STERLING, Va. – On Saturday, Donald Trump finally became the one thing he hates the most: a loser.
President Trump had just arrived at his namesake golf course in Virginia on Saturday morning – whizzing past signs blaring “Biden/Harris” and “Good Riddance” – when Democratic nominee Joe Biden pulled so far ahead in the Pennsylvania vote count that, four days after Election Day, he was finally declared the next president of the United States.
That Trump was pummeling drives off a tee box as Biden made the transition from former vice president to president-elect was a fitting coda for a leader who craved the perks and power of the office but often seemed reluctant to do the job.
The president remained cosseted away at Trump National Golf Club for three more hours, finishing his morning on the links with Kevin Morris, the club’s manager, in one of the few situations he could still control to his own liking.
There, club members shouted, “We love you!” and “Great job, Mr. President.” Then, as Trump lined up his shot on the green (two putts, from about 50 feet), supporters offered more words of encouragement: “You can make it!”
“We’ve got a long way to go,” the president said – seeming to refer to the 2020 election results – while offering a thumbs-up and fist pump, according to a club member who snapped a photo of him as he zipped by in his cart.
The excursion marked Trump’s 209th day golfing since becoming president, according to CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller – 104 more than Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor whom he excoriated for golfing.
Historically, when Trump has faced down the prospect of failure – his divorces, his bankruptcies, his broke casinos, his fledgling football team and airline – he has simply walked away, either claiming victory or decrying an unfair system rigged against him, the victim.
Even before the election results began clearly listing toward Biden, the president and his team had been following that playbook. On Saturday, the campaign put out a statement on behalf of Trump almost immediately after Biden was declared the winner, falsely claiming that “the election is far from over.”
But now, with Biden set to become the nation’s 46th president, it will be harder for Trump to ignore that reality, even if he never actually admits defeat. If Trump incinerates a final presidential norm by refusing to offer a gracious concession speech and attend his successor’s Inauguration Day, he will still, in 10 weeks, have to pack up the White House residence and vacate perhaps the most coveted address in America: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
On Saturday, the outside world seemed determined to force a man not known for his introspection to grapple with the magnitude of his loss. A CNN chyron blared: “Cities erupt in celebration after Biden beats Trump.” Both Trump’s home city of New York and his temporary one of Washington, D.C. – where 92.6% of voters chose Biden – were awash in euphoria.
Biden supporters thronged to the White House almost immediately, prompting officials to use snowplows to help move the crowd to make way for Trump’s motorcade when he returned from golf, clad in a crisp white “Make America Great Again” hat. The crowd performed the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A,” the walk-off music at Trump’s recent rallies – a throbbing mass jumping up and down with both relief and elation.
Many of the hundreds gathered by the White House on Saturday afternoon seemed blissfully unaware of the president’s whereabouts. Some waved Biden flags, danced to Beyoncé, and sprayed one another with champagne. Others hugged and kissed or – eyes moist with tears – called relatives and friends scattered throughout the country.
One man, draped in a Puerto Rican flag, tossed a double pack of Bounty paper towels over the fence toward the White House – a reference to Trump’s visit to the hurricane-ravaged island early in his presidency, when he cavalierly tossed paper towels like basketballs into the crowd.
Back in Trumpworld, the efforts at counterprogramming had a characteristically slapdash feel. Before Biden was declared the winner, the Trump campaign had scheduled a news conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia with the president’s lawyers, but when Trump initially tweeted it out, he incorrectly implied it was at the Four Seasons Hotel. The hotel’s Philadelphia location quickly offered its own clarification, tweeting: “To clarify, President Trump’s press conference will NOT be held at Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia. It will be held at Four Seasons Total Landscaping – no relation with the hotel.”
Trump’s lawyers did ultimately show up at the right spot, speaking against a makeshift backdrop of blue and red Trump signs at the landscaping business, in view of a crematorium and an adult entertainment shop named “Fantasy Island.” Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, yelled at the news conference that all the networks calling the race could be wrong.
On conference calls that morning with allies, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and deputy campaign manager Justin Clark encouraged donors to contribute to a legal fund and urged their supporters to “stay at the ready.” Stepien said the campaign may be “propping up” rallies, protests and other events in upcoming weeks.
“We may need your help and support on the ground, waving flags and yelling the president’s name in support,” Stepien said.
Such public enthusiasm, Stepien implied, might buoy Trump’s mood: “It would be great for the president to see it.”
One person close to the White House, however, said the efforts in the states were less about actually contesting the election results and more about helping Trump come to terms with his defeat. “The legal operation is designed for Trump to save face and ultimately give him the ability to say he didn’t lose the election fair and square,” this person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share details of private discussions. “So we’re going to roll with it.”
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, meanwhile, found himself battling the novel coronavirus, along with several other aides, potentially turning the White House into avirus hot spot yet again. Meadows had accompanied Trump on an Election Day visit to campaign headquarters in Arlington, Va., and later attended his election night party in the East Room – sans mask for both.
Even Meadows’s own colleagues and allies were furious with him, said one senior administration official, noting that Meadows didn’t share his diagnosis with his team until after it broke Friday night in the media.
The president’s orbit on Saturday night remained divided into two camps, with an increasing number of people accepting the election results, even if they weren’t willing to say as much publicly – and certainly not to Trump himself.
Several said that while they ultimately expect the president to help with a peaceful transition of power, he is unlikely to ever admit defeat, and he needs to reach the inevitable conclusion – that Biden will be president – on his own time frame.
Some advisers were urging the president to consider his political future – which they described as powerful in the GOP – and to not taint his legacy with a messy exit, according to two officials in touch with Trump. But Trump’s adult sons were urging him to keep fighting. Both were annoyed at other influential GOP figures who, in their view, were not fighting hard enough, the officials said.
Frank Luntz, a longtime Republican pollster, described Trump as being at a crossroads.
“I think what Donald Trump does in the next seven days will determine his future as well as America’s future,” Luntz said. “The more that he fights, the stronger he becomes among his supporters, and the weaker he becomes among everybody else. It’s been clear to me from the comments that I’ve gotten today. From the hardcore Trump people, he needs to stay and fight. From everybody else, he needs to accept the outcome. And there is no middle ground.”
As evening fell, so, too, did the president’s mood. Though he had largely seemed sanguine in the days after the polls closed, and even while golfing, one person who spoke with Trump on Friday said the president was angry and felt as if the election has been stolen from him.
And then, back in the White House on Saturday night, Trump sent out tweets meant to undermine the results of the election.
“THE OBSERVERS WERE NOT ALLOWED INTO THE COUNTING ROOMS,” he wrote in one, repeating a common falsehood percolating in pro-Trump circles.
But a glimpse of Trump earlier in the day, at his private golf club, was perhaps more illustrative of the post-White House future he could very well inhabit. After finishing his round, the president, looking slightly deflated, ran into a bridal party and paused to pose for pictures.
He stood next to the bride, flashing a thumbs-up, before the bridesmaids – bubbly in frosting-pink dresses – squealed their way into the photo.
“Thank you, Mr. President! We love you!” called the breathless onlookers.
“Have a great life, right?” Trump replied, before lumbering away into the safety of his Trump-branded clubhouse.
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The Washington Post’s Jacqueline Alemany, Jessica Contrera, Jenna Johnson, Marissa Lang, Katie Mettler, Philip Rucker, Samantha Schmidt and Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.