The math is simple. Trump lost the electoral college 306 to 232. To win a second term, Trump would need to somehow pry 38 electoral votes away from Biden. That means that he would have to overturn the results of at least three states, barring some sort of miracle in which it is suddenly determined that he won California. Even wresting away the three states in which Trump lost by the narrowest vote totals — Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin — wouldn’t do the trick: That would get him only 37 electoral votes. He would basically have to somehow finagle a win in Pennsylvania plus two of Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin to get a second consecutive term in office. And it’s increasingly obvious that that’s not going to happen.
In Arizona, he has no route to overturning the results. The state does not allow candidates to call for recounts, and recounts are done only if the results are within one-tenth of 1 percent. (As of writing, the margin between Trump and Biden is three times that.) Trump’s campaign pushed to have Election Day ballots reviewed, later amending that request to focus only on ballots where scanners indicated that voters made multiple selections in a contest, invalidating the ballot. If the scanner was wrong, there may be votes to be found — but only 191 presidential votes met that standard, with Trump down more than 10,000.
In Georgia, a recount is underway as mandated by law. A Bloomberg News review of the proceedings published Sunday afternoon found that 48 of 159 counties in the state had completed their reviews of the votes cast. In most cases, only a handful of additional votes were added. Biden’s margin of victory in the state is more than 14,000 votes. Trump’s campaign had tried to have absentee ballots invalidated; the lawsuit was thrown out.
In Wisconsin, the Trump campaign can request a recount after votes are finalized in each county, the deadline for which is Tuesday. If it chooses to do so, the results are likely to mirror those in Georgia. Unlike in Georgia, the campaign itself will have to foot the bill. (Even though the state pays for the recount in Georgia, that has not prevented the Trump campaign from making fundraising pitches related to the effort.)
Remember: Trump needs two of these states and Pennsylvania. And in Pennsylvania, the campaign's already long-shot legal effort was significantly pared back in a revised court filing this weekend. Where it once sought to block the inclusion of hundreds of thousands of votes after claiming that observers were too “far away from the action” — though still present — the suit now focuses on whether voters were allowed to fix rejected absentee ballots. If this argument is upheld, the effect would be limited to a small fraction of votes cast.
The Trump campaign insists that it is still contesting those hundreds of thousands of ballots, despite the suit dropping any requests for remediation centered on the issue. Trump’s attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani has been pounding the figurative table on Twitter, asserting that those ballots are still being disputed.
Shortly after the election, Trump’s legal effort was more robust than it is presently, involving a number of lawyers from various firms. Over the past two weeks, that team has narrowed significantly, with Trump announcing over the weekend that it is now being led by a group of five longtime loyalists.
You will recognize Giuliani as the architect of Trump’s effort to impugn Biden with dubious allegations about his son’s business dealings, among other things. Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, who are married, overlap heavily with Giuliani on that effort and in general, including having employed the two Giuliani associates indicted last year for campaign finance violations. Both had been fixtures on Fox News Channel until DiGenova made wild claims about much of the State Department being under the control of a well-known Jewish financier. Sidney Powell is the attorney for former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn and has become enmeshed in dubious theories of Flynn’s innocence rampant in conservative media. Jenna Ellis has been a legal adviser to Trump’s campaign for some time, although she’s primarily known for her energetic defenses of the president on social media and on Fox News.
In other words, Trump’s core legal team is now mostly made up of lawyers known more for their engagement with conservative media and public advocacy than for winning well-honed arguments challenging election results. It’s a team of lawyers focused on bolstering Trump more than on overturning any election results. It’s less a legal dream team than it is a @realDonaldTrump Twitter list named “good lawyers."
Which is, of course, appropriate. Trump’s arguments about the election have always been mostly about wild, unfounded conspiracy theories that depend on oxygen from friendly media outlets and not on sincere questions about the administration of elections. There’s no indication that any serious fraud occurred in the election, as both governmental organizations and independent watchdogs have attested. So Trump’s narrowing his strategy to simply reflect his desired rhetoric instead of making viable legal claims. This was the approach he took to the coronavirus pandemic, too, which speaks for itself in terms of results.
Again, Trump’s presidency will end on Jan. 20, and he has no obvious path toward derailing that inevitability. The question is whether he and his allies will admit that or whether they’ll spend the intervening weeks fostering doubt, amplifying unfounded conspiracy theories and flirting with simply trying to steal the presidency outright.