The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Disarray and defeats mark post-election period as Trump struggles to govern and fails to change vote results

President Trump in the Oval Office on Friday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In the two weeks since Election Day, the clumsiness and turbulence that many voters said drove them to oust President Trump from office has been on full display as the president denies the election results and ignores a rapidly worsening pandemic.

From the courtroom to the Oval Office, Trump’s government, campaign and legal team have been plagued by mistakes, oversights, rejections and defeats in a post-election period marked by unprecedented disarray.

As Trump has embraced a sense of denial about his election loss to Democrat Joe Biden and the coronavirus crisis surging across the nation, the final weeks of his presidency have been marked by rudderless and haphazard governance.

Trump’s campaign has suffered a string of defeats in court as its baseless claims about fraudulent voting have withered under scrutiny. The president’s swift post-election purge of top administration officials has sparked criticism from Democrats and some Republicans. Positive news about potential coronavirus vaccines has been clouded by Trump’s attacks on drugmakers and his own administration for not approving the treatment before the election. Trump has continued to cite debunked claims that dead people voted, days after those claims were proved false.

On Thursday, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani claimed at a news conference that Trump was the victim of a convoluted, nationally coordinated conspiracy by Democrats to steal the election through fraud. Giuliani offered no proof to back up his claims, some of which have been previously debunked, saying that he would do so at some later date. As Giuliani rattled off incendiary and evidence-free charges, dark brown streaks of hair dye mixed with sweat trickled down his face.

Meanwhile, Trump’s campaign withdrew its lawsuit challenging the election results in Michigan and the president invited Republican state legislators from the state to the White House — presumably in a last-ditch attempt to win the state by having the legislature overrule the will of the voters who selected Biden by a margin of more than 150,000 votes.

As the spiraling pandemic has begun to overwhelm hospitals, the president has spent more time at his golf clubs than at coronavirus task force meetings.

“I can’t remember a set of circumstances in which a president’s own personal pique has so completely disrupted the government’s ability to do its job well,” said Russell Riley, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “History will judge this administration very poorly on this dimension.”

Since the election, Trump has remained mostly behind closed doors, tweeting hundreds of times and spreading baseless theories that are often posted in all caps and repeatedly flagged by Twitter as disputed or misguided.

His low-profile approach to governing comes as the country is facing the worst stretch yet of a public health crisis that has already killed more than 250,000 Americans.

Trump has turned to Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who has embraced the dangerous theory of herd immunity and attacked local governors for taking steps to slow the spread of the virus.

“The only way this stops is if people rise up,” Atlas said in a tweet Sunday criticizing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) for closing colleges, some workplaces and in-person dining for three weeks. “You get what you accept. #FreedomMatters #StepUp.”

Atlas was immediately condemned for what some interpreted as an incitement against a Democratic governor who was recently the target of an alleged kidnapping plot. He quickly sought to clarify himself, in the latest example of slapdash messaging from the Trump administration.

Trump’s disjointed approach to handling the coronavirus threatens to handicap the incoming Biden administration. Biden’s transition team has been prevented from meeting with federal scientists as Trump’s administration has declined to acknowledge the Democrat as the victor in the election.

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Trump’s refusal to engage in traditional transition activities in the middle of a pandemic could lead to thousands more deaths. Biden, who has called Trump’s refusal to concede the election “embarrassing” and “irresponsible,” ran for office in part on a pledge to restore competent governance.

The White House defended Trump’s response to the virus.

“President Trump and his Administration remain focused on saving lives as Operation Warp Speed continues to fast track treatments and vaccines in record time,” White House spokesman Brian Morgenstern said in a statement. “The Task Force is in constant contact with state and local jurisdictions and health care providers, and continues to promote common sense mitigation measures. We routinely provide data, analysis, and recommendations, and surge PPE, medical personnel, and capacity when they are needed.”

While Biden received a record-high number of votes — more than 79 million and counting — Trump has continued to declare himself the winner and try to overturn the election results in court.

The effort has not gone smoothly.

On a daily basis, judges have questioned, rejected and tossed aside the Trump campaign’s claims of election rigging in swing states. Many of the claims have fallen apart quietly in legal chambers after much public fanfare from Trump and his allies.

Accusations from a Pennsylvania postal worker of widespread mail-in voting fraud were recanted after Trump and several Republicans touted them as a consequential bombshell. Allegations that Republican observers were banned from witnessing ballot-counting in Pennsylvania fell apart in court when a Trump attorney was forced to acknowledge that a “nonzero” number of observers had been in the room.

Other claims — that Sharpies had corrupted votes in Arizona, that late-arriving ballots had been smuggled into a precinct in Georgia, that voting machines had changed votes from Trump to Biden — have been dismissed by judges or withdrawn by Trump’s attorneys after they collapsed under light scrutiny.

Trump has continued to push some claims long after they were debunked.

“DEAD PEOPLE VOTED,” he tweeted Wednesday, quoting a six-day-old video in which Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed to have evidence of multiple deceased people casting ballots in Georgia.

But the claims had already been investigated and determined to be false — in one case the 96-year-old widow of James Blalock voted legally as Mrs. James Blalock. Carlson issued a correction on his show days before Trump tweeted out the old allegation.

Trump’s determination to prove fraud despite the lack of evidence has put his attorneys in the unenviable position of trying to turn the president’s baseless musings into actual legal cases, said James Gardner, who teaches election law at the University at Buffalo School of Law.

“What seems puzzling is the willingness of Trump’s lawyers to pursue even extremely remote and unlikely possibilities, yet it is not puzzling,” he said. “This is how otherwise good and reasonable lawyers sometimes behave when they have a client who is completely unreasonable and who refuses to take, or perhaps even to hear, counsel to the effect that his position is weak and ought to be abandoned.”

Senior Trump legal adviser Jenna Ellis said media organizations that covered Russian interference in the 2016 election “suddenly won’t even consider the idea that an election was tampered with.”

“So-called ‘experts’ warned everyone in advance that the 2020 election would take weeks after Election Day to sort out, but now they want to declare everything settled before legal challenges play out,” Ellis said in an emailed statement. “Democrat political machines in corrupt cities were in charge of these elections and it takes a little legal digging to get to the bottom of it. We are confident that when the legal votes are counted and the illegal votes are discarded, President Trump will be proven to have been reelected.”

Some of the Trump campaign’s moves have been especially awkward.

In one instance, the Trump legal team mistakenly filed a brief in an obscure Washington court alleging irregularities with Michigan’s voting process. Giuliani held a news conference on Nov. 7 outside a little-known company in Philadelphia, Four Seasons Total Landscaping, that Trump initially mistook for the major hotel brand. In federal court on Wednesday, Giuliani did not appear to understand several basic legal theories. His news conference Thursday was widely panned as outlandish.

Amid the chaos, several lawyers from major law firms have backed out of the effort or withdrawn from cases.

Trump’s broader goal may not be a strictly legal one.

Even as he is suffering defeats in court, he is rallying much of his base and convincing large swaths of Republicans that the election he lost was neither free nor fair. By sowing doubt about the electoral process and painting himself as a victim, Trump could be laying the groundwork for another run at the presidency in 2024.

While Trump has been successful in keeping many Republicans from acknowledging the reality of Biden’s victory, some GOP officials have begun to break ranks and cast doubt on the president’s fraud claims.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) has said publicly that his state’s vote was not tainted by fraud and that Biden’s narrow victory there was likely to stand after a hand recount. Raffensperger told WSB-TV in Atlanta that Trump may have cost himself the election by railing against mail-in voting.

“He actually suppressed, depressed his own voting base,” he said, noting that more than 24,000 Republican voters who cast ballots by mail in the June primary did not vote at all in November. Biden is leading in the state by about 13,000 votes.

Nationwide, as Trump’s fraud claims have failed, Biden’s popular-vote lead has been increasing and his margins of victory in several key swing states have widened or remained secure.

While some Trump administration officials have continued to claim the president won the election, others have begun to refer to the reality of Biden’s win. National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said this week that a Biden administration appears likely.

Career prosecutors at the Justice Department pushed back against Attorney General William P. Barr’s decision to greenlight investigations of voting irregularities, saying no evidence of widespread issues existed.

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that he had terminated a top Department of Homeland Security official, Christopher Krebs, who led the agency’s efforts to help secure the election and vocally rejected unfounded claims of ballot fraud.

Krebs’s dismissal is part of an ongoing post-election purge of administration officials that itself has been marred by haphazard execution.

“It’s like the Saturday Night Massacre but much dumber,” National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru tweeted Tuesday after Krebs was fired via Twitter.

Elsewhere in the government, signs of instability abound. Johnny McEntee, Trump’s 30-year-old director of presidential personnel, has spearheaded an effort to root out disloyalty from the administration.

The push has resulted in the rapid dismissal of officials from the Pentagon, DHS, the U.S. Agency for International Development and elsewhere.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who has been moonlighting as a campaign adviser, has gone on television to refer questions back to the White House. On Saturday, she tweeted that there were more than “one MILLION marchers” in Washington protesting in support of Trump — a claim refuted by the facts on the ground and by Trump’s own assertion that “tens of thousands” of people were present.

At the Pentagon, Trump has sparked bipartisan pushback by unexpectedly announcing a swift drawdown of American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq by early January. The move came days after Trump terminated Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper.

Trump also said he overrode “the ridiculous decision” by Army officials to cancel the annual Wreaths Across America veterans event at Arlington National Cemetery.

“It will now go on!” Trump tweeted Tuesday, a day after the Pentagon said the event had been canceled because of the coronavirus.

The group that helps host the event was surprised by the announcement.

“We cannot comment on what really happened today,” Sean Sullivan, a spokesman for Wreaths Across America, said in an emailed statement that included a timeline of the cancellation, the backlash and then the reinstatement of the event by presidential tweet.

“You now know as much as we do,” Sullivan wrote.