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Trump aides fret about damage from refusal to accept loss

"There needs to be a candid conversation with the president. There is no path to victory," one person close to Trump said.
President Trump, at the White House on Sept. 26.
President Trump, at the White House on Sept. 26.Jabin Botsford / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump continues to fight the presidential election results, numerous people close to him are expressing concern that he's spiraling into rage and hurting his own legacy, as well as the Republican Party.

Those concerns were exacerbated Monday when Trump blindsided officials throughout the White House and at the Pentagon by firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper with a tweet, multiple people close to the president said. The hope, these people said, is that this week ends differently from the last and that the president's lawsuits challenging the election results in multiple states quickly run their course.

The moment is particularly perilous, even for a White House that has powered through on chaos for nearly four years, with all the uncertainty unfolding against the backdrop of a new coronavirus outbreak among the president's closest advisers — including his chief of staff and the top lawyer on his campaign legal team.

"There needs to be a candid conversation with the president. There is no path to victory," said a person close to Trump, who said Trump "deserves his day in court" but added that continuing to cast doubt on the election results "destroys his legacy."

"It distracts from the legacy he has to be proud of and marginalizes him," this person said. "It does not behoove him to drag this out much further."

Another Trump ally described the goal of the lawsuits and public statements alleging voter fraud as "branding Trump as something other than a loser."

Most of those close to the president recognize that the legal battles aren't going to change the outcome, but few, if any, are telling him that.

Some officials' actions, allies said, made it clear how little confidence there is that Trump's legal strategy will prevail. Vice President Mike Pence, for example, is scheduled to leave Tuesday for vacation in Florida through the weekend.

"All you need to know is that Pence is going on vacation," a person close to Trump said when asked about the prospects for his legal fight.

Even before the election, Trump had doubts that he would win. According to a person familiar with the conversations, Trump told advisers in the weeks before Nov. 3 that he would consider a presidential run in 2024 if he lost. He's mentioned the idea again over the past week, and his allies have discussed his possibly setting up a super PAC.

And there is division and tension within Trump's team over whether he should appear at so-called recount rallies his campaign has suggested it might hold.

Trump has told people he wants to thank and honor his supporters in some way, according to a person familiar with the discussions. But allies are concerned about the optics of and fallout from "recount" rallies when the electoral writing is very clearly on the wall.

There is also concern that Trump has not addressed the public since Thursday.

Trump's mood has vacillated in recent days between somewhat entertaining the idea that he has lost re-election to defiantly refusing to accept defeat, some of his allies say.

White House and Trump campaign officials, however, have begun to update their résumés.

"Everybody's worried about their post-presidency legacy," one Trump ally said.

Over the weekend, when Trump spent time at his golf club in Virginia, there were moments when he brought up the idea that he might lose and how he might proceed in the White House over the next nine weeks and then after he leaves office. But then Trump became more dug in on the notion of election fraud and at times was ranting about it to guests at his club.

"He's never, ever going to admit he didn't win," another ally said.

Trump is expected to make some decisions before leaving office — including potential executive orders and pardons and maneuvers to embed political appointees in government agencies as career civil servants — but as of now there is no overarching strategy to carry out those moves.

After Trump fired Esper, a person close to him said, "I would not have advised it."

Some around Trump initially backed his instinct to fight so they can establish themselves as being on his side before trying to bring him around. But now, dealing with him is like dealing with a "recalcitrant teenager," a person close to the White House said.

Privately, they acknowledge the reality of the results. "It began to sink in that this was over when foreign leaders — who are allied with the president — began congratulating Joe Biden," a person close to the White House said.

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and his deputy, Justin Clark, held an all-staff meeting at their Virginia headquarters Monday morning, urging aides to stay focused on "the fight" ahead, according to two officials who attended.

But the president's campaign is expected to officially end Sunday, with most staffers losing health insurance and their paychecks, unless either get extended in the next week. That is prompting some anxiety and concern, particularly among lower-level staffers, who are unsure whether they should be looking for new jobs right now. Several have started to contact potential employers.