WASHINGTON – Donald Trump spent 10 minutes in public honoring America's war veterans — a veneer of normalcy for a White House that's frozen by a defeated president mulling his options, mostly forgoing the mechanics of governing and blocking his inevitable successor.
Trump's appearance Wednesday at the annual Veterans Day commemoration at Arlington National Cemetery was his first public outing for official business in more than a week. He's spent the past few days in private tweeting angry, unsupported claims of voter fraud.
The president has made no comments in person since Democrat Joe Biden clinched the 270 electoral votes on Saturday needed to win the presidency.
All the while, his aides grow more certain that legal challenges won’t change the outcome of the election, according to seven campaign and White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the thinking of the president and others in the executive mansion.
Before setting off for the solemn commemoration at Arlington, Trump took to Twitter on Wednesday to slam “fake pollsters" and grouse that a Republican city commissioner who defended the vote tabulation in Philadelphia wasn't a true Republican. He also sought to draw attention to a Pennsylvania poll worker who recanted allegations of voter fraud on Tuesday before reasserting his allegations on Wednesday.
Trump later posted a debunked video that had purported to show poll workers collecting ballots too late.
“You are looking at BALLOTS! Is this what our Country has come to?" Trump fumed.
Although his official schedule has been bare of public events, Trump has made several personnel moves — firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper and installing three staunch loyalists in top defense jobs. His pick as acting defense secretary, Christopher Miller, was among the Pentagon brass that joined him at Arlington.
Some supporters pushed back against the notion that Trump is shirking his presidential duties.
“The president is out there as much as he’s ever been on Twitter, and the White House team are moving ahead with budget and staffing priorities,” said Dan Eberhart, a prominent Republican donor and Trump backer.
He added, “The president is understandably focused on the ballot counting, but at some point soon he needs to turn his attention back to the lame duck session and putting a capstone on his first four years.”
However, few senior staffers have been around the president in recent days, with many either in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 or in insolation after a confirmed exposure or simply not wanting to be near the Oval Office, according to White House staffers and campaign officials. Staff working from the White House thinned out after chief of staff Mark Meadows confirmed last week that he had tested positive for the virus.
Some staffers still believe the election outcome can change with litigation and recounts. But there is a growing recognition among most that the election is lost and the building will be vacated by Jan. 20.
Trump's moods have vacillated over recent days. At times, he has seethed with anger, fuming that he lost to a candidate he doesn’t respect and believing that the media –- including what he views as typically friendly Fox News -- worked against him. In addition to misdoings with mail-in ballots.
But aides say he has been calmer than his tweets suggest, showing greater understanding of his predicament and believing that he needs to keep fighting almost as performance, as a show to the 70 million people who voted for him that he is still battling. In recent days, some aides, including his daughter Ivanka, have started to talk to him about an endgame, questioning how much longer he wants to fight.
Outside the White House, one prominent former ally turned Trump critic warned that the president was doing potentially irreparable damage to the Republican Party.
“The real issue is the grievous harm he is causing to public trust in America’s constitutional system," former Trump national security adviser John Bolton wrote in a Washington Post op-ed Wednesday. “Trump’s time is running out, even as his rhetoric continues escalating."
But no one in his inner circle — West Wing staff or Cabinet — is forcefully pushing him to stop.
Though he has been in the Oval Office late two nights this week, the president has done little in the way of governing and has instead been working the phones.
He has called friendly governors — in red states like Arizona, Texas and Florida — and influential confidants in the conservative media, like Sean Hannity. But he has not been as responsive to Republican lawmakers as before the election. Always an obsessive cable news viewer, he has been watching even more TV than usual in recent weeks, often from his private dining room just off the Oval Office.
Trump's approach to two crucial Senate run-off elections in Georgia remains an open question: He has not yet signaled if he will campaign there, and aides have started to worry that the extended legal battle could sap support for the GOP candidates.
Trump has also begun talking about his own future upon leaving office. He has mused about declaring he will run again in 2024,and aides believe that he will at least openly flirt with the idea to enhance his relevance and raise interest in whatever money-making efforts he pursues.
While he ponders his options, his involvement in the day-to-day governing of the nation has nearly stopped: According to his schedule, he has not attended an intelligence briefing in weeks, and the White House has done little of late to manage the pandemic that has surged to record highs in many states.
The president’s resistance to acknowledging the outcome of the race has stalled the transition process. The head of the General Services Administration, a Trump appointee, has held off on certifying Biden as the winner of the election.
The certification — known as ascertainment — would free money for the transition and clear the way for Biden’s team to begin placing transition personnel at federal agencies. White House spokesman Judd Deere said he was “not aware” of any communications between the White House and the GSA administrator on ascertainment.
Biden on Tuesday played down the importance of the certification for now and said his team continues to prepare to take reins of the U.S. government. The president-elect also suggested he wasn't overly concerned that he's not yet receiving the President's Daily Briefing — a highly classified intelligence analysis.
Denis McDonough, who served as White House chief of staff during the Obama administration and helped oversee the 2017 transition of power, said that even as Trump has tried to stymie the transition, significant progress still has been made. The Biden transition team has published an ethics plan and the Trump administration earlier established a White House Transition Coordinating Council as required by law.