Aghast at the thought he lost a state Republicans have held for decades, and desperate to reverse the result, the President insisted to his advisers he could persuade the state’s top election official to validate his false claims of voter fraud — if only he could speak with him directly.
So, for more than a month, operators at the White House tried reaching Brad Raffensperger. Eighteen attempted calls came into his Atlanta office from the White House switchboard in the weeks after the November 3 election.
Trump was making simultaneous efforts in other states he lost, inviting Republican state lawmakers from Pennsylvania and Michigan to the White House and placing phone calls to the GOP governors of Arizona and Georgia. Each time, Trump made similarly unfounded claims about voter fraud and inquired what could be done about it, according to people familiar with the conversations. And each time, his powers of salesmanship failed to convince anyone to change their states’ election results,
Still, Trump remained adamant he could talk his way out of a loss, one person familiar with the matter said. And he continued to insist on getting Raffensperger on the line.
He finally did on Saturday, to explosive results.
The nearly 60-minute conversation, audio of which leaked a day later, provided a bleak window into the mind of a commander-in-chief consumed by conspiracy theories and enraged by loss.
As his pliant aides listened and contributed their thoughts, Trump devolved into vague threats of criminal prosecution and expressions of political regret. Like he has in nearly every conversation since he lost the election, Trump voiced disbelief at the reality he will no longer be president in a matter of weeks.
“It’s just not possible to have lost Georgia. It’s not possible,” he said on the call. “When I heard it was close, I said there’s no way.”
Neither Trump nor the White House has commented on the call, though Trump’s allies have accused Raffensperger of deception for leaking it.
Two months after Election Day, Trump remains as devoured by his loss as ever. He has mostly ignored the spike in coronavirus cases and the spreading damage from a massive Russian hack. He has watched as tensions ratchet up with Iran, but spends far more time discussing his attempts to overthrow the election results than he does on looming national security threats, according to White House officials.
Trump’s mood has darkened in recent weeks as he continues to be fed a daily diet of conspiracy theories about the election, a White House adviser involved in the election challenges told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
“He got worse as more people said something went wrong” with the election, the adviser said.
Trump’s presence has become so unpleasant that several aides said they were actively avoiding any interaction with the President.
Despite Trump’s efforts to stay in power, the West Wing is becoming more like a ghost town. Several senior staffers have departed in recent days and more are expected to do so soon as officials line up their next jobs. The few senior staff who are left have sought to distance themselves from Trump’s efforts out of fear of possible legal exposure.
Some senior aides, including Hope Hicks, are spending less time at the White House than previously. And Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was headed to Saudi Arabia early this week for a ceremony marking the end of the Gulf crisis involving Qatar rather than remaining in Washington.
“No one wants to be around anymore,” one official said. “It’s a dark place.”
White House counsel Pat Cipollone was not on the call with Raffensperger over the weekend, and wasn’t aware it was taking place, according to a person familiar with the situation. Legal experts have said Trump could have potentially violated the state’s election fraud law by asking Raffensperger to find him more votes.
Cipollone’s influence in the White House has waned in recent weeks as he has argued internally that Trump’s efforts to overturn the election results, mostly driven by conspiracy theories, are futile. He joins other White House officials who have seen their roles as presidential advisers diminish rapidly as Trump remains solely focused on the election results.
His daily schedules have evolved into self-parody, with no events listed and only a brief blurb — dictated personally by the President, according to one person familiar with the matter — detailing his activities.
“President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings,” read his schedule for Monday, before noting what time he would leave the White House for a rally in Georgia — an event Trump has been waffling on holding for weeks, and again threatened to cancel after his fateful call with Raffensperger on Saturday, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Trump has been irritated with basically everyone who works for him, people familiar with the matter said, though has focused his ire recently on chief of staff Mark Meadows and Vice President Mike Pence, claiming neither man is fighting hard enough for him as he attempts to subvert democracy. Meadows joined Trump’s call on Saturday and later tweeted his support of Republican lawmakers who will challenge the Electoral College results on Wednesday — efforts that have not prevented the President from loudly complaining about him, according to people who have heard his gripes.
Pence finds himself in a more precarious position: as president of the Senate, he will preside over the Electoral College tally on Wednesday. Before Christmas, Trump took intense interest in his role, believing Pence could somehow reverse or prevent Biden from being certified the winner. Even as Pence explained his role was merely ceremonial, Trump seemed taken with the idea.
Trump offered tacit approval for the lawsuit filed by his Republican ally Rep. Louie Gohmert pressuring Pence into overturning the election results, and was later disappointed to learn his own Justice Department was asking a judge to reject the suit, according to a person familiar with the matter. Trump and Pence discussed the matter at the end of last week.
Trump for weeks has told associates that he does not believe Pence is fighting hard enough for him. That frustration is partly what led Pence’s chief of staff to issue a statement Saturday night saying he welcomed efforts in Congress to raise objections to the Electoral College, though several noted it seemed carefully worded and did not say he supported the objections outright.
Trump, meanwhile, has turned toward whomever will entertain his conspiracies — including trade adviser Peter Navarro, who suggested on television recently the date of the inauguration could be pushed back, contradicting the Constitution.
He has been adding lawyers so abruptly that it’s difficult for some aides to keep up with who is representing him at any given time. Several senior officials were unaware Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Republican attorney, was working with him until she surfaced on Trump’s call with Raffensperger. Neither, apparently, did her law firm, Foley & Lardner, which issued a statement afterward saying it was “concerned” about her role on the call and “are working to understand her involvement more thoroughly.”
This week, Trump is again set to spend his days engulfed in last-ditch efforts to overturn the will of voters. Before a rally for two Republican Senate candidates in Georgia on Monday, Trump declared he would use his time to explain why he didn’t lose the state’s presidential election. As Republican lawmakers stage a futile attempt to delay certification of the Electoral College on Wednesday, Trump will address a rally of his supporters on the Ellipse near the White House.
When all of those efforts inevitably fall short, few close to the President believe he will stop. Despite losing dozens of court challenges, Trump remains ever-hopeful that new cases will arise lending credibility to his false claims, people around him said. As even some staunch allies begin distancing themselves, Trump is lashing out.
“The “Surrender Caucus” within the Republican Party will go down in infamy as weak and ineffective “guardians” of our Nation, who were willing to accept the certification of fraudulent presidential numbers!” he tweeted Monday after top allies in the Senate — including Sen. Tom Cotton — said they would not support efforts to delay certification of the Electoral College.
With the end of his term nearing, Trump has continued to discuss ways of interrupting — or at least counter-programing — President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20. Few aides expect Trump to attend the scaled-down event, which Biden’s team has said will feature a virtual parade instead of the traditional procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Trump himself hasn’t made his intentions known, though while in Florida recently, asked others whether he should go.