Everyone was exhausted, everyone except the boss.
“This is without question,” President Trump joked in a little unscripted moment early Wednesday morning, “the latest news conference I have ever had.” It was just after 2:00 a.m., and the populist elites who had filed into the East Room earlier Tuesday evening laughed at the grueling but unmistakable reality that, while they had left the campaign trail, the campaign still continued.
“I want to thank the American people for their tremendous support. Millions and millions of people voted for us tonight,” Trump said before condemning the “very sad group of people trying to disenfranchise that group of people.”
He declared victory, though the results in several states were still undeclared. He promised to fight, even launch a legal challenge with the Supreme Court to ensure “all voting” stops. He said the race should be over, even while acknowledging that it wasn’t.
Joe Biden had already addressed his supporters an hour-and-a-half earlier and a hundred miles north in a Wilmington, Del., parking lot. The former vice president also projected an aura of confidence in his own chances, though he stopped short of declaring victory. In truth, neither man knew. Nor did the rest of the nation. But with Trump defying the pre-election pollsters in key battleground states – and forging ahead in some of them as the clock ticked past midnight -- the dynamic between the two men diverged. The president wanted the votes counted quickly and expressed frustration at any delays. Biden urged his supporters to stay patient, to stay vigilant as ballots were tallied. “It ain’t over,” he insisted, “until every vote is counted.”
At dawn on Nov. 4, Biden was leading with 225 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 213, according to the RealClearPolitics tracker. A legal battle now looms about which remaining ballots in what undecided states should or should not be counted as the election drags on.
Most prominent prognosticators had insisted up until the first election returns started coming in that Trump had little chance of winning, a sentiment summed up by Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight analysis, which favored the Democratic nominee to win the White House by a nine-to-one margin.
But Trump set a frantic pace in the final days, holding rallies and drawing big crowds across the country. A source inside the East Room said last night that the eyes of his campaign staff “were obviously heavy,” and that after the final campaign slog the staff seemed “tired and exhausted but were also competing with [Trump] and his energy.” They spent the final hours of Election Day eating their fill of burgers and fries from the White House mess.
Seating was limited and seats closely guarded, a reminder of the ongoing pandemic — coronavirus restrictions that limit gatherings to just 50 people in Washington had forced the campaign to relocate the party from Trump International Hotel to the White House. A source familiar with that move told RCP that the president had personally cut down the list "to keep it small.”
Two giant television screens were set up at the front and tuned to Fox News throughout the night. Guests cheered as Trump held on to most the states that he won in 2016, and optimism grew that Republicans might also maintain control of the Senate. At 11 p.m., when Sen. Lindsey Graham taunted the liberal donors who funded his Democratic challenger for having “the worst return on investment in the history of American politics,” the room erupted.
Twenty minutes later, it erupted again, this time in a negative way and for another reason: the Fox News projection – long before any other network -- that Arizona, which Trump carried in 2016, had flipped to Biden in 2020. The development even took Bill Hemmer by surprise as he stood by the network’s digital map. “What is happening here? Why is Arizona blue?” the reporter asked on air. “Did we just call it? Did we just make a call in Arizona?” The “decision desk” had, and according to sources inside the room, some White House partygoers began to gripe that maybe CNN actually did a better job of reporting results.
The campaign reacted accordingly. Trump spokesman Jason Miller tweeted to warn other journalists that the Fox projection was an outlier. There were still another million votes waiting to be counted, he said. “We pushed our people to vote on Election Day, but now Fox News is trying to invalidate their votes!”
Arnon Mishkin, who runs Fox News Decision Desk, wasn’t rattled by the criticism. “I’m sorry,” he said on air later in the evening, “the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes to eliminate that seven-point lead that the former vice president has.”
Sarah Huckabee Sanders left the party half-an-hour after the Arizona projection. “I’m still not sure if that was a premature call,” the former White House press secretary said during an interview with the network on the White House lawn. “I think there are some people that still think that might have been a little bit early.”
This would become a theme. Trump World, including those gathered at the White House, wanted to know how the network could declare a winner in the state while withholding judgment on others, such as Ohio and Florida. It remained a topic of consternation throughout the evening and into the early morning. When Trump finally emerged from the presidential residence with his family in tow, he tried quieting fears by saying that the Arizona projection “could be overturned.”
At that point in the night, he was still leading in Michigan and Wisconsin. “Most importantly,” he said, turning his attention to another state, “we’re winning Pennsylvania by a tremendous amount of votes.”
Election officials, meanwhile, were working around the clock in shifts in that state to handle a crush of mail-in-ballots. Republicans fear that those votes will shrink Trump’s margin, and that there could be some foul play after the fact. This, the president said, was evidence that his opponents were trying to steal the election.
“I’ve been saying this from the day I heard they were going to send out tens of millions of ballots,” Trump told the early morning crowd that had started to thin. He vowed to take the issue to the Supreme Court, where the outcome of the election could be decided by nine justices, including recently confirmed Trump nominee Amy Coney Barrett.
“We want all voting to stop,” the president said. “We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. Okay? It’s a very sad moment. To me this is a very sad moment and we will win this. And as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.”
But that was an open question, not the answer. The former vice president revealed as much in his carefully parsed words to Democratic supporters. So did the current vice president, when invited by his boss to say a few words.
“I truly do believe, as you do,” Mike Pence said in tempering the president’s optimism, “that we are on the road to victory.”
The crowd cheered. The president then thanked them one more time. Trump World filtered out of the White House to catch a few hours of sleep ahead of another day of hard fighting.