WASHINGTON – With Florida looking red early on Tuesday night (Nov 3), President Donald Trump and his advisers thought they were witnessing a repeat of election night 2016, when a victory in Florida foreshadowed a victory overall.
Inside the East Room, the mood was upbeat as hundreds of people, including Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and former officials who have remained loyal to Mr Trump, mingled and dined on sliders and french fries.
Officials who had been pessimistic about the President’s re-election chances suddenly started to picture four more years in power.
That mirage of victory was pierced when Fox News called Arizona for former vice-president Joe Biden at 11.20pm, with just 73 per cent of the state’s vote counted.
Mr Trump and his advisers erupted at the news. If it was true that Arizona was lost, it would call into doubt on any claim of victory the President might be able to make.
What ensued for Mr Trump was a night of angry calls to Republican governors and advice from campaign aides that he ignored, leading to a middle-of-the-night presidential briefing in which he made a reckless and unsubstantiated string of remarks about the democratic process.
Standing in the East Room at 2.30am, he dismissed the election as a “fraud” and claimed he wanted to stop the counting of votes and leave the results to the Supreme Court.
The Trump campaign knew Arizona could be up for grabs, but the Fox News call putting it in Mr Biden’s column was symbolic, making it the first state that appeared to have flipped from the President’s 2016 batch of winning states.
Governor Doug Ducey, an Arizona Republican, had been on the phone all night with administration officials and campaign staff members, adamant that there were still Republican votes to be counted in his state.
Mr Jason Miller, Mr Trump’s political adviser, disputed the accuracy of the call on Twitter and frantically called Fox News, asking the network to retract it. He was unsuccessful.
Instead of retracting it, the decision desk at Fox News doubled down on its call, putting Mr Arnon Mishkin, the head of the network’s election decision desk, on air to defend the call.
Several hours later, The Associated Press also called Arizona for Mr Biden. (Other news organisations, including The New York Times and CNN, had not declared a victor by Wednesday afternoon because of absentee ballots that remained to be counted.)
Mr Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser, was also in touch with Mr Rupert Murdoch, the News owner, as the night wore on.
And on Wednesday morning, Mr Trump’s campaign manager, Mr Bill Stepien, insisted the President would win Arizona by 30,000 votes.
Keeping Arizona in play was critical to the narrow path the campaign still saw to a victory on Wednesday, along with Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Mr Trump spent much of Tuesday evening and early Wednesday watching election results roll in on Fox News from the White House residence, where he connected with several Republican governors on the phone.
In conversations with Governor Greg Abbott of Texas and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, he asked about the possibility that fraud was being committed, according to people briefed on the call.
On Twitter, Mr Ducey insisted that all the counting be completed before anyone else called the state.
Angry and feeling stung, the President and his aides watched as Mr Biden gave a brief speech in Wilmington, Delaware, projecting victory for himself.
“We feel good about where we are, we really do,” Mr Biden told supporters, who honked their horns in support.
“We believe we are on track to win this election.”
While Mr Biden was speaking, the President tweeted for the first time all night, baselessly claiming that Democrats were trying to “steal” the election.
In a follow-up tweet, he said that he, too, would deliver remarks. A podium with a presidential seal had already been set up in the East Room.
Mr Trump’s advisers tried to persuade Mr Trump to speak in the East Room before Mr Biden made his remarks in Wilmington, but they were unsuccessful. Instead, they sat and watched as Mr Biden set the tone for the night.
So it was hours before Mr Trump actually appeared in the East Room.
In the Oval Office, he huddled with aides who discussed how to frame the state of the race and whether he could declare victory or should take a more subtle tone.
He did not choose the latter approach.
“This is a fraud on the American public,” he told a crowd of supporters at 2.30am, in remarks that were immediately criticised even by some of his own allies, like Mr Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor.
The President continued: “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win the election.”
As the map closed in on the Trump campaign on Wednesday, with Michigan and Wisconsin being called for Mr Biden, the President was not seen in public all day.
A Marine who stands guard in front of the West Wing doors when the President is in the Oval Office had not been spotted all day.
From the residence, Mr Trump continued making calls to supporters and friends throughout the morning, sounding subdued and somewhat dispirited to some people.
Outside the White House, finger-pointing about what went wrong had already begun.
Some aides said that Mr Trump had often resisted entreaties from Ms Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, and Mr Brad Parscale, his former campaign manager, and others to spend more time in Arizona.
But they said he had resisted in part because he did not like travelling west and spending the night on the road.
They and several other aides had also tried and failed to get Mr Trump to stop attacking an Arizona favourite son and war hero, Senator John McCain, a Republican whom the President has continued to criticise even after the senator’s death two years ago.
There were also questions as to whether, had the campaign not spent so much money before the coronavirus pandemic began, it might have had extra resources to spend in states where Mr Biden had won or was leading by slim margins, like Wisconsin, Michigan and Nevada.
But others defended the early spending by Mr Parscale, who among other things had focused on increasing the President’s turnout with Latino voters, who ended up being a key part of his support in Florida.
On Wednesday, the President’s family was heavily involved in efforts to question the validity of the vote tallies.
Mr Trump had joked at a rally that if he lost, he would never speak to any of his adult children again.
Mr Kushner was making calls, looking for what he described as a “James Baker-like” figure who could lead the legal effort to dispute the tabulations in different states, according to a person briefed on the discussions. (Mr Baker led Mr George W. Bush’s successful recount case in 2000.)
The President’s eldest son, Mr Donald Trump Jr, was working out of the campaign headquarters in Virginia.
Another son, Mr Eric Trump, whose wife, Lara, has been heavily involved in campaign activities, spoke at a news conference in Philadelphia, alongside former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
“They’re not letting poll watchers watch the polls,” a visibly angry Eric Trump said, in a baseless attempt to cast doubt on the ballot counting still ongoing in Pennsylvania.
Mr Giuliani, the President’s personal lawyer, also made the groundless assertion that the election in Pennsylvania was being stolen.
He also floated the idea of a “national lawsuit” about allegations of fraud, but it was not clear what that meant.
For all of the President’s superstitions, and his attempts to surround himself with the team that helped lead him to victory four years ago, he found himself in a far weaker position this time.
In the final weeks before Election Day, Mr Kushner reassembled a group of people who had been involved in Mr Trump’s first campaign, including the former White House deputy chief of staff, Ms Katie Walsh, to work with Mr Miller and others on the final weeks of spending on television.
But by Wednesday, several White House officials and outside advisers said they were hopeful, but not particularly optimistic, that Mr Trump’s legal challenges in several states would be able to change the trajectory of the race.
The President himself tweeted a suggestion that “a large number of secretly dumped ballots” had cost him Michigan, a message Twitter quickly labelled misleading.