Things will change. They always do. This was no more than one spot in time – the Thursday evening after the Tuesday evening when the polls closed. This was the evening when no one yet knew if Donald Trump would stay or go. The vote in three key states was too close to call, or had been. By late in the evening it looked like Trump might win Arizona – unlikely but possible. But he really was catching up to Biden. And in Georgia and in Pennsylvania Biden was catching up to Trump. Trump seemed about to lose both states. Losing only one and it was all over for him. Biden would be the next president. The world would change once again. To prevent that, somehow, the Trump campaign sent the nastiest lawyers available to each state where the votes were still being counted to sue everyone in sight and end all the election fraud. They were laughed out of court. There was no fraud anywhere. The counting continued. Everyone would just have to wait for the apocalypse. Perhaps Joe Biden would win it all in the morning, but no one knew that yet.
And in that context, at this particular spot in time, there was this:
As an anxious country waited to learn the winner, the two candidates emerged toward day’s end to make remarks that were dramatically different in tone and content.
In a brief appearance before reporters in Wilmington, Del., Mr. Biden said he remained confident that he would ultimately prevail but did not lay claim to the White House.
“Democracy’s sometimes messy,” said Mr. Biden, who remained ahead in Arizona on Thursday night but lost some ground there. “It sometimes requires a little patience as well. But that patience has been rewarded now for more than 240 years with a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.”
He urged calm and emphasized that “each ballot must be counted.”
Biden can wait. Everyone can wait, at least almost all adults have learned to wait. Almost all adults have quite a bit of impulse control. They don’t shout out nonsense because it feels good to just let it rip and see what happens next. That can get you killed. They have developed a bit of restraint. They can be polite and courteous, and usually are. That’s what makes them adults. And then there’s the other guy:
Hours later, in a stunning appearance in the White House briefing room, Mr. Trump lied about the vote-counting underway in several states, conjuring up a conspiracy of “legal” and “illegal” ballots being tabulated and claiming without evidence that states were trying to deny him re-election.
“They’re trying to steal an election, they’re trying to rig an election,” the president said from the White House briefing room. He also baselessly suggested nefarious behavior in Philadelphia and Detroit, cities that he called “two of the most corrupt political places.”
Far from insisting that he would stay in power, he used much of his appearance to complain about pre-election polls, demonize the news media and try to put the best face on Tuesday’s results, trumpeting his party’s congressional gains. He did not take questions from reporters.
Why should he? Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman have the details:
Even for President Trump, it was an imagined version of reality, one in which he was not losing but the victim of a wide-ranging conspiracy stretching across the country in multiple cities, counties and states, involving untold numbers of people all somehow collaborating to steal the election in ways he could not actually explain.
Never mind that Mr. Trump presented not a shred of evidence during his first public appearance since late on election night or that few senior Republican officeholders endorsed his false claims of far-reaching fraud. A presidency born in a lie about Barack Obama’s birthplace appeared on the edge of ending in a lie about his own faltering bid for re-election.
“If you count the legal votes, I easily win,” Mr. Trump said Thursday night in an unusually subdued, 17-minute televised statement from the lectern in the White House briefing room, complaining that Democrats, the news media, pollsters, big technology companies and nonpartisan election workers had all corruptly sought to deny him a second term.
But he wouldn’t explain what an illegal vote might be. He didn’t explain much of anything. He wanted to display his rage. People used to love him for his rage. Maybe they would once again. But they didn’t:
With his presidency on the line, Mr. Trump’s lonely appearance in the briefing room with no allies joining him and only staff members and reporters in attendance underscored how isolated he has become just two days after Election Day. With vote counts in key states turning grimmer even as he spoke, Mr. Trump was poised to end this term in office the way he began his presidential campaign in 2015 – defended most vocally by family members and a few loyalists while Republican leaders held him at arm’s length rather than embrace outlandish claims.
With Republican members of Congress largely staying silent or issuing anodyne comments about the importance of transparent vote counting, Mr. Trump was left to dispatch his two adult sons to hold news conferences in Pennsylvania and Georgia to protest aspects of the vote count. They were accompanied by allies like Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal lawyer, and Corey Lewandowski, his first campaign manager from 2016. The same scene played out in Nevada, where a Trump ally, Richard Grenell, made claims about voting fraud that news outlets debunked a short time later.
Nothing was working but this:
Members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle sounded almost desperate as they sought to threaten other Republicans into backing Mr. Trump. Both Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump posted messages on Twitter complaining that Republicans were not standing with their father, especially those who may want his support if they run for president in four years.
“The total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ is pretty amazing,” Donald Trump Jr. wrote. “They have a perfect platform to show that they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead.”
“Where are Republicans!” Eric Trump added about an hour and a half later. “Have some backbone. Fight against this fraud. Our voters will never forget you if your sheep!”
Why? Everyone else knew better:
Allies said privately that the president seemed to be raging against the inevitable and was only doing damage with his baseless accusations about widespread fraud. Even allies who said they shared some of his concerns in a targeted way about specific rules governing mail-in voting during the coronavirus pandemic were unwilling to join Mr. Trump’s unfounded claims.
It seems they decided there was no reason to defend this guy’s bullshit. He was gone already:
For much of the year, some Trump advisers questioned whether the president actually wanted a second term, or if he simply did not want to be seen as the worst epithet in his lexicon: a loser. The answer still was not clear as the votes were being tallied this week.
He sounded dejected on Thursday evening as he went through a litany of random minor incidents involving ballots, called Philadelphia and Detroit “corrupt” and insisted he had actually won an election in which former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. was leading by millions of votes nationally and appeared likely to assemble a majority in the Electoral College once a handful of swing states finished counting.
Mr. Trump bemoaned how many by-mail votes appeared to be cast for Democrats. “They’re finding ballots all of a sudden: ‘Oh, we have some mail-in ballots,’” he said. “It’s amazing how those mail-in ballots are so one-sided.” He glossed over the fact that he had spent months telling his supporters that mail-in balloting was corrupt and urging them to vote in person instead.
He likewise lashed out at others, as well, seeking many to blame for his troubles. “The pollsters got it knowingly wrong,” he said. (In fact, they did get many results wrong, but there is no evidence that it was intentional.)
“The voting apparatus of those states are run in all cases by Democrats,” he said of states still counting. (In fact, Georgia and Arizona have Republican governors.)
It was all nonsense, as Aaron Rupar notes here:
Trump tried another argument, claiming that the media conspired to interfere in the election against him, “getting it knowingly wrong” by inflating Biden’s popularity in an attempt to demoralize Trump supporters. He contradicted himself by framing efforts to count all the votes in places like Michigan and Wisconsin as part of a plot to steal the election from him, while in the next breath insisting that all the votes in Arizona must be counted so he can continue closing the gap in a state that Fox News has already called for Biden…
This was a mess. What could be done about it? The New York Times’ Michael Grynbaum and Tiffany Hsu report on that:
The three big broadcast networks – ABC, CBS and NBC – cut away from President Trump’s news conference at the White House on Thursday as the president lobbed false claims about the integrity of the election.
Mr. Trump timed his appearance to air during the networks’ evening newscasts, which draw the biggest collective audience in TV news. But the anchors broke in after a few minutes to correct some of his falsehoods.
“We have to interrupt here, because the president made a number of false statements, including the notion that there has been fraudulent voting,” said Lester Holt, the “NBC Nightly News” anchor. He added, “There has been no evidence of that.”
On ABC, the anchor David Muir broke in and told viewers “there’s a lot to unpack here and fact-check.” The CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes spent about 90 seconds ticking through several of Mr. Trump’s baseless statements.
Although CNN and Fox News continued carrying Mr. Trump’s remarks live, the decision by the broadcast networks to break away deprived Mr. Trump of a significantly larger audience for his unfiltered – and un-fact-checked – remarks on the election.
But this had to happen sooner or later:
The question of whether to air Mr. Trump’s appearances live has bedeviled television executives since the start of his presidency. Earlier this year, networks struggled with how to contextualize information from Mr. Trump about the coronavirus that doctors and public health officials considered misleading and sometimes downright wrong.
On Thursday, MSNBC was the first outlet to break away from Mr. Trump’s news conference, after just 35 seconds. (MSNBC, which has a large liberal following, has been more aggressive than other channels in choosing to hold off on airing the president live.) The move “was not done as a stunt, or out of theatrics,” the anchor Brian Williams told viewers, but rather, “we just can’t have it. It was not rooted in reality and, at this point in where our country is, it’s dangerous.”
That is a problem:
On CNN, a caption appeared below Mr. Trump as he spoke reading, “WITHOUT ANY EVIDENCE, TRUMP SAYS HE’S BEING CHEATED.” On Fox News, a graphic conveyed a different message: “TRUMP: ‘THEY’RE TRYING TO STEAL THE ELECTION.’”
On Fox News afterward, the network’s chief White House correspondent, John Roberts, told viewers that “we haven’t seen any evidence” to back up the president’s unsubstantiated claims of electoral fraud. (Mr. Roberts was reporting from the White House briefing room, where he wore a protective mask.) The anchor Bret Baier concurred, reminding viewers, “we have not seen the evidence yet.”
Yes, he lost Fox:
Nearly a decade ago, Donald J. Trump had a regular Monday slot on the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends,” and it has been a reliably friendly venue for him throughout his presidency. But more recently, the show has been cool to his unsubstantiated claims of widespread vote fraud.
On Thursday’s episode, the co-host Steve Doocy challenged Pam Bondi, a former attorney general of Florida and a Trump supporter, over her comment about “fake ballots that are coming in late.”
“Pam, did you just say fake ballots?” Mr. Doocy asked.
“There could be. That’s the problem,” Ms. Bondi replied.
“Have you heard stories of ballots that are fake?” Mr. Doocy pushed back. “And if so, just tell us what you know.”
Ms. Bondi did not cite specific examples, instead saying, “We know that ballots have been dumped.”
Doocy backed off. She had no answer. Move on. But that gets tricky:
The night before on Fox News, the star opinion hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity spoke ominously about the vote results – but stopped short of endorsing President Trump’s dismissal of the election as “a fraud on the American public.”
Mr. Hannity expressed his doubts about the vote in a series of questions: “Do you trust what happened in this election? Do you believe these election results are accurate? Do you believe this was a free and fair election? I have a lot of questions.”
Avoid statements. Be careful. Ask questions. But no one else has to be that careful:
Outside of Fox News, anchors were blunt in their dismissals of the president’s claims. On Thursday morning, CNN’s Alisyn Camerota read a thread of Twitter posts in which Mr. Trump said that “we hereby claim the State of Michigan if, in fact, there was a large number of secretly dumped ballots as has been widely reported!”
“Fact-check,” Ms. Camerota said. “There is no evidence of any secretly dumped ballots there or elsewhere.”
On Wednesday night on CNN, the White House correspondent Jim Acosta said some Republicans were criticizing Mr. Trump’s legal attacks “as an ambulance-chasing routine.” Earlier, Michael Smerconish, a radio host and CNN contributor, said, “You can’t just make baseless allegations, and you also can’t talk about ballots that really haven’t even been counted yet as being fundamentally unfair.”
On MSNBC, a network popular with liberal viewers, the host Nicolle Wallace said on Wednesday that the channel was not “going to amplify” the president’s tweets claiming fraud by showing them on television.
“Donald Trump is also tweeting misinformation about alleged fraud – lies so flagrant that they’re almost difficult to find amid the warnings and flags the social media companies have placed on and around them,” Ms. Wallace said.
The MSNBC anchor Brian Williams said, “There is no evidence that these are anything but legally cast votes in states that allow them to be legally cast.”
It seems this was the day that everyone agreed that Donald Trump kind of lost it. Enough was enough, but he’d been losing it for a few days. The Washington Post’s Ashley Parker and Josh Dawsey report on that:
By Thursday morning, President Trump was angry and defiant.
The polls had closed more than a full 24 hours before, and as several key states continued to update their ballot counts, the election increasingly felt like it was slipping away from him and toward Democratic nominee Joe Biden. He wanted to speak.
“STOP THE COUNT,” Trump bellowed on Twitter, a missive he quickly retweeted just over an hour later. “ANY VOTE THAT CAME IN AFTER ELECTION DAY WILL NOT BE COUNTED!” he added.
The only problem: If the vote-counting stopped at that moment, Trump would lose.
Trump’s senior advisers intervened, explaining to the president that he needed to be more precise about just which vote counts he wanted halted. He did not want all of the states to stop counting votes, they added, because that would lead to a Biden victory.
They talked him down from his rage, let him catch his breath, and made him think about this:
And so, shortly after noon Thursday, Trump blasted out the message he had workshopped with advisers: “STOP THE FRAUD!”
There is no evidence of widespread voting fraud, and Twitter flagged his tweet as “misleading” about the election. But for the president’s purposes, the missive was more helpful to his electoral hopes.
Ah, he hates FRAUD and not VOTING! That’s it! Cool. But that didn’t fix much:
Those in the president’s orbit had entered Election Day cautiously optimistic. During a midday visit Tuesday to rally staff at campaign headquarters, the president said he had not yet given much consideration to either a victory or concession speech.
“Hopefully, we’ll be only doing one of those two,” he said. “And, you know, winning is easy. Losing is never easy. Not for me, it’s not.”
But by Tuesday night, it became increasingly clear that Trump would deliver neither speech.
And then things went from bad to worse:
Huddled with family members and advisers – including Kellyanne Conway, campaign adviser Corey Lewandowski, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders, among others – first in the White House residence and then in the Map Room, Trump became increasingly agitated as the evening wore on.
At one point, when Fox News – the cable channel most friendly to the president – called Arizona, which Trump had won in 2016, for Biden, the president implored his team to “get that result changed,” said one person familiar with his exhortations who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to share details of internal discussions.
Campaign adviser Jason Miller took to Twitter to complain – “WAY too soon to be calling Arizona,” he wrote – and he, along with Conway, former counselor to the president, Meadows and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, spent considerable time calling allies at Fox News, trying to get them to back off the Arizona decision. Trump and aides continued to privately rail against the network Thursday, officials said.
That, of course, left him all alone:
Trump began complaining about voter fraud and the election being stolen, and by the time he appeared in the East Wing around 2 a.m. Wednesday to make remarks, he was determined to declare victory, even though his prepared notes did not say that.
“Frankly, we did win this election,” Trump said in comments that were roundly criticized, including by many allies. Some of those in the room, including Lewandowski and Meadows, did not clap along with others after the impromptu line.
He should not have said that and now there was no stopping him:
The mood among Trump allies remained both combative and hopeful for much of Wednesday, with advisers carefully monitoring several states – including Arizona and Georgia – that they thought could still break Trump’s way, and grasping at the notion that the president could “catch lightning in a bottle again,” a senior administration official said…
By Wednesday evening, however, Trump had begun telling allies he believed he could lose – but only because the election was being “stolen from him,” a campaign official said. And when he woke up Thursday, he was angry again and eager to take a more defiant tone, advisers said.
And the rest is history:
The president was eager to speak publicly Thursday about the election – arguing that his rightful victory was being stolen, and that states were conspiring against him. But again, allies and advisers counseled caution, trying to assuage Trump by outlining their aggressive plan to fight and urging him to keep a low profile.
But on Thursday evening, the president appeared in front of reporters at the White House around 6:45, seeming subdued and deflated, and made unproven claims about voter fraud and vowing to continue the fight through legal channels.
He mocked mail-in ballots and polling from the news media and said, falsely, that states were making up ballots to cost him the election.
A senior campaign official said Thursday night’s appearance was the kind of news conference they wanted to avoid.
Trump wasn’t making much sense as he raged against the obvious and the inevitable. And then there was Joe Biden out there being a quite normal person all along. And now, finally, that was enough.