WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump never admits defeat. But he faces a stark choice now that Democrat Joe Biden has won the White House: Concede graciously for the sake of the nation or don’t — and get evicted anyway.
After nearly four tortured days of counting yielded a victory for Biden, Trump was still insisting the race was not over. He threw out baseless allegations that the election wasn't fair and “illegal” votes were counted, promised a flurry of legal action and fired off all-caps tweets falsely insisting he'd “WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT."
While some in his circle were nudging Trump to concede graciously, many of his Republican allies, including on Capitol Hill, were egging him on or giving him space to process his loss — at least for the time being.
“Trump has not lost,” declared South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham in an appearance on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures,” rejecting the reality of the situation. “Do not concede, Mr. President. Fight hard," he urged.
Trump is not expected to formally concede, according to people close to him, but is likely to grudgingly vacate the White House at the end of his term. His ongoing efforts to paint the election as unfair are seen both as an effort to soothe a bruised ego and to show his loyal base of supporters that he is still fighting. That could be key to keeping them energized for what comes next.
“He intends to fight,” Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said as it was becoming clear that the president was headed for defeat.
Would Trump ever concede? “I doubt it,” said Trump’s longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone, whose prison sentence was commuted by Trump in July. Stone asserted that Biden, as a result, will have "a cloud over his presidency with half the people in the country believing that he was illegitimately elected.”
Allies suggested that if Trump wants to launch a media empire in coming years, he has an incentive to prolong the drama. So, too, if he intends to keep the door open to a possible 2024 comeback — he would be only a year older than Biden is now.
Others in his inner circle egging him on, including his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor has been promising to provide the president with evidence of voter fraud but has produced little, including during a press conference he held Saturday in the parking lot of a small Philadelphia landscaping company next to an adult bookstore.
Trump's adult sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, have also urged their father to keep fighting and challenged Republicans to stand with them, as have congressional allies like Graham.
“What I would tell President Trump is: Don’t give up. My advice is do not concede,” said Republican Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona in a podcast interview. “Let’s fight this thing through. It is too important to give up.”
Some in the president’s orbit have been nervously looking toward Capitol Hill for signs of a Republican defection. But so far, most seemed to be giving him time.
“I look forward to the president dealing with this however he needs to deal with it,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri said Sunday on ABC's “This Week." Still, he said it was time for Trump “to turn this discussion over to his lawyers, time for the lawyers to make the case that they have, both in court and to the American people, and then we’re going to have to deal with those facts as they’re presented. That has to happen and then we move forward.”
“At this point, we do not know who has prevailed in the election,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, telling Fox News he believes Trump "still has a path to victory.”
Other political allies and White House officials, however, have pressed Trump to change his tone and commit to a smooth transition. They’ve emphasized to him that history will be a harsh judge of any action he takes that is seen as undermining his successor. And they have advised him to deliver a speech in the coming week pledging to support the transition.
Trump senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has told others that he is among those who have urged the president to accept the outcome of the race — even if Trump won’t come to terms with how it was reached.
At Fox News, where prime-time hosts wield enormous influence over Trump, Laura Ingraham gave voice to the president’s belief that the election had been unfair, while also pleading with him to keep his legacy in mind — and preserve his status as a GOP kingmaker — by gracefully leaving office.
“President Trump’s legacy will only become more significant if he focuses on moving the country forward," she said Thursday.
This story is based on interviews with more than a dozen Trump aides and allies, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.
That the peaceful transfer of power was even in doubt reflected the norm-shattering habits of the now-lame duck president, who even in victory never admitted that he had lost the popular vote in 2016.
Most aides believed the president would take the weekend to decide on a plan, which will most certainly involve more legal action. But some aides believe the legal skirmishes are more about putting up the appearance of a fight than producing results.
There were some indications Trump was moving in a less contentious direction, even as he continued to angrily complain to aides, reviving old grievances about the Russia investigation that began under President Barack Obama.
In a statement Friday, Trump suggested he would avail himself of every avenue under the law to challenge the election's result. But allies interpreted it as a begrudging acknowledgement of the likely outcome.
“We will pursue this process through every aspect of the law to guarantee that the American people have confidence in our government,” he said Trump said. “I will never give up fighting for you and our nation.”
On Saturday, the White House added that the president “will accept the results of a free and fair election" and that the administration "is following all statutory requirements.”
Still, there were concerns that Trump’s rhetoric would inflame tensions in a nation that was already bitterly divided before the election. Isolated scuffles were reported near tabulation centers in Philadelphia and Phoenix.
Pro-Trump protesters — some of them openly carrying rifles and handguns — have rallied outside tallying facilities in several cities around the country, responding to Trump’s groundless accusations that the Democrats were trying to steal the White House.
Biden, meanwhile, has called on the country to come together.
“For all those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand the disappointment tonight. I’ve lost a couple of times myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance,” he said in his Saturday night victory speech.
Trump, whose voluminous Twitter account seems to provide an apt entry for any occasion, offered this advice in 2016: “Vladimir Putin said today about Hillary and Dems: “In my opinion, it is humiliating. One must be able to lose with dignity,” So true!”
This story has been corrected to reflect that President Donald Trump commuted Roger Stone’s sentence, rather than pardoned Stone.