Trump, still out of sight, focuses on his own future as pandemic worsens

In private, President Trump is more sanguine about accepting the election results, a campaign official says.
In private, President Trump is more sanguine than on Twitter about having to accept “the tainted results” of the election, a campaign official says.
(Associated Press)

More than a week after his stinging electoral defeat, President Trump spent another day secluded in the White House on Thursday feverishly tweeting, watching television and telephoning allies — focused more on his own future than governing the nation as it struggles with a worsening pandemic.

Eager to exact retribution on those in government and media he deemed insufficiently loyal, and determined to maintain his grip on the Republican Party as he considers running again in four years, Trump tweeted more than 40 times — but not once about the more than 144,000 new U.S. coronavirus cases, a grim daily record.

From the pandemic’s onset in February, Trump has sought to manage the contagion as a political problem that threatened his reelection bid, not as a mass casualty health crisis that already has taken the lives of more than 242,000 Americans.


Now that his own political fate has been decided, “he could care less, or even less than before,” said
one administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

By all accounts, Trump continued to cling — at least publicly — to the increasingly remote chance that he could somehow overturn the election results in court, or somehow find not-yet-discovered evidence that he lost only because of voting fraud, and not because President-elect Joe Biden won a convincing victory.

One campaign official who spoke with Trump described him as “pugnacious,” saying he expressed confidence about his so-far unsuccessful legal strategy and the more robust but largely performative combativeness he’s displayed on Twitter.

But the official also described Trump as more sanguine in private conversations about having to accept “the tainted results” of the election and focused largely on what to do next.

“He’s being urged to stay in the game and to consider running in 2024, and he’s not going to rule that out,” the person said. “That’s as close to him accepting reality as you’re going to get for the time being.”

In his tweets, Trump propagated baseless claims of election fraud and complained that news organizations were taking too long to declare him the winner of North Carolina and its 15 electoral votes.

Biden already has 290 electoral votes, 20 more than needed to win the White House, so North Carolina will not change the outcome.

Lashing out at a longtime ally, Trump attacked Fox News more than a dozen times, still furious that it was the first to project Biden winning Arizona.

He mocked the network’s ratings as “dropping lower than Biden’s GPA” and endorsed suggestions that conservative viewers migrate to more sycophantic, fringe media outlets.

He also basked in the adulation of supporters, thanking actor Scott Baio for tweeting a photo of a craft store’s display of candles, arranged with labels that spelled out: “Trump Is Still Your President.”

Top Democrats on Capitol Hill echoed that message in a way, noting that Trump holds office until Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20.

They urged Trump to focus on the pandemic and implored Republican lawmakers who have abetted the president’s magical thinking about a late reversal in the courts to accept the results of the election.

“Stop deliberately and recklessly sowing doubt about our democratic process and start focusing on COVID,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “Every day ... hundreds of thousands are getting sick, thousands are dying. We don’t have time for these kinds of games.”

Focused mostly on saving face with his supporters and preserving his political power base, Trump has worked the phone for much of the week, calling Republican governors, state election officials, Republican National Committee staffers, allies and friends.

He has been less interested in policy items that might be accomplished in the final 68 days of his term, according to two administration officials.

His only public action since the election, beyond a brief wreath-laying ceremony Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery in honor of Veterans Day, was firing former Defense Secretary Mark Esper in a tweet on Monday.

Trump’s tweet Wednesday endorsing RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel indicated he wants to remain de facto head of the party, perhaps in an effort to keep the field of 2024 aspirants clear while he weighs his options.

But he is also actively considering a move into media to kneecap Fox News, according to two people in close contact with the president.

According to Eric Bolling, a former Fox News host who is in frequent touch with Trump, the president and his supporters are livid about the network’s early call of Arizona for Biden and its decision Monday to cut away from a news conference where White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was making unsubstantiated claims of election fraud.

“That anger may serve him well whichever direction he may go, going forward,” Bolling said.

He said Trump could still sign a deal with Fox, attempt to buy a smaller cable channel or launch his own subscription-based digital channel. Entering the media space, Bolling said, wouldn’t foreclose Trump’s ability to run for president in four years.

“Trump wants to win another four years, no doubt in my mind. I know because I’ve spoken to him about it,” Bolling said.

But he acknowledged stoking rumors about another presidential campaign could simply be a way for Trump to increase his market value.

“There’s literally no downside to keeping a run for the White House in 2024 open,” he said. “It greatly strengthens his marketability for any deal he cuts with a network or with an audience he will need for a Trump TV venture of his own.”

In the short term, however, Trump must come to grips with enabling the inevitable transition of power.

While some staffers are pushing the president to keep fighting, others believe that Trump will have an easier time backing down from his defiant posture as contestable states finalize their vote tallies in coming days and weeks and get taken off the table.

Arizona — which some news organizations have not yet called — could be first, followed by Georgia and Pennsylvania. Biden leads comfortably in all three.

“By this weekend, some of the avenues may have closed down and could be an opportunity for the White House to pivot,” said one administration official who requested anonymity to avoid contradicting Trump in public.

Trump’s efforts to undermine trust in the presidential election, without any convincing evidence, are a sharp break from historical precedent in a democracy that depends on the losing side accepting election results.

“It’s a democratic norm that helps ensure the stability of the system,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor of political science at Dartmouth College. “If that mutual understanding comes apart, it tears at the fabric of the democratic system itself.”

An Economist/YouGov poll released this week said 78% of Republicans believed there was enough fraud to influence the outcome of the election. Only 7% of Democrats believed the same.

Asked whether they believe the country will “never know the real outcome of this election,” 26% of Republicans said definitely true and 44% said probably true.

Some Republican officeholders suggested they may not go along with Trump’s reality-denying obstruction much longer.

At least four Republican senators, without explicitly acknowledging Biden’s electoral victory, have stated that the president-elect should have access to classified intelligence, which can’t occur until the General Services Administration authorizes the official transition.

Other conservative allies also have begun publicly nudging the president toward a more graceful exit.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal, a newspaper owned by billionaire Republican donor Sheldon Adelson, ran an editorial on Thursday saying that it’s “simply false” that fraud cost Trump the election.

“It’s an insult to reason and logic to argue that isolated irregularities constitute proof of a grand national conspiracy,” the paper said, adding that “Mr. Trump lost this election because he
ultimately didn’t attract enough votes and failed to win a handful of swing states that broke his way in 2016.”

Karl Rove, the longtime Republican strategist who has occasionally advised Trump, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “the president should do his part to unite the country by leading a peaceful transition and letting grievances go.”

Trump’s media allies generally followed the same formula — flattering the president even as they tried to gently coax him off the stage.

“Dear @realDonaldTrump-my honored friend-you fought an incredible battle vs all odds and the curse of insidious disease,” tweeted TV host Geraldo Rivera. “You battled the back stabbers & our enemies & remade the world in peace & prosperity. You came so close. Time coming soon to say goodbye with grace & dignity.”

Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.