As the Trump White House reaches its final days, an eerie quiet has descended on the premises as attempts to challenge the election result founder in the courts.

Brian Morgenstern, the deputy communications director, was wearing a jacket with a White House emblem in his office in the West Wing. The jacket was zipped all the way up, as if he were on his way out. The room, a few doors away from the Oval Office, was dark, with the shades drawn.

His boss, the president, was in another part of the White House. In that moment, Donald Trump was on speaker phone with Rudy Giuliani, the head of his legal effort to challenge the election, and a group of state lawmakers who had gathered for a “hearing”, as they put it, at a hotel in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

“This election was rigged and we can’t let that happen,” the president said on the phone.

Morgenstern was monitoring the event on his computer screen, in a distracted manner. A moment later he swivelled in his chair and spoke to a visitor about college, real estate, baseball, and, almost as an afterthought, the president’s achievements.

Trump’s effort to contest the election results in Pennsylvania failed on Friday, not long after the so-called hearing, and even that had a shaky legal foundation. An appeals court judge said there was “no basis” for his challenge. A certification of ballots showed President-elect Joe Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes.

The votes in Arizona were certified on Monday and in Wisconsin that could happen soon – both states Biden won. Government officials have started working towards a transition to the new administration, and the new president starts on 20 January.

Rudolph Giuliani, shown in Pennsylvania with lawyer Jenna Ellis, leads the president's effort to challenge the election
image captionMr Trump addresses Rudy Giuliani and lawyer Jenna Ellis via speakerphone

Trump continues to claim victory. Yet backstage at the White House, people see things the way they are. They know their days in the West Wing are numbered. They also know that when their boss is losing, it is best to steer clear of him.

Morgenstern says it is business as usual: “We’re upbeat. We’re still working hard.” He was the only one in a warren of West Wing offices, however. He held a cloth mask in his hands, and he fiddled with the mask’s strings, as if they were worry beads. The only sound was the low hum of a TV in another room.

Usually those offices are full of people – aides working all hours. But not now.

Jack O’Donnell, who once managed a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for Trump, says he understands why the people who work for the president would clear out at a time like this.

“You’re walking on egg shells. Nobody wants to say the wrong thing.”

Brian Morgenstern, who started working at the White House in July
image captionBrian Morgenstern started working at the White House in July

Once, O’Donnell recalls, Trump was walking through a low-ceilinged room in a building that was in the midst of renovation. “There were some issues,” says O’Donnell. He was referring to problems with the renovation, mistakes that Trump soon noticed.

“He jumped up in the air and punched the ceiling,” says O’Donnell. “Nobody wants to be around him when he’s mad.”

The president’s rage, and his ambition and drive, are legendary. He has been successful in part by embracing positive aphorisms and denying failure, a leadership style that was established early in his career and that lately has gone into overdrive.

He appeared in the West Wing briefing room last week to brag about the stock market. The Dow Jones had closed above 30,000, a record level. The president, says Morgenstern, was “celebrating the success of the market that was certainly in part due to his policies”, such as “improving trade deals” and “energy independence”.

Pro-Trump protesters in Atlanta

Investors said stocks rose because a transition to a Biden administration had been officially announced. But for Trump, the victory belonged to him.

His claims of victory, and his refusal to admit defeat, has no impact on the outcome – the transition to a Biden White House is under way.

Yet the president’s stance matters – millions of people admire him. They will follow him once he leaves the White House, whether he is running again for office, as many hope, or building a media empire. On the day Trump spoke to lawmakers in Gettysburg, supporters gathered outside the hotel with signs: “Stop election fraud.”

In the book Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention, people who know him said he saw former President Jimmy Carter, defeated in 1980 after one term, as a cautionary tale.

“As fast as you skyrocketed up is how fast you can plummet,” he said, according to the book’s sources, adding that Carter faded into obscurity after leaving the White House and became as anonymous as “a travelling salesman”.

Anti-Trump graffitti

To prevent failure, Trump denies reality, say those who know him. He filed multiple bankruptcies as a businessman, yet acted as though it was part of a plan. “He would say: ‘I did it intentionally,'” recalls Jack O’Donnell, who worked for him, adding: “It’s nonsense.”

“In his mind, he will not have lost,” says O’Donnell, describing the election. “He will never concede. It will always be: ‘It was taken from me.'”

Trump is now fighting for Republican control of the Senate and plans to go to Georgia on Saturday to support candidates in run-off elections.

Meanwhile, outside Morgenstern’s office, one of the empty desks is decorated with a coaster: “Failure is not an option.”

The motto sums up Trump’s philosophy and his approach to the presidency – at least until he leaves.


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