Trump himself was waffling by the hour and day between a pugilistic desire to keep fighting and a more resigned attitude that his efforts will ultimately fail, people who spoke to him said.
But surveyed by CNN, nearly everyone close to Trump said they believed it was only a matter of time before he finds some way to acknowledge he will not be president come January 20 — and said he was likely to pin blame on his baseless claims of a rigged election.
Just in the last day, Trump’s informal campaign adviser, a religious ally, a Republican governor and conservative media personalities have all come out to say the election was won by Biden and that Trump should begin moving on.
Inside the White House, the current period has taken on the feeling of interregnum, as staffers feel obliged to continue their work and even celebrate Trump’s perceived victory while the President largely discontinues his own official tasks.
As Trump was in the White House residence last week, watching his path to a second term slip from grasp, his staffers were holding a premature celebration next door. The White House Office of Presidential Personnel, the unit responsible for administration hiring that has of late become a loyalty enforcer under Trump, threw a victory party in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, sources told CNN, where staffers enjoyed drinks and clinked glasses to a second term.
The ill-timed celebration was another reminder of how the Trump administration is operating as if a second term is in the offing, even as many officials say they are just waiting on the President to publicly accept reality. Budgets are being drawn and staff told to stay put, even though nearly everyone knows the gig will end eventually.
“It could be days. It could be weeks,” one presidential adviser said.
An internal debate continues to rage over the wisdom of continuing with the legal challenges and requests for recounts in several states. One adviser said Trump could be seen as losing twice as his attempts at challenging the results fail one by one.
Since last week, Trump has been advised on numerous occasions that it’s highly unlikely he will prevail in the courts, but he has plowed ahead anyway. Two advisers cautioned Trump could change his mind about the court cases, which may lead to a sudden move to bow out.
But others pointed to the decision in Georgia to conduct a full recount of votes, the results of which won’t be known until late next week, suggesting that is a potential deadline for Trump to finally acknowledge his loss.
A top Senate GOP official said Thursday that Republican leadership has told senators they expect the current situation to drag on “no more than another week,” though even Republican lawmakers close to Trump have acknowledged they have little insight into the President’s strategy.
For Trump, the days since the election have been a dark stretch. While aides say he has thrown relatively few angry fits — most people in the building were fully expecting them — he has seemed downcast.
For days, he lamented the decision by Fox News to call Arizona for Biden, even as the move made less-and-less of a difference in the ultimate scheme of things. He has consulted with a wide array of outside advisers on how to proceed, offering little sign he is planning a graceful exit even as he has acknowledged the race is likely over.
None, however, have vigorously argued to Trump that he should concede.
The President went for three days without leaving the building before making the trip to his golf course in Virginia on Saturday, a tactfully arranged outing that brought him very briefly away from his television at the moment networks called the race for Biden. Instead of watching it play out live, Trump received a phone call from staff alerting him to the news, though he had been expecting it and the official word did not prompt an outsized reaction. Trump continued with his round of golf anyway.
In the days since, Trump has spent ample time in front of the TV watching coverage of Biden’s transition, including his public remarks describing Trump’s reluctance to concede an “embarrassment.” He was thrilled when he saw Secretary of State Mike Pompeo mention a “smooth transition to a second Trump administration” during a news conference on Tuesday, one person who spoke to him said.
But he has been dismayed to see foreign leaders, including those he considered friends such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, move swiftly toward congratulating Biden.
He has spent much of his days on the phone, describing his strong view the election had been stolen from him and his disbelief at losing to Biden. But throughout his conversations this week, Trump has appeared cognizant that his legal efforts aren’t likely to reverse the results of the contest and that he will depart the White House in January.
Trump this week has lingered in the Oval Office for longer than he normally does. While the President typically finishes official business and heads to the residence for dinner around 6:30 p.m. ET, he has stayed in the West Wing past 7 p.m. every night this week.
Almost everyone around the President — members of his family, senior staffers and outside advisers — believe he will accept defeat and leave the White House in January even if he never publicly acknowledges Biden’s win. In the meantime, staffers have advised him not to hold public press conferences and instead let his attorneys handle the public relations aspect of the legal fight.
Several of those people, who spoke to CNN on the condition of anonymity, said they expected Trump to tease a 2024 run when he does finally acknowledge the results. Those sources expect Trump to dismiss the 2020 race as fraudulent and while hinting that he’s running again in four years.
Though Trump has said nothing publicly about a potential second term that would begin in 2025, it’s a possibility that could create an uncomfortable scenario for those who currently surround him and politically support him — given the vice president, secretary of state, former UN ambassador and a slew of others are all said to be weighing their own presidential runs.
Another indication Trump may be considering a third run was his endorsement Wednesday of Ronna McDaniel, the current GOP national party chair who was expected to face a tough reelection.
“I am pleased to announce that I have given my full support and endorsement to Ronna McDaniel to continue heading the Republican National Committee (RNC). With 72 MILLION votes, we received more votes than any sitting President in U.S. history – and we will win!” Trump tweeted.
His public seal of approval for McDaniel caught several people in the White House and Republican Party off guard. Some of Trump’s children had been privately complaining about McDaniel while discussing who might replace her as the chair. McDaniel was said to be discussing a gubernatorial run in Michigan with others, according to three sources.
One person close to the situation said Trump’s endorsement of McDaniel could be a sign he intends to run again in 2024 and wants an ally placed within the party in the time being.
For now, Trump has continued to meet privately with his political advisers at the White House, including McDaniel, who dialed into strategy meetings Wednesday. Though some have said the President is being briefed on the limited chance of success he has, others fear he’s only being told what he wants to hear.
Evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, a high-profile supporter of Trump’s, said on Wednesday that Biden won the election. Ohio’s Republican governor Mike DeWine said on CNN that “Joe Biden is the President-elect.” Even Geraldo Rivera, the media personality who is a friend of the President’s, wrote on Twitter that Trump should consider bowing out.
“You came so close,” Rivera wrote. “Time coming soon to say goodbye with grace and dignity.”
But others, particularly those in Congress, have remained mostly silent. One person familiar with the matter said senior Congressional Republicans are deeply wary of angering Trump as he mulls his participation in upcoming Senate runoff elections in Georgia, fearful a misstep could prompt the President to refuse to help Republicans in their races.
Inside the West Wing, several senior staffers have been absent this week after becoming infected with coronavirus — including chief of staff Mark Meadows and the White House political director Brian Jack. Combined with Trump’s light schedule — he went for almost a week without an official event — the building has taken on a purgatorial feeling, with staffers caught between a President refusing to accept loss and the reality they will be out of a job soon.
Despite an edict from the personnel office chief that anyone caught looking for new work would be fired, many staffers are nevertheless moving ahead with updating their resumes and reaching out to contacts looking for open positions. Senior officials inside the administration were also helping their staff look for new roles outside of the administration.
Trump himself has shown little concern for where his team will land.
Emerging for his first public event since last week, Trump stood in the rain on Wednesday during a Veterans’ Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, eschewing an umbrella to stand before the Tomb of the Unknowns as the rain pounded down.
Later, he returned to the Oval Office for meetings about his legal strategy moving forward and another afternoon of television viewing.
CNN’s Dana Bash and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.