Trump Moves Into the Burn-It-Down Phase

The president’s White House press conference showed that he knows his reelection prospects are fading, and he’ll try anything to keep power.

The president leaves the White House briefing room.
Evan Vucci / AP

President Donald Trump tonight raised the threat of a constitutional crisis to a new level. He issued an extraordinary series of baseless charges about the election he is on the verge of losing—that Democrats were stealing the vote, that the media had deliberately released “phony polls” to suppress Republican turnout, that “corrupt” officials in Detroit and Philadelphia were finding Democratic ballots to whittle away his supposed lead.

They were shocking things for a sitting president to say. He promised “a lot of litigation” and held out hope that the Supreme Court, now with a 6–3 conservative majority thanks to his appointments, would save him. But despite his fighting words, his body language betrayed a far different tone. He read from a prepared statement on his lectern, barely looking up at the cameras, his voice a flat monotone devoid of the verve he deploys to whip thousands of people into a frenzy at his rallies. The president’s most devout loyalists respond best to his energy, to the high-decibel passion, and occasionally indignant anger, that he brings to the stump. This speech contained none of that. Trump is a showman who prizes presentation above everything else, who watches his interviews with the sound off, who critiques appearances with precision, who famously mocks his opponents as “sleepy” and “low energy.” When Trump goes back to watch his performance tonight, he’ll see a salesman who wasn’t selling.

What matters, of course, is not what Trump says, or how he says it, but what he does—and what his supporters do at his behest.

Trump gave the speech his opponents had been fearing, one that signaled he might use the considerable tools at his disposal—the machinery of government, willing Republican allies, compliant conservative courts—to hold on to power and thwart the will of the voters. Trump might well pursue that course, but his argument was largely nonsensical, and his complaints about the late counting of mail-in ballots—as stale as they are at this point—stem from dynamics his own allies created. The health risk of the pandemic led to the surge in interest in voting by mail, and Trump’s attacks on the practice’s integrity resulted in a huge partisan skew in the people who availed themselves of that option. In states such as Pennsylvania, Democrats begged the Republicans who control the legislature to allow county officials to begin counting those early ballots before Election Day to ensure a prompt result, as they do in GOP-led states such as Florida, which Trump won. But those lawmakers refused.

On Fox News, John Roberts described Trump’s remarks as the words of a man who was losing and trying to hold on to power. Even the loyal New York Post described the president as “downcast” and his charges as “baseless.” The talkers on CNN were even more withering: Jake Tapper deemed the appearance a disgrace. “We knew the president wasn’t going to lose gracefully, if he lost,” he told viewers. “But frankly, watching him flail like this is just pathetic.” Trump’s lone nominal defender on the network, former Senator Rick Santorum, said the president’s accusations were without merit and “dangerous.” Anderson Cooper likened the president to “an obese turtle on his back, flailing in the hot sun.”

GOP lawmakers weren’t buying it either. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, the lone Republican to vote to remove the president from office earlier this year, tweeted, “Counting every vote is at the heart of democracy.” The soon-to-be governor of his state, Spencer Cox, urged Americans not to believe “unfounded allegations that destroy trust in the process.” Representative Will Hurd of Texas said the president’s speech was “not only dangerous and wrong, it undermines the very foundation this nation was built upon.”

Despite Trump’s lack of punch, there was—as Santorum noted—still danger in his message. If the election has demonstrated anything, it is that there are millions of Americans who hang on to the president’s every word, and who, even if he eventually vacates the White House, will believe that his defeat was fraudulent. Among conservatives, there is already talk of asking Republicans in the Pennsylvania state legislature to overrule the popular will and submit their own electors on Trump’s behalf. (A top GOP lawmaker in the state has reiterated, through a spokesman, that they will not do that.) Asked whether Republicans in the state should “invalidate” the election, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina replied: “I think everything should be on the table.” Trump’s supporters haven’t stormed the streets en masse, but they have gathered outside election offices in Detroit, Philadelphia, and elsewhere to protest the counting of legitimate ballots. The registrar of Clark County, Nevada, Joe Gloria, told reporters today that he was “concerned for the safety of my staff.”

The president gave no indication that he cared about any of that. As he was speaking tonight, the tallies that could spell his defeat kept coming in—another few thousand votes for Joe Biden in Georgia and, shortly thereafter, a few thousand shaved off Trump’s shrinking lead in Pennsylvania. The president seemed to know the end was coming. As he slunk away, a reporter shouted after him: “Are you being a sore loser?” Trump ignored him and left the room.