaign counsel. “This race was just as close in 2016 and you never saw any mayhem because there was a legal strategy laid out.”
On Friday afternoon, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner installed Bossie, a former Trump aide and veteran GOP operative, to spearhead the president’s legal quest to review vote counts in a handful of key battleground states where he lost by thin margins or appears poised to lose. But as Bossie and other Trump aides fanned out across Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Arizona this week to unveil their legal challenges, some of the president’s closest allies privately described a protracted legal battle as an exercise in futility.
“Obviously with Georgia and Pennsylvania there is a lot of headwind against us, but at this point it’s a legal operation and we’re exhausting every available thing to us,” said one adviser to the Trump campaign.
A second adviser to the campaign suggested a court battle is unlikely “to swing things” in Trump’s favor but could form the basis of the president’s eventual concession, which Trump aides universally agree will flout tradition.
“He’s going to say, ‘They stole it from me,’ and then he’s going to go to Florida and continue to be the most influential Republican in the country,” said the second campaign adviser.
Trump’s reluctance to admit defeat, which would amount to a sign of weakness in the president’s playbook, left some of his aides concerned about the transition of power that must happen before the presidential inauguration in January and the possibility of a fruitless lame-duck session if he remains fixated on the election outcome and the fate of his campaign’s lawsuits. One of the advisers to the Trump campaign suggested that the president might refuse to meet with Biden and avoid his inauguration but was unlikely to interfere with the government transition.
“I do hope the president can abandon his focus on legal stuff long enough to engage in stimulus negotiations,” said a senior administration official. “We have an opportunity to get stuff done and it should not be drowned out by the noise Trump and his lawyers have been making.”
But the campaign’s focus on recounts and legal challenges isn’t the only distraction that could overshadow or derail a bipartisan Covid-19 relief package in a lame-duck session. With the election outcome still hanging in the balance, public frustrations and finger-pointing among Trump aides began to surface on Friday.
In a tweet, former Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale gave a backhanded compliment to Hannah Castillo, who ran the campaign’s Latino outreach program and oversaw coalition operations earlier this year. “She should get credit for an amazing job!” tweeted Parscale, who was fired in July. “Too bad she wasn’t there the last couple months.”
Shortly after, news broke that Parscale, who spoke to the president daily as chief of his campaign and has been a trusted friend of the first family, planned to join the ranks of ex-Trump aides who have cashed in with tell-all books.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump Jr. lashed out at Republicans — including rumored 2024 GOP hopefuls — who had not yet come to his father’s defense on Trump’s evidence-free claims of illegal vote counting and a rigged election. Just minutes after the younger Trump issued a scathing call for backup, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and others chimed in. In a Fox News appearance Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would contribute $500,000 to the president’s legal defense fund to pursue challenges to vote tabulations.
There were also lingering frustrations over Fox News calling the race for Arizona on Tuesday night, as other election forecasters and media outlets held off on declaring Biden the clear winner of the traditionally red state. The president’s supporters have unleashed a torrent of criticism against the conservative news outfit since Tuesday night, when the network’s decision desk declined to reverse its early call on Arizona.
“In the court of public opinion, it looks bad and it sways a lot of the commentary,” said one adviser to the campaign. “Then you’re fighting two battles — the vote count and the court of public opinion.”
The Trump campaign has repeatedly signaled that it is preparing for a lengthy battle in the courts, even if Biden remains in the lead or crosses the 270-vote threshold, giving him the presidency. On a call with top donors — which the campaign said was its largest ever — officials said they need to raise “tens of millions” of dollars to pay for upcoming legal fees.
Anita Kumar contributed to this report.