With millions of ballots still being counted, Trump awoke in an agitated state, tweeting or retweeting messages that sought to undermine confidence in the vote counting process. At least three were labeled by Twitter as “disputed” or “misleading.”
Several top Republicans, including those close to Senate Republican leaders, were privately dismissive of Trump’s suggestion that ballots shouldn’t be counted after Election Day.
And even his own campaign said in a call with reporters that Trump’s remaining path to victory will rely on those still-uncounted ballots in places where the process of tabulating results has taken longer.
What emerged was a picture of a President intent on using all the tools at his disposal to force a victory, including wielding misinformation about the integrity of the vote and an onslaught of legal maneuvers, even as the results were still coming in and his advisers insisted the math would turn in his favor.
As the day unfolded, Trump’s legal strategy was becoming clearer, though it contained contradictions.
In states where Trump appears to be losing, such as Wisconsin, the campaign said it would request a recount. CNN has projected Biden will win in Wisconsin.
But in other states, where current results show Trump winning but outstanding mail-in or early votes could tilt the race in favor of Biden, the campaign is demanding the vote counting be halted.
In Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump’s campaign filed lawsuits demanding a stop to the count until their campaign observers have better access to locations where the tallying is occurring. CNN also projected Biden would win Michigan.
In addition, the campaign said it was asking the US Supreme Court to intervene in a pending case challenging a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that allowed ballots to be counted after Election Day. The justices refused to expedite the appeal before the election, but they are still considering whether to take up the case.
A team of Trump advisers mobilized to Pennsylvania, which the President had signaled would be the site of intensive legal efforts should results show him losing. Trump supporters began receiving a barrage of fundraising solicitations to finance what will amount to an expensive and drawn-out legal fight.
“If we count all legal ballots, the President wins,” campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters on a quickly arranged midmorning conference call.
Trump, however, has projected less optimism in those routes and has instead sought to question the large batches of outstanding votes that have tipped some states toward Biden.
“They are finding Biden votes all over the place — in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. So bad for our Country!” he wrote on Twitter.
Aides were encouraging Trump to stay in the fight, though Trump hardly needed the nudge, a campaign adviser said on Wednesday. The President was livid watching Biden’s lead increase in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin.
“He feels it’s being stolen from him,” the adviser said.
But Trump offered a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of his team’s legal strategy in phone calls with some of his allies on Wednesday, sounding resigned to the plan falling short and questioning why his team hadn’t successfully challenged voting rules before the election, even as he remained willing to see it through.
According to a person who spoke to him, the President seemed tired after spending the night watching election returns. He spoke to several of his supporters behind closed doors at the White House as his team mobilized to begin the post-Election Day effort.
The President told one person he was willing to let the legal maneuvering proceed but suggested he did not believe it would be successful in the end. While he said he believes he will win in Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia, he was skeptical of the lawsuits filed by his team.
Trump hinted at his views in a tweet on Wednesday afternoon: “Our lawyers have asked for ‘meaningful access’, but what good does that do?” he wrote. “The damage has already been done to the integrity of our system, and to the Presidential Election itself. This is what should be discussed!”
Trump’s campaign has been feverishly soliciting funds for the legal effort, and after his tweet, one campaign adviser questioned why the President would undercut the effort at the same moment he is seeking money to support it.
Trump’s grip-like command of the Republican Party remains firmly in place, and does not appear poised to loosen after Tuesday night’s results. Few Republican elected officials spoke out against Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the vote counting process. Instead, most were silent or at least circumspect as the situation plays out.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who won his own reelection race on Tuesday, suggested at a news conference in Louisville that Trump’s premature declaration of victory was not binding.
“Claiming you win the election is different from finishing the counting,” he said.
Privately, however, those within Trump’s party were beginning to undercut his claims that fraudulent voting was leading to late Democratic surges in critical battlegrounds.
“No, we don’t agree with what’s coming out of the White House,” a senior GOP official said. “We see no credible reports of fraud or anything improper.”
Trump had long signaled he would not accept the results of a close election that showed him losing. He said in his wee-hours statement from the East Room that he would challenge the results in the US Supreme Court, and his legal team was moving swiftly to execute plans in individual states where the margins remain razor-thin, including in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Trump’s campaign signaled to its allies it plans to launch extensive legal challenges in those states. Stepien told campaign surrogates in a telephone call Wednesday morning that campaign lawyers are already on the ground in anticipation of filings, a person familiar with the matter said.
Trump campaign officials told allies on the call that the first likely step would be requesting recounts in states including Wisconsin and Michigan.
A few hours later, the campaign said in a statement it would request a recount in Wisconsin, though under Wisconsin law a campaign can’t petition for a recount until the state’s Election Commission completes the canvass from county election boards.
How much a recount would aid Trump’s efforts isn’t clear; a recount of the presidential vote in 2016 only netted Trump an additional few hundred votes. Biden was leading Trump by more than 20,000 votes as of Wednesday.
The Trump campaign also released a statement saying it had filed a lawsuit in Michigan asking the state to halt vote counting until it receives “meaningful access” to observe the opening of ballots and the counting process.
Trump signaled before the election his lawyers would intervene in Pennsylvania shortly after voting concluded, and officials told Trump allies on Wednesday morning they anticipated a filing there imminently.
Later, the campaign announced it was suing the commonwealth, claiming Democratic election officials are “hiding the ballot counting and processing” from Republican poll observers.
Trump deputy campaign manager Justin Clark said the campaign is “suing to temporarily halt counting until there is meaningful transparency and Republicans can ensure all counting is done aboveboard and by the law.”
Pennsylvania’s attorney general Josh Shapiro, appearing on CNN, called the lawsuit “more a political document than a legal document.”
A large cadre of Trump advisers, including his son Eric, senior advisers and daughter-in-law Lara Trump, former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi and senior adviser Corey Lewandowski were traveling to Philadelphia ahead of expected legal challenges. Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani also tweeted he had mobilized to Philadelphia.
Trump had no events on his schedule Wednesday, and Vice President Mike Pence’s schedule was similarly empty. Both were expected to remain in Washington to consult with campaign and legal teams about their next steps.
The previous evening, deliberations over what Trump would say when he emerged after midnight were at times intense, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump’s speech came around 2:30 a.m. ET, well after his rival spoke from Wilmington, Delaware. While teleprompters were set up for him to read from, he appeared to ad-lib much of his speech.
“This is without question the latest news conference I’ve ever had,” Trump said.
Speaking after him, Pence seemed to offer a drastically different message, saying that “while the votes continue to be counted, we’re going to remain vigilant.”
Trump openly acknowledged that he had felt better earlier in the evening on Tuesday, as invited guests nibbled on pigs-in-a-blanket and French fries on the State Floor of the White House and early results showed him edging former Vice President Joe Biden.
“Literally we were just all set to get outside and just celebrate something that was so beautiful, so good,” he said.
While 400 people had been invited to the party, far fewer actually attended, including several Fox News personalities and members of the President’s cabinet.
Trump made a brief appearance at the party early in the evening before retreating upstairs to his private residence. There, he conferred with a smaller group of campaign and White House advisers about how to proceed. A campaign “war room” had been established on the White House campus to provide Trump and his senior team real-time updates.
Other members of Trump’s inner circle, including members of his family, held a more private results-viewing party from the family dining room, where large televisions had been wheeled in and a sofa set up.
Trump’s early confidence turned to indignation when Fox News, the network airing on large televisions set up throughout the White House, projected Biden would win Arizona. Trump’s campaign publicly called on the network to retract the projection and on Wednesday morning, the President’s campaign manager insisted to reporters that Arizona remained in play.
“Late-arriving votes cast closest to Election Day are the ones being counted now,” Bill Stepien said, adding they expect between two-thirds and 70% of the remaining uncounted ballots would be “coming to the President.”
“That math adds up to a margin of around 30,000 votes in the President’s favor,” Stepien said, adding that Arizona “will come the President’s way.”
Biden’s campaign offered an entirely different assessment on its own briefing call, saying they believed the former vice president had won in Arizona and was on track to win Michigan and Wisconsin.
Despite the confidence projected by the Trump campaign, not everyone on that team was feeling optimistic waking up on Wednesday.
“We are clearly in a corner here,” one senior official said.
But the official cautioned that the campaign is not yet out of the game, and campaign officials have continued to claim both publicly and privately that they think they have shot if they can get Arizona and Nevada into their column.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign was desperately fundraising the day after the election for resources to wage legal battles against election results. The campaign sent out six emails to supporters after midnight asking for money. Each of the solicitations included the false claim that Democrats are trying to “steal” the election.
There is no evidence of nefarious activity surrounding the election count.
At a rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the eve of the election day, Trump said campaign lawyers “will be going in and they’ll be fighting.”
This story has been updated with additional reporting on Trump’s state of mind.
CNN’s Jim Acosta, Jeff Zeleny, Sarah Westwood, Betsy Klein and Greg Clary contributed to this report.