Speaking from the White House early Wednesday morning, Trump falsely declared that he was winning. And then he said the election is "a fraud on the American public" and an "embarrassment to our country." In case it wasn't obvious that he is desperately worried, he said he wants state officials to stop counting ballots midstream.
Oh, and he vowed to sue to overturn the results, despite calling himself the winner.
All of this is normal behavior for an intemperate adolescent, an authoritarian ruler, or Trump. Still, his speech Wednesday will surely be remembered as a low point for both the concept of democracy and the practice of republicanism. For the moment, Trump's tack represents two significant developments in the purgatory-is-hell story of the 2020 election.
First, Trump remains bent on injecting incendiaries into the tinderbox of the body politic, no matter the consequence to the public or the republic. Several Republicans criticized his remarks, arguing that it is important to count every legally cast vote.
"If the president loses on that front, then he loses," former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, usually a Trump ally, said on "Fox & Friends" Wednesday morning. "We win by ballots, not by bullets," in the U.S., he added, "and we’ve got to keep reminding ourselves of that."
Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon said Trump's declaration of victory was "outrageous, unprecedented and incorrect." Biden campaign officials said they were confident that their candidate would, at the least, eke out a squeaker.
Second, Trump is now operating from an understanding that he is teetering on the edge of defeat.
The math is easy. Trump won states that account for 306 electoral votes in 2016. He needs to win 269 electoral votes to tie and 270 or more to win. But by Wednesday afternoon, he trailed in Arizona and Michigan — states he won in 2016 that together account for 27 electoral votes. He already has lost Wisconsin's 10 electoral votes and a single electoral vote in Nebraska's 2nd Congressional District. He is not leading in any state that went Democratic four years ago.
So, if Trump loses Arizona and Michigan, he will fall short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. That's regardless of who wins Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina, which, like Arizona and Michigan, had yet to be called by NBC News as of midafternoon Wednesday.
In what forecasters had widely agreed was among the unlikeliest of scenarios, Biden could win even while losing Florida — which Trump already won — and Pennsylvania.
In the absence of the president bolstering Americans' faith in the sanctity of the political process, the leaders of the Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO — big business and big labor — said in a joint statement that every ballot must be counted.
"With voting ending today, it is imperative that election officials be given the space and time to count every vote in accordance with applicable laws," Thomas J. Donahue, the head of the Chamber, and AFL-CIO chief Richard Trumka wrote. "We call on the media, the candidates and the American people to exercise patience with the process and trust in our system, even if it requires more time than usual."
Separately, former Democratic National Committee chairwoman Donna Brazile and former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele issued a statement making a similar call.
It's not abnormal for major cities to count ballots more slowly than smaller suburban and rural counterparts. While the speed of tallying votes varies from state to state, it has been complicated this year by the record volume of ballots submitted by mail and a patchwork of state laws dealing with when those ballots can and can't be counted.
Whether he understands how elections work, Trump is trying to convince his supporters that he was robbed.
"Last night I was leading, often solidly, in many key States, in almost all instances Democrat run & controlled," he wrote on Twitter. "Then, one by one, they started to magically disappear as surprise ballot dumps were counted. VERY STRANGE, and the 'pollsters' got it completely & historically wrong!"
While there was nothing surprising, suspicious or unorthodox about election officials counting ballots overnight — that's routine in close elections — there is something telling about Trump framing himself as the victim of foul play.
Winners didn't get robbed.