The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We don’t know what Trump believed. We know what he did.

New York Times reporter Margaret Haberman's new book "Confidence Man" suggests that former president Donald Trump knew he'd lost the 2020 election but that something in his thinking later shifted. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The day after the riot at the Capitol, Politico spoke with Alyssa Farah Griffin about the violence that had unfolded. Griffin had been part of Donald Trump’s administration until the month before, when she resigned, she said, because she “saw where this was heading.”

The “this” was Trump’s incessant dishonesty about the results of the election. Trump had been insisting since spring 2020 that voter fraud was rampant, months before voting actually occurred. That his claims were unfounded — and that they were transparently self-serving as polling showed him trailing Joe Biden — never dissuaded Trump from making them. Even before the election was held, a plan became obvious: Trump would use the lag between the counting of in-person and absentee votes to suggest that a victory had been stolen from him.

He tried it. It didn’t work. So he tried other tactics: blocking certification, undermining slates of electors and, finally, summoning his supporters to Washington on the last possible day for a “wild” protest. Griffin says she saw it coming, but by December it wasn’t that hard to see.

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One comment she made to Politico, though, has stuck with me since.

“I truly believe the president knew — when I was still in the White House in late November, he knew that he had lost,” she said. “And it was something that was almost like tacitly acknowledged, like we’re going to make this painful, but we know what happened. And then, something turned. And I don’t know if it was the wrong advisers getting to him with bad information or what.”

It’s an intriguing idea, that Trump knew he’d lost but then something shifted. It’s an idea that’s been resurrected by new reporting in a book from the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman, in which multiple people say that Trump admitted to them that he’d lost. CNN, which obtained a copy of the book, indicates that Trump told one aide that “we did our best” and another that “I thought we had it.” Some anonymous Republican, you’ll recall, was confident enough about Trump’s grasp on reality right after the election was called to insist to The Washington Post that there was no harm in “humoring him for this little bit of time.”

But then Trump summoned his supporters to Washington anyway.

There are a lot of possibilities here, all dependent on trying to assess how sincere Donald Trump was at any point from spring 2020 to Jan. 6, 2021. Did he really believe mail-in votes were subject to fraud or was he simply setting the stage to reject how those votes turned out? Did he actually believe that he’d lost but tried to retain power anyway? Did he believe he lost but then convinced himself that he hadn’t?

The detail that received the most attention from Haberman’s book Monday was that Trump had told multiple people that he simply wouldn’t leave the White House after losing to Biden. This possibility was floated repeatedly at the time by Trump critics who saw his election denialism culminating not in a violent attack on the Capitol but on some sort of weird confrontation on the steps of the White House.

“Why should I leave if they stole it from me?” he reportedly told RNC chair Ronna McDaniel.

But consider that this is simply the flip side of the reports that he’d accepted the election results. In both cases, he references possibilities that never became manifest. He copped to having lost — something he has never come close to admitting publicly. He said that he would never leave the White House — and then scampered off instead, avoiding the traditional transition between presidents.

By the end of November 2020, Trump had plenty of predicate for knowing that he’d lost the election, from internal campaign reports to the collapse of myriad election lawsuits. Griffin says he still accepted his loss at this point, only later somehow changing his mind. If that’s true, it’s as opaque to the outside world as his plan to barricade himself in the White House.

The title of Haberman’s book is “Confidence Man,” a descriptor often shortened to “con man.” In the world of New York City real estate, where Trump made his fortune, the line between salesman and con man can be awfully blurry. Getting someone to buy a dog of an apartment requires telling them what they want to hear and massaging the truth to whatever extent you feel personally comfortable. And there’s nothing like a massive commission check to make you feel quite comfortable with your efforts, quite quickly.

Trump’s political sales pitch often meant being intentionally vague, letting people believe what they wanted to believe about who he was and what he was doing. Maybe he’d simply done a good job convincing Alyssa Farah Griffin of what she wanted to believe in the weeks after his election loss.

On Nov. 20, 2020, Reuters published a report looking at groups of Trump supporters who were willing to take up arms in defense of his assertions about the stolen election. One, Caleb Fryar, dismissed the idea that Trump was being less than sincere.

“If I’m being manipulated by Trump,” he said, “then he is the greatest con man that ever lived in America.”