Part one of an excerpt from “I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year.” Part two can be found here. Leonnig and Rucker will discuss this book during a Washington Post Live event on July 20.
Around noon, his detail whisked Trump across the Potomac River to visit his campaign headquarters in Arlington, where campaign manager Bill Stepien and the senior leadership briefed Trump in the conference room. Stepien outlined what to expect that night — when polls closed in each battleground state, how quickly votes should be tallied and which states would probably have the first projected winners. He explained that because of the huge number of mail-in ballots in many states, it might take long into the night for votes to be counted. Patience was in order.
Stepien explained to Trump that in many battleground states, the first votes to be recorded were expected to be in-person Election Day votes, which could lean Trump, while mail-in votes, which were likely to heavily favor Biden, would be added to the tally later as those ballots were processed. This meant that the early vote totals could well show Trump ahead by solid margins.
“It’s going to be good early,” Stepien told the boss. But, as he cautioned the president, those numbers would be incomplete and the margins probably would tighten later in the evening.
Trump then stepped out of the conference room and into the big open floor of cubicles to give a brief pep talk to scores of assembled staffers, who greeted him with raucous applause. A pool of journalists stood nearby to cover his remarks, and a reporter asked whether he had prepared an acceptance speech or a concession speech to deliver that evening.
“No, I’m not thinking about concession speech or acceptance speech yet,” Trump said. “Hopefully, we’ll be only doing one of those two. And, you know, winning is easy. Losing is never easy. Not for me it’s not.”
As Trump thought about winning or losing, the Pentagon brass was focused on keeping the peace. That morning, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper; Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and other defense officials were briefed about security concerns around the nation. If Trump won, officials expected large crowds of protesters to assemble in Washington, perhaps as many as 10,000 or 15,000 people. Law enforcement officials were monitoring cities, including Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, Norfolk, Philadelphia and San Diego, for likely protests.
Meanwhile, White House cooks and ushers were busy preparing to receive hundreds of guests for an election night viewing party. Trump’s original plan had been to stage his “victory” party at the Trump International Hotel a few blocks away on Pennsylvania Avenue. But that plan had been scotched a few days earlier, as the president’s wishes for a celebration at his luxury hotel ran headlong into the District’s public health regulations for the coronavirus. No more than 50 people could gather at an indoor venue in the city.
Trump’s campaign and his White House political team had nearly 400 people they wanted to invite for election night, so they moved the party to the White House, which is on federal property and therefore not subject to local ordinances. The choice of location broke with a solemn tradition of never using the White House for overt political purposes, a norm Trump had already tossed aside in August by delivering his Republican National Convention acceptance speech from the South Lawn.
Trump also used the White House to house his political operation, setting up two “war rooms” with computers, large-screen televisions and other equipment where campaign staffers would monitor election returns. The larger of the two war rooms was in government office space in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is next to the West Wing and part of the White House campus, where roughly 60 staffers would have work stations from which to receive up-to-the-minute information from battleground states and track precinct data. The smaller war room was in the Map Room, on the ground level of the White House residence. Steeped in history, the Map Room took its name from World War II, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt turned it into a situation room with maps to track troop movements and to receive classified information on the war’s progress. Trump’s most senior aides planned to work through the night in the Map Room, now transformed into the campaign’s command center, where Stepien and his top deputies could analyze data and stay close to the president to brief him in person as needed.
This and other episodes recounted in this book are based on hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 140 people, including the most senior Trump administration officials, friends and outside advisers to the 45th president. Most of the people interviewed agreed to speak candidly only on the condition of anonymity. Scenes were reconstructed based on firsthand accounts and, whenever possible, corroborated by multiple sources and buttressed by a review of calendars, diary entries, internal memos and other correspondence among principals.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had been working toward this night for four years. For her, election night in 2016 had been a nightmare, and she was determined not to allow a repeat in 2020. “That night was like getting kicked in the back by a mule over and over again,” she said in an interview. The California Democrat recalled thinking that night about Trump’s surprise victory: “It can’t be true. It can’t be happening to our country.”
Pelosi added: “You understand that this is not a person of sound mind. You understand that. You know that. He’s not of sound mind … When he first got elected, I was devastated because I thought Hillary Clinton was one of the best prepared people to be president — better than her husband, better than [Barack] Obama, better than George W. Bush. Maybe not better than George Herbert Walker Bush, because he had been a vice president. I don’t think any of the people I just mentioned would deny that she was better qualified, experienced, all the rest of it. So, the idea that he would get elected was shocking. It was shocking.”
Mitt Romney had been less shocked by Trump’s election — he had watched firsthand as the Republican Party was radicalized by the far right — but was just as determined to prevent a second Trump term. The senator from Utah said in an interview that he watched the election returns in California with his wife, Ann, son Craig and other family members, and felt a pit in his stomach. The early numbers looked surprisingly good for Trump. Biden was struggling in the quadrennial bellwether of Florida, even in Democrat-rich Miami-Dade County.
“I think he’s going to win,” Romney recalled telling his family. “Those polls were way off. I think he’s going to pull it out.”
At the White House, people liked what they were seeing. There was a party atmosphere. Staff hung out in West Wing offices chatting at least until 9 p.m. National Security Council officials celebrated in the Roosevelt Room. White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows served beer and food in his corner office. Another group of aides lingered outside White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s office, known as Upper Press. In the residence, scores of guests — Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, television stars and other dignitaries — were drinking and milling around, mostly without masks save for Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who kept his on. After a few too many swigs of wine and beer, some guests became rather animated as the night progressed.
Upstairs in the first family’s private quarters, Trump was glued to the television. He alternated between watching from his bedroom alone and from a family room with Melania, other family members and some of his most trusted aides, including Hope Hicks. Senior advisers including Stepien, Meadows, McEnany, Jason Miller, Stephen Miller and Ronna McDaniel were in the Map Room. Members of the president’s family — Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Eric Trump and his wife, Lara, who worked on the campaign — came in and out much of the night, as did a pair of special party guests, Fox News stars Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro.
They all turned to Matt Oczkowski for updates, sometimes as often as every few minutes. As the campaign’s top data cruncher, Oczkowski sat in front of a computer and performed real-time analysis of precinct data to stay ahead of state calls and to spot any trouble on the horizon. He liked what he saw early on. Florida offered the first good indicators. Trump was overperforming with Blacks and Latinos, especially among Cuban Americans in South Florida. Miami-Dade was going gangbusters for Trump. And turnout among the president’s base of rural Whites was high. Meadows, meanwhile, paid close attention to precinct returns out of North Carolina, which he had represented in Congress, and he felt confident about Trump’s chances there. And early returns out of Pennsylvania were encouraging.
At this point in the evening, Stepien tried to temper Trump’s optimism and keep the president’s mind from racing too far ahead of reality. “Stay calm,” the campaign manager told him. “We won’t know for some period of time.”
One Trump confidant who mostly stayed out of the Map Room was Rudolph W. Giuliani. That’s because the president’s personal attorney had set up his own command center upstairs on the party floor. Giuliani sat at a table in the Red Room with his son, Andrew, who worked at the White House in the Office of Public Liaison, staring intensely at a laptop watching vote tallies. The Giulianis made for an odd scene, as partygoers swirled around them. After a while, Rudy Giuliani started to cause a commotion. He was telling other guests that he had come up with a strategy for Trump and was trying to get into the president’s private quarters to tell him about it. Some people thought Giuliani may have been drinking too much and suggested to Stepien that he go talk to the former New York mayor. Stepien, Meadows and Jason Miller took Giuliani down to a room just off the Map Room to hear him out.
Giuliani went state by state asking Stepien, Meadows and Miller what they were seeing and what their plan was.
“What’s happening in Michigan?” he asked.
They said it was too early to tell, votes were still being counted and they couldn’t say.
“Just say we won,” Giuliani told them.
Same thing in Pennsylvania. “Just say we won Pennsylvania,” Giuliani said.
Giuliani’s grand plan was to just say Trump won, state after state, based on nothing. Stepien, Miller and Meadows thought his argument was both incoherent and irresponsible.
“We can’t do that,” Meadows said, raising his voice. “We can’t.”
Some competitive races were falling into place for Republicans. In South Carolina, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham faced a tough challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison, an impressive candidate who had garnered national attention and raised a record-shattering $109 million. But South Carolina, long a bastion of Republicanism, stayed true to form. The race was called early, with Graham winning 54 percent to Harrison’s 44 percent.
Trump was watching TV as news networks projected Graham’s victory, and within minutes he called his friend.
“You got yours,” Trump told Graham. “I’ve got a fight on my hands.”
“Well, Mr. President, hang in there,” Graham said. “It’s looking pretty good for you.”
As the night wore on, some of Trump’s advisers began to worry. Public polls, as well as the Trump campaign’s internal surveys, had long projected that the race was Biden’s to lose, and that prediction was bearing out as more precincts reported votes from battleground states. Alyssa Farah, the White House communications director, stepped away from the party in the East Room and saw McDaniel pacing in the hallway.
“Ronna, good to see you!” Farah said to the Republican National Committee chairwoman.
“Hey, good to see you,” McDaniel said. Then, as she turned away, McDaniel said, “Things are not looking good.”
William P. Barr had the same feeling. The attorney general had shown up for Trump’s election night party, even though he had thought for months that Trump was destined to become a one-term president. Trump didn’t seem able to get out of his own way and deliver a disciplined message. Barr hung around the party for a bit, but a little after 10 p.m. decided to call it a night. He went home to get some sleep.
The Pentagon’s top two leaders stayed away from Trump’s party, still hypervigilant about avoiding any suggestion that they were politicizing the military. Esper and Milley had learned that lesson back on June 1 in Lafayette Square. Milley watched the returns on TV from his home at Fort Myer in Arlington. A history buff, Milley memorialized the night by keeping his own scorecard of states in his journal. Around 10:30 p.m., with results from most key states still far too close to call, Milley received an interesting call from a retired military buddy who reminded him of his apolitical role as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“You are an island unto yourself right now,” the friend said, according to the account Milley shared with aides. “You are not tethered. Your loyalty is to the Constitution. You represent the stability of this republic.”
Milley’s friend added: “There’s fourth-rate people at the Pentagon. And you have fifth-rate people at the White House. You’re surrounded by total incompetence. Hang in there. Hang tough.”
Esper was at home in Northern Virginia feeling at peace that he had survived this long without getting fired and without having acquiesced to Trump’s wishes to order troops to break up domestic protests. The defense secretary had had a target on his back all fall, but Trump had not axed him.
Esper had a scare the night before, Nov. 2, when NBC’s Courtney Kube planned to report that he was preparing to be fired the day after the election, had updated his resignation letter and was quietly advising members of Congress about renaming Army bases named for Confederate generals as a sort of mic drop to fortify his legacy. Esper believed that if NBC published the story, it would signal that he was on the verge of resigning and prompt his premature firing — so he raced to stop it. He directed his aides to try to convince Kube that her information could be overhyped. It was true that Esper had been consulting with Congressional committees about renaming the bases. It also was true that he had prepared a resignation letter, as many Trump appointees had, but he had no imminent plans to submit it. In truth, Esper expected that Trump would fire him after the election, but was hoping to hold on if he could, at least for a few days after the election. He was worried about what Trump might try to do with the military if he were not at the helm. Esper warned Kube that publishing her story could result in a more compliant acting secretary of defense, which could have worrisome repercussions. The story was held as they tussled back and forth.
Esper was a lifelong Republican and had worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation as well as for Republican senators Bill Frist and Chuck Hagel. But he told his closest colleagues that as he watched TV news anchors cover the election results, he found himself rooting for the Democrat. Esper had worked with Biden and his secretary of state in waiting, Antony Blinken, when he was a senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He had confidence that they were serious, stable people who cared deeply about shoring up national security. Esper couldn’t say the same about Trump. In fact, Trump had privately indicated that he would seek to withdraw from NATO and to blow up the U.S. alliance with South Korea, should he win reelection. When those alliances had come up in meetings with Esper and other top aides, some advisers warned Trump that shredding them before the election would be politically dangerous.
“Yeah, the second term,” Trump had said. “We’ll do it in the second term.”
Esper had known that Trump had wanted to fire him ever since their June 3 argument over the Insurrection Act, but had heard that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, campaign officials and other advisers had talked the president out of doing so before the election. They had argued that he couldn’t afford to rupture his relationship with a second defense secretary, not after Jim Mattis’s rocky departure and the sharp public criticism he later leveled at Trump.
Esper had lived through the strain of the 2000 recounts and the Bush v. Gore case. He had repeatedly told his deputies that he wanted this election to be “clean and clear,” as in free of any suggestion of corruption and indisputably clear who had won. He had feared that anything less might give Trump some shred of a reason to call out troops. Later in the evening, as returns posted in Biden’s favor, Esper told a friend, “It looks good.” The defense secretary went to bed comforted by signs that the country would get a divided and stable government — a Democratic president and, he hoped, a Republican Senate.
At 11:20 p.m. on Fox News, Bill Hemmer was standing before his giant touch screen in the network’s Studio F in New York, guiding viewers through electoral college scenarios when Arizona turned blue on his map. The sudden change in color caught Hemmer off guard. “What is this happening here? Why is Arizona blue? Did we just call it? Did we just make a call in Arizona? Let’s see,” he said.
Co-anchor Martha MacCallum said that indeed Fox had called Arizona, a hotly contested battleground state with 11 electoral college votes.
Co-anchor Bret Baier chimed in. “Time out,” he said. “This is a big development. Fox News’s decision desk is calling Arizona for Joe Biden.” Baier added, “Biden picking up Arizona changes the math.”
Trump, who had been watching Fox, was livid. He could not fathom that the conservative news network he had long considered an extension of his campaign was the first news organization to call Arizona for Biden. This was a betrayal. His top advisers, who had been in the Map Room at the time, rushed upstairs to see the president. Giuliani followed them.
“They’re calling it way too early,” Oczkowski told Trump. “This thing is close. We still think we’ll win narrowly — and not just us. Doug Ducey’s modeling people show us winning.” Ducey, Arizona’s Republican governor, and his political team had kept in close contact with Trump’s aides.
That hardly reassured the president. “What the f--- is Fox doing?” Trump screamed. Then he barked orders to Kushner: “Call Rupert! Call James and Lachlan!” And to Jason Miller: “Get Sammon. Get Hemmer. They’ve got to reverse this.” The president was referring to Fox owner Rupert Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, as well as Bill Sammon, a top news executive at Fox.
Trump’s tirade continued. “What the f---?” he bellowed. “What the f--- are these guys doing? How could they call this this early?”
Oczkowski again tried to soothe the president. “They’re calling this way too early,” he said. “This is unbelievable.”
Giuliani pushed the president to forget about the Arizona call and just say he won — to step into the East Room and deliver a victory speech. Never mind that Meadows had earlier snapped at Giuliani and said the president couldn’t just declare himself the winner.
“Just go declare victory right now,” Giuliani told Trump. “You’ve got to go declare victory now.”
Giuliani’s interjection of his “just-say-you-won” strategy infuriated Trump’s campaign advisers.
“It’s hard to be the responsible parent when there’s a cool uncle around taking the kid to the movies and driving him around in a Corvette,” one of these advisers recalled. “When we say the president can’t say that, being responsible is not the easiest place to be when you’ve got people telling the president what he wants to hear. It’s hard to tell the president no. It’s not an enviable place to be.”
Once they got away from the president, Kushner called Rupert Murdoch. Jason Miller tried Sammon but couldn’t reach him. Other Trump aides pitched in, too. Counselor Kellyanne Conway reached out to Baier and MacCallum, who were on the air. Hicks, who had worked under Lachlan Murdoch at the Fox Corp. between her White House stints, reached out to Fox Corp. Senior Vice President Raj Shah, a former Trump spokesman, to track down a number for Jay Wallace, the president of Fox News.
Conway talked to Brian Seitchik, a longtime Trump adviser based in Arizona, who assured her: “This is irresponsible. Here in Arizona, we just have way too many votes left to count.”
Ducey called the Trump team and was put on speakerphone. The governor told them that the Fox call was premature and that, according to his analysis, Trump still had a chance to win because so many votes remained to be counted.
Typically, most news organizations call states around the same time because they tend to have similar standards for when it is safe to project winners and losers. But with Arizona, other major news organizations held back on joining Fox’s call. In fact, Jason Miller received text messages from contacts at other networks. “I can’t believe Fox is doing you guys dirty,” one of them wrote.
Trump and his family became apoplectic as the night ticked on and his early leads over Biden in Pennsylvania and other states kept shrinking. As additional votes were being counted, Biden inched closer to Trump. Pennsylvania was too close to call, as was Georgia. Trump decided to deliver remarks to his viewing party and came down into the Map Room, where he yelled at Justin Clark, the deputy campaign manager.
“Why are they still counting votes?” Trump asked. “The election’s closed. Are they counting ballots that came in afterward? What the hell is going on?” Trump, through a spokesman, denied saying this.
The president told Conway that he thought something nefarious was at play.
“They’re stealing this from us,” Trump said. “We have this thing won. I won in a landslide and they’re taking it back.”
Of course, nobody was taking anything. Election officials were simply doing their duty, counting ballots. But Trump didn’t see it that way. He seemed to truly believe he had been winning. As one Trump adviser later explained, “The psychological impact of, he’s going to win, people were calling him saying he’s going to win, and then somehow these votes just keep showing up.”
Eric Trump, who the night before had predicted to friends that his father would win with 322 electoral college votes, flipped out in the Map Room.
“The election is being stolen,” the president’s 36-year-old son said. “Where are these votes coming from? How is this legit?”
He yelled at the campaign’s data analysts, as if it were their fault that his father’s early leads over Biden were shrinking. ”We pay you to do this,” he said. “How can this be happening?"
Eric Trump, through a spokesperson, insisted that he did not berate campaign staff, as described by witnesses.
Donald Trump Jr. said, “There’s no way we lose to this guy,” referring to Biden.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on Nov. 4, “Hail to the Chief” played at the East Room party. Out walked Trump, followed by Melania Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Karen Pence. Stephen Miller and the speechwriting team had prepared remarks for Trump to deliver, but the president veered from his teleprompter script to instead deliver stream-of-consciousness thoughts.
“We were winning everything and all of a sudden it was just called off,” Trump said. He added, “Literally, we were just all set to get outside and just celebrate something that was so beautiful, so good.”
Trump rattled off states he had won — Florida! Ohio! Texas! — and then claimed that he had already won states that were too close to call, including Georgia and North Carolina. He bragged about his leads in some states — “Think of this: We’re up 690,000 votes in Pennsylvania. Six hundred ninety thousand!” — and falsely claimed to be winning Michigan and Wisconsin.
Neither Trump nor Biden was declared the overall winner because Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania remained too close to call. Yet Trump insisted that he was the actual winner, and that his sweet victory had been somehow snatched from him.
“This is a fraud on the American public,” the president said. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud in our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four 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.”
This was an extraordinary accusation for any political candidate to make about any election, much less for a sitting president to make about the country’s most consequential election. Trump was telling the 74 million people who voted for him not to trust the results.
Watching from California, Romney was heartsick. “We’re in a global battle for the survival of liberal democracy in the face of autocracy and autocratic regimes attempting to dominate the world,” he recalled in the interview. “So saying something and doing things that would suggest that in the free nation of the United States of America and the model of democracy for the world, that we can’t have a free and fair election would have a destructive effect on democracy around the world, not just to mention here.”
Pelosi watched Trump’s speech in horror. “It was just a complete, total manifestation [of] insanity,” she recalled in the interview.
“It was clear over that four-year period that this was not a person who was on the level — on the level intellectually, on the level mentally, on the level emotionally and certainly not on the level patriotically,” she said. “So for him to say what he said, I wouldn’t say was [as] surprising as it might have been if we hadn’t seen the instability all along.”
Following his speech, Trump hung around the Green Room next door to the East Room talking to some advisers and VIP guests, asking them what they thought. Ingraham, whose prime-time show was off the air that night because of Fox’s election coverage, was overheard giving the president some advice. She expressed general doubt that the outcome would change in the days ahead, given the historical reluctance of federal courts to intervene in elections, a contrast to what she considered unrealistic scenarios being painted by some others around the president.
“Give up on Arizona,” Ingraham told him, apparently confident in her network’s decision to project Biden the winner there.
Giving up wasn’t in Trump’s repertoire. “Fox shouldn’t have called it,” he told her.
Karl Rove, the former George W. Bush strategist and Fox commentator, had just come off the air when he got a call from a Trump adviser. “He’s in a meltdown,” the adviser told Rove. “Can you call him and tell him that all is not lost?”
Rove phoned the president and tried to give him a pep talk.
“Hang in there,” he told Trump. “There’s a lot of ballots to be counted and it’s not going to be done for some time. You fought a good fight … You’re not out yet.”
Rove and Trump briefly discussed the state of the race in Arizona. “I know premature calls,” he said, reminding the president of the fiasco on election night in 2000, when some networks projected Al Gore would win Florida only to have to retract their call a couple of hours later. “Hang in there. You gave it your all. You came down to the end. You upset them in 2016. You can do it again. Just hold on.”
Trump then retreated to the Map Room to talk to his campaign team. He stayed up until 4 a.m. chewing over the incoming results. The president was fixated on Pennsylvania, where Biden kept cutting into his lead. There were enough votes still to be counted in Philadelphia, which were sure to favor the Democrat, for Biden to overtake Trump. And indeed, Democrats were optimistic that once all the votes were in, Biden would win the state.
Conway and Meadows both preached patience.
“Mr. President, you’re ahead in Pennsylvania by 700,000 votes,” Conway told him. “We won Pennsylvania by 44,000 votes last time. Just let them count the votes. Let them get through the votes.”
Meadows said: “Just count the votes, Mr. President. You probably have enough to keep those leads.”
Trump wasn’t having any of it. He thought Democrats were rigging the vote totals.
“If I wake up in the morning and they say Trump is ahead by 100,000, they’ll find 100,001 votes in the backyard,” the president said.
“Mr. President, it stings,” Conway said. “It just hurts to have lost Pennsylvania.”
“Honey, we didn’t lose Pennsylvania,” Trump replied. “We won Pennsylvania.”
Conway, who often was quick with a rejoinder to lighten the mood at tense moments, invoked the security cameras that some homeowners install at their front doors to monitor for stolen packages or unwanted visitors. “Then your campaign should’ve invested in Ring and Nest cameras,” she quipped.
Copyright 2021 by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker. Reprinted with permission from Penguin Press. All rights reserved.