Trump defeat leaves chastened White House wondering what’s next

Trump returns to the White House following the news that Democrat rival Joe Biden won the US presidential election. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - President Donald Trump's aides described a leadership vacuum in the White House on Saturday (Nov 7) after he lost re-election and internal finger-pointing began, even as his associates wondered how he would grapple with defeat.

The race was called while Trump was at his golf course in northern Virginia. Many of his exhausted aides had headed home for the weekend, to rest and to escape the latest coronavirus outbreak sweeping the West Wing.

Outside the White House, a jubilant crowd of Joe Biden supporters from across the Washington region gathered to celebrate on what the city has named Black Lives Matters Plaza. The halls of the White House itself were largely empty.

There was no all-hands staff meeting or memo on how officials should react. It was a marked contrast from the scene four years ago, when, after Trump won election, President Barack Obama gathered his own despondent staff in the Oval Office for a pep talk.

The void has left staffers unsure what's next. Trump's advisers are split on how far to take various legal fights, delaying consideration of strategy both politically and in the courts. And the campaign has offered little additional clarity to surrogates, even as they gird them to contest an election that appears beyond the president's reach.

Hands Out

Most of the people interviewed for this story asked not to be identified discussing internal conversations.

Dan Eberhart, a donor who gave the president at least US$100,000 (S$130,000) towards his re-election effort, said the mood among Republicans is one of "despair."

The Trump campaign held a call with donors on Saturday morning and asked for contributions to fund the president's post-election legal fights. Eberhart said that he couldn't immediately remember a time when fund-raising, in particular, was the subject of a surrogate call.

"The message was just, they will keep fighting," Eberhart said.

One close outside adviser to the president said Trump had erred by not simplifying his legal argument: request recounts, as well as review and adjudication of any irregularities or allegations of criminal behaviour. That would have put the onus on Democrats to defend any opposition to recounts and ballot-count observers, the adviser said.

Instead, the president's effort to contest the election outcome is haphazard and appears unlikely to change the final results.

No Concrete Examples

Minutes after networks called the race for Biden, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani appeared outside a Philadelphia landscaping company, nestled between a crematorium and an adult film store, to declare that the president wouldn't concede. He and a Trump adviser, Corey Lewandowksi, insisted the Pennsylvania election had been riddled with irregularities, if not outright fraud, but provided no concrete examples.

Rudy Giuliani speaks in Philadelphia after the media said Biden had won the US election. PHOTO: AFP
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In Nevada earlier in the week, two Trump allies - former acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell and American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp - refused during an impromptu news conference to tell local reporters their names, much less field questions about their claims of voter fraud in the state.

And in Wisconsin, the state has requested US$3 million from Trump's campaign to pay for a recount - a sizable financial commitment for an organisation that's using some of the donations to its legal effort to pay off unspecified debts.

Another person close to the president predicted that the blame game will soon begin in earnest.

Pointing at Meadows

Some finger-pointing will undoubtedly be reserved for Trump's fourth chief of staff, Mark Meadows. He regularly downplayed dire warnings from members of the president's coronavirus task force, instead encouraging the president to push the nation to reopen - despite polls showing deep voter concern over the pandemic.

Meadows was absent from the West Wing on Saturday, having been diagnosed himself this week with coronavirus. At least four other White House aides and one campaign staffer also tested positive in the second major White House-linked outbreak in less than a month.

The infections sent a new ripple of anxiety through Trump's world, with public videos emerging of Meadows, maskless, interacting with nearly every major campaign and White House official in the days before his diagnosis.

Among those potentially exposed was presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, who's fruitlessly attempted to salvage a campaign he largely dictated - particularly after the president demoted campaign manager Brad Parscale and replaced him with former White House political aide Bill Stepien in July.

'Like a Gladiator'

People around the president believe Trump will concede defeat in some form, at some point.

Mick Mulvaney, the president's former acting chief of staff, said he expected Trump to "fight like a gladiator until the election is conclusively determined," but to ultimately respect the results.

"The US needs to know that the winner is actually the winner," Mulvaney wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "And once Americans know that, I have every expectation that Mr. Trump will be, act and speak like a great president should - win or lose."

Others said that what the president most desires to avoid is the perception of failure. In a national address Thursday night, Trump touted his party's Senate victories and gains in the House, his success adding non-white voters to his column since 2016, and the record-setting number of female Republican candidates elected to office on Tuesday - an effort to burnish his political standing even in defeat.

And at least one ally predicted Trump might declare that he will run again in 2024 even before his term concludes in January.

"Let Biden have it," the person said. "We'll take it back in four years."

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