Donald Trump going out with a limp seems like an oxymoron,” a senior adviser to the president told me. In width and in word, in soaring skyscrapers and Brioni suits and arena rallies and various euphemisms for great (yuge, bigly), the man has been defined by and obsessed with largeness. His presidency is ending small.
Trump is guided by instinct on most days, but the final year of his presidency was marked by something unusual: He wasn’t sure what to believe or what to do anymore. At first he feared Joe Biden, then he thought he was a joke, and then the joke was on him. By the summer, Trump understood that he could lose. Surrounded by yes-men, he yearned, on occasion, for the truth they would not give him. “At one point, he said, ‘Well, how are all the polls wrong?’ ” the adviser recalled. And by Election Day, he understood that losing was inevitable. He accepted, even if he had no plans to concede, that his presidency was over.
Nevertheless, in the residence, surrounded by senior advisers and family, he was furious. About everything. He was angry things weren’t going his way. He was angry Fox had called Arizona for Biden. He was angry that Biden had gone out on TV first. Everyone was offering him different ideas about what to say to the nation, to fight or to be measured or to say this or that, contradicting each other as the president grew angrier and angrier, throwing up one hand to silence people as he reviewed notes in the other. He was unhappy with the notes. He was unhappy with everything. And then he went out and ignored everybody who had tried to help.
“As the day wore on, the day wore on him,” the adviser said. White House and campaign staff whispered among themselves. “ ‘Wow, he’s so down. He knows he’s losing.’ ” But uncertainty crept back by dawn. When he woke, the race still not called, and his mood changed. On a phone call with the adviser, he said, “Why would I lose to Joe Biden? What’s going on?” He launched a demand — “STOP THE COUNT!” — on Twitter, but he didn’t understand that if the vote count were to stop on Wednesday morning, he’d be handing Joe Biden the presidency.
The adviser asked if he was trying to say that votes cast illegally (something that happens rarely, despite Trump’s claims) should not be counted. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah. That’s what I mean.’ ” People knew that by “stop the count,” he didn’t mean to literally stop the count, Trump said. “No,” the adviser told him, “people think you mean stop counting. If they stopped counting, you’d lose because you’re behind.” Oh. The president asked the adviser what to say instead. After consulting with the campaign’s lawyers, they settled on a message that claimed if the count was confined to legal votes only, he’d win, which put through the presidential tweet filter came out like this: “ANY VOTE THAT CAME IN AFTER ELECTION DAY WILL NOT BE COUNTED!” and “STOP THE FRAUD!”
Meanwhile, the campaign mounted half-assed legal fights in states they thought he still had a chance to win — not because they thought it would bring them the election but because there wasn’t much else to do but fight. The New York Times reported that the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, said he was looking for a James Baker–type figure. Instead, they got Rudy Giuliani, Pam Bondi, Corey Lewandowski, and Dave Bossie. “That’s not a legal team,” one of the president’s friends told me. “It’s all so bizarre.”
This person, who speaks to the president often — or, more accurately, who listens and says uh-huh as the president speaks — said that Trump is not just done for, but done. “He wants to lose. He’s out of money. He worries about being arrested. He worried about being assassinated,” they said. “It hasn’t been a great experience for him. He likes showing people around the White House, but the actual day-to-day business of being president? It’s been pretty unpleasant for him.”
Everyone processes loss in their own way.
“A lot of what Trump says is the opposite of what he means. That’s true of all of us, to some extent,” the president’s friend said. But when Trump said he didn’t mind losing to Biden, even though he famously hates losers of any ilk, his friend believed him. “He doesn’t believe losing is shameful — quitting is bad. Losing isn’t,” this person said. “He’s afraid. He’s the most insecure, afraid person ever. He’s too afraid to be president. He’s afraid to exercise power. He’s afraid to do the job. It’s why he’s overbearing and crazy — he sabotages himself constantly because he hates himself and wants out. He’s always trying to hurt himself. That guy commits more self-harm than anyone I’ve ever encountered.”
Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg didn’t buy that Trump could ever be okay with losing, but he figured he’d find a way to cope. After all, the plan in 2015, before Trump formally announced his candidacy, had been to drop out of the race and return to The Apprentice claiming that he could’ve won if he’d wanted to (NBC inadvertently kept him on the campaign trail when they severed its relationship with him over his anti-immigrant comments). That’s not so different from how Trump is preparing to spin his real loss now. “In general, he hates losing. In general, is he gonna be happy? Do you think this is what he wants, to sit here as Joe Biden gives his acceptance speech? Absolutely not,” Nunberg said, “He lost to an idiot, and he’ll believe this whole thing was rigged and stolen.” The senior adviser said Trump’s talked about a plan to move to Mar-a-Lago full time instead of returning to Trump Tower.
In the weeks leading up to the election, certain White House officials and people close to the president were busy laying the groundwork for a post-Trump reputational and relationship recovery tour. Trump may be holding rallies and refusing to admit Biden is a legitimately elected president on prime-time Trump TV, but the anti-professional class of operators who assumed power on his coattails know that they’ll have to shape-shift if they want to survive. I received messages from multiple staffers who said they were counting down the days until freedom from the environment they entered, and stayed in, willingly. That they had so much to tell me now that it was too late to matter very much. That they were not the same as the others around them, the people who didn’t see the place, the presidency, for what it really was.
Others didn’t feel they had anything to explain or defend. “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened,” a former White House official told me. “Live. Laugh. Love.” This person added, “Sometimes you own the libs; sometimes the libs own you.”
*This article appears in the November 9, 2020, issue of New York Magazine.