Despite Trump and his campaign’s baseless allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election, the scenes of Saturday — and indeed much of the three days before it — don’t exactly paint a picture of a campaign working tirelessly and strategically to overturn the results of its impending loss. The question has always been whether these allegations were truly about legal challenges or about Trump claiming he never actually lost in the first place, and it’s looking more and more like it’s the latter.
Trump has spent the five days since the election occasionally tweeting missives about how the election has been stolen from him, but he’s spoken formally only once since the wee hours after election night. And even that performance Thursday, while substantively defiant, was visually and oratorically downcast.
Trump’s lawyers have repeatedly cast about haphazard legal theories about malfeasance in the election, which has led to losses and even some embarrassing scenes in front of judges who were asked to actually evaluate them. In one case, the lawyers tried to avoid admitting their people were indeed allowed to observe the vote-counting process in Philadelphia, only to have the George W. Bush-appointed judge ridicule their presentation. Elections officials in many key states, including some Republicans, have also denounced the arguments as being baseless.
The funding and spending for the Trump legal efforts also speaks to the possibility that this isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
For instance, the campaign is soliciting donations for its “official election defense fund,” but the fine print shows half of the donations are to be used for another purpose: to retire the campaign’s debt. That’s a particularly conspicuous clause given Trump had previously said he might put up his own money for his reelection effort; even as he swears he has a legitimate legal case, he’s not just declining to use his own money, but he’s diverting half the money raised for it to another purpose tied to the winding down of the campaign. (The imbalance is even bigger for a related effort, with 40 percent going to the Republican National Committee and 60 percent going to retire Trump’s campaign debt.)
The Trump campaign has also not, for instance, put up the approximately $3 million required for a recount in Wisconsin. Biden’s margin of victory there is about 0.6 percent, and it’s likely to be the third-closest state, meaning its result would likely need to be overturned for Trump to have any shot. Perhaps the Trump legal team believes that money might be better spent in other ways, given recounts usually only shift a few hundred votes, but it doesn’t exactly suggest an all-hands-on-deck effort.
That practical math is also worth emphasizing in this moment. Not only was Biden declared the winner Saturday after carrying Pennsylvania, but he soon also won in Nevada, bringing him to 279 electoral votes. And he’s also ahead in two of the three competitive states that have yet to be called: Georgia, where the margin is about 0.2 percent, and Arizona, where it’s at 0.6 percent and closing.
The decisive states are likely to all be decided by less than one percentage point — the same as in 2016 — which would suggest that legal challenges might plausibly succeed. But Trump’s biggest emerging problem is that he’d need to overturn the results in multiple states. In fact, he’d need to do so in at least three states, as things currently stand.
So this isn’t like 2000, when it was a matter of several hundred votes in one decisive state: Florida. The effort to overturn the result would need to be vastly bigger (in terms of raw votes and the number of states) and more diverse, given all states run their elections differently and different legal cases would need to be applied to each one.
It’s daunting math, and it’s math that foreign leaders — and even a handful of Republicans — are increasingly acknowledging, as they congratulate Biden on his win without allowing for the possibility that the result is truly up in the air. (Given Trump’s propensity for punishing people who run afoul of him, that’s significant.)
It’s also, if you read between the lines and ask Trump allies privately, something they seem to be coming to terms with — including perhaps Trump himself.
“The legal operation is designed for Trump to save face and ultimately give him the ability to say he didn’t lose the election fair and square,” one person close to the White House told The Washington Post. “So we’re going to roll with it.”