The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s campaign posted a ‘President Gore’ headline to question the election. The image was fake.

Democrats on Nov. 8 criticized President Trump for not conceding to President-elect Joe Biden, while some Republicans defended challenges in the courts. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump campaign staffers this weekend found the refrigerator door and kitchen cabinets in their Arlington, Va., headquarters plastered with an evocative front page. The Washington Times edition dated Nov. 8, 2000, declared “PRESIDENT GORE” above an image of then-vice president Al Gore.

The message was clear, Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a since-deleted tweet on Sunday morning.

“Greeting staff @TeamTrumpHQ this morning, a reminder that the media doesn’t select the President,” he tweeted, echoing President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud and refusal to accept President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

But the front page was faked. And the Times, a conservative publication, called out Murtaugh over it.

“Those photos have been doctored. The Washington Times never ran a ‘President Gore’ headline,” the paper’s main account responded to Murtaugh’s tweet. In a second tweet, the newspaper added that Murtaugh was “officially notified via email about this error.”

Murtaugh, who didn’t return a message from The Washington Post, told Axios he didn’t know the images were doctored. He also told CNN the images were “fake news.”

Twitter users soon dug up images of the actual Times cover from that date, which included a headline that read, “PRESIDENT BUSH.”

Additionally, images of the fabricated front page show that whoever edited the page did not change the lead story, which clearly distinguishes George W. Bush as the winner.

The printouts were intended to galvanize staffers as the Trump campaign files lawsuits alleging election officials did not follow proper procedures and alleging irregularities in the counting of votes. Thus far, none of the Trump campaign’s claims have panned out.

Major media outlets, including The Washington Post, called Pennsylvania for Biden on Saturday; the commonwealth’s 20 electoral votes pushed the former vice president past the 270 mark needed to clinch the presidency.

Concession speeches have been an integral part of the electoral process. Here are some famous moments. (Video: The Washington Post)

The campaign’s attempt to compare 2020 with 2000 through a doctored newspaper front page is the latest attempt to diminish the media’s credibility when calling a presidential race. Though the non-doctored page would have achieved a similar point, since Bush had not yet solidified his win.

In 2000, with the votes in Florida razor-close, TV networks went back and forth on calling the race — first they said Gore won, then retracted, then said Bush won, followed by another retraction at 4 a.m. Similarly, newspapers grappled with meeting print deadlines with an accurate front-page headline, and thousands of outlets nationwide declared Bush the winner, the Baltimore Sun reported in 2000. The editorial decision that played out in newsrooms that night preceded weeks of recounts and a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court that settled the Florida vote dispute and secured the presidency for Bush.

The pitfalls of media coverage from the 2000 election served as a cautionary tale for journalists covering this year’s election, where forecasts called for a tight race in which ballot counting could continue for days, or even weeks, given the higher volume of mail-in votes due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden’s victory seemed clear for more than a day. So why did the media hold off on calling it?

For months, Trump preemptively undermined the process and spread conspiracy theories on social media about voter fraud, without providing any evidence. Once networks, newspapers and news sites called the election for Biden on Saturday, Trump escalated his efforts to ridicule and discredit the media, calling into question the decades-long traditional role of declaring a winner — as news organizations did in 2016 when Trump won.

“Since when does the Lamestream Media call who our next president will be?” the president tweeted on Sunday afternoon.

Trump continues to defy election results as world and some in GOP begin to move on

The media, though, does not have the authority to solidify a transfer of power. The states will have to certify their results before the electoral college meets next month, when electors will cast ballots and are expected to follow the vote of their states.

World leaders have accepted the results and offered their congratulations to Biden. But Trump has remained stubborn in his defiance of the election results, casting doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in votes, and refusing to accommodate the beginning processes of a transfer of power.

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.