President Donald Trump arrives at Election Day on Tuesday toggling between confidence and exasperation, bravado and grievance, and marinating in frustration that he is trailing Joe Biden, whom he considers an unworthy opponent.
“Man, it’s going to be embarrassing if I lose to this guy,” Trump has told advisers, a lament he has aired publicly as well. But in the off-camera version, Trump frequently exclaims, “This guy!” in reference to Biden, with a salty adjective separating the words.
Trailing in most polls, Trump has careened through a marathon series of rallies in the past week, trying to tear down Biden and energize his supporters, but also fixated on crowd size and targeting perceived enemies like the news media and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s infectious disease expert whom he suggested Sunday he might try to dismiss after the election.
At every turn, the president has railed that the voting system is rigged against him and has threatened to sue when the election is over, in an obvious bid to undermine an electoral process strained by the coronavirus pandemic. It is not clear, however, precisely what legal instruments Trump believes he has at his disposal.
The president, his associates say, has drawn encouragement from his larger audiences and from a stream of relatively upbeat polling information that advisers have curated for him, typically filtering out the bleakest numbers.
On a trip to Florida last week, several aides told the president that winning the Electoral College was a certainty, a prognosis not supported by Republican or Democratic polling, according to people familiar with the conversation. And Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, has responded with chipper enthusiasm when Trump has raised the idea of making a late bid for solidly Democratic states like New Mexico, an option other aides have told the president is unrealistic.
His mad dash to the finish is a distillation of his four tumultuous years in office, a mix of resentment, combativeness and a penchant for viewing events through a prism all his own — and perhaps the hope that everything will work out for him in the end, the way it did four years ago when he surprised himself, his advisers and the world by winning the White House.
But by enclosing himself in the thin bubble of his own worldview, Trump may have further severed himself from the political realities of a country in crisis. And that, in turn, has helped enable Trump to wage a campaign offering no central message, no clear agenda for a second term and no answer to the woes of the pandemic.
Most people in the president’s inner circle share his optimism about the outcome of the race, even as they fight exhaustion and the president’s whipsawing moods, interviews with more than a dozen aides and allies showed. But some advisers acknowledge that it would require several factors to fall into place. They spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations.
Republican lawmakers have offered less rosy assessments of his prospects, and in private some Trump advisers do not argue the point. One high-ranking Republican member of Congress vented to Meadows last month that if Trump “is trying to lose the election I can’t think of anything I’d tell him to do differently,” the lawmaker recalled, noting that the aide only nodded his head in acknowledgment. “They just think they can’t do anything about it.”
Beyond the capital, though, some Republicans insist that Trump can again defy the odds, and that a devoted base will fuel a traditional GOP surge in Election Day voters.
Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida who appeared with Trump in Tampa last week, described the president as “a lock” in the state.
“You can take it to the bank and cash the check,” Gruters said, adding of the Democrats: “We’re crushing them on the ground. That’s what’s going to make the difference.”
Seldom far from Trump’s thoughts, however, is the possibility of defeat — and the potential consequences of being ejected from the White House.
In unguarded moments, Trump has for weeks told advisers that he expects to face intensifying scrutiny from prosecutors if he loses. He is concerned not only about existing investigations in New York, but the potential for new federal probes as well, according to people who have spoken with him.
While Trump has not aired those worries in the open, he has railed against the democratic process, raising baseless doubts about the integrity of the vote.
He has also mused about prematurely declaring victory Tuesday night, but if there’s any organized plan to do so his top lieutenants are not conveying it to their allies. One congressional strategist said that he spoke to Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, on Sunday and that Kushner not only didn’t ask for buy-in from Capitol Hill Republicans for such a plan but also didn’t mention the prospect at all.
Trump’s advisers do continue to believe he has a realistic chance of besting Biden, but they concede it would take a last-minute breakthrough in one of the Great Lakes states where he is trailing. Some Republicans, however, are already bracing for losses or close calls in a series of Sun Belt states — and expressing alarm that Trump may have turned some of them prematurely blue in the same fashion that Barack Obama’s 2008 landslide made Virginia and Colorado Democratic bulwarks.
“Arizona and Georgia are a big deal,” said Nick Everhart, a Republican strategist. “That’s a shift people thought would come but once they’re gone they’re hard to reel back.”
The president himself has done little to strengthen his chances in the final days of the race. On Friday, Trump used a rally in Michigan to float a baseless theory that doctors are classifying patients’ deaths as related to the coronavirus in order to make more money, drawing fierce condemnation from medical groups, as well as Biden and Obama.
And on Saturday, in Pennsylvania at the site where George Washington mapped out his Delaware crossing during the Revolution, aides wrote out a sober speech for the president to deliver. Midway through, he seemed to get bored and began to riff about the size of Biden’s sunglasses.
He has frequently used his speeches to deliver long diatribes against Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, even though some Trump advisers believe the whole subject is a sideshow in the midst of a public-health disaster. But Trump associates say he simply enjoys attacking the Biden family.
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