When President Donald Trump learned at the end of last week that his lawyers were dropping their lawsuit seeking a review of ballots in Arizona, the news caught him by surprise.
Summoning members of his team to the Oval Office, where he has been spending afternoons and evenings lately when not in the adjoining dining room watching television, Trump demanded to know why it appeared he was giving up a battle he fully intends to continue waging.
Even as his legal pathway to challenging Joe Biden’s electoral victory becomes thinner by the day — and as some of his senior-most aides begin signaling publicly that Biden will take office in January — Trump has shown little indication he plans to back off his false claim that he won the election.
Instead of an actual attempt to locate more votes or even to reverse the election results, Trump’s legal efforts appear designed instead to seed conspiracy theories among his conservative supporters, raise additional money, preserve power over the Republican Party and cast a pall of illegitimacy over Biden’s tenure — the same shadow Trump has long complained darkened his own time in office.
Whether any of those outcomes is his express goal remains unclear. Many around him believe a dejected President is simply making an elaborate attempt at processing his trauma rather than executing a master plan. Asked last week how long his efforts might last, Trump suggested “two weeks, three weeks” — though few believe he will ever acknowledge outright that he lost the election to Biden.
Within the President’s circle, two camps had already begun emerging prior to Thursday’s meeting in the Oval Office, which included Vice President Mike Pence.
Senior aides, including at the White House and on his campaign, had aligned with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter Ivanka in warning the President that his legal efforts amounted to a long shot that was exceedingly unlikely to change the outcome of the election.
But Trump was also hearing from his longtime lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump that the fight should continue and they could still win. They have argued the President owes it to his supporters — including the thousands who marched in Washington this weekend — to at least maintain the appearance that he is still in the fight. And they have floated ever-more-conspiratorial theories that could extend the fight.
The split came to a head during the Oval Office huddle, a session people briefed on the matter described as contentious even by Trump administration standards. At one point, Giuliani — who was patched in on speaker phone — called the Trump campaign lawyers liars for telling the President his odds of changing the outcome of the election were slim.
On the call, Justin Clark, the President’s deputy campaign manager, fired back. “F***ing asshole,” Clark labeled the former New York City mayor, whose involvement in Trump’s post-election legal efforts has caused anger and exasperation among other advisers.
By the end of the week, Trump had made clear whose side he was taking. Giuliani is now spearheading “the legal effort to defend OUR RIGHT to FREE and FAIR ELECTIONS,” Trump declared on Twitter. Throughout the weekend, the President issued tweet after tweet using lies to question the election results, and quickly reversed what had seemed like an inadvertent nod to Biden’s victory.
“I concede NOTHING!” he blared on Sunday.