President Donald Trump was running late when he arrived here Sunday morning, wind howling and tiny drops of ice sticking to his face, to begin the second-to-last day of his final run for office.
“It’s a little tough out here!” he shouted over the gusts, wrestling with his black umbrella as it caught the wind before abandoning it and climbing into his limo.
Indeed it is.
Even as polls tighten in battlegrounds across the country, Trump is still entering the last days of a caustic campaign with only a narrow path to victory – albeit one he and his campaign remain convinced will manifest and one he is prepared to trumpet on election night even before all the votes are counted.
In a breakneck sprint, with 17 rallies scheduled for the campaign’s final four days, Trump is allowing himself little time to contemplate what he might do if he loses. Given how vague his stated goals for a second term have been, even the consequences of winning seem far from mind.
Instead, Trump these days is focused almost exclusively on the immediate task at hand: avoiding the shameful fate of becoming a one-term president by throwing himself headlong into his final campaign.
He does not like to sit by himself in his cabin aboard Air Force One, contemplating his future. Instead, Trump takes his place behind his wooden desk with a Diet Coke as aides sit with him to discuss the campaign, watch as pundits talk about him on television and debate whether he should respond.
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Trump demands continuous updates on the state of the race. On-board printers hum with fresh data to present the President. Last week, he scrawled “MUST SEE TV!” on an article about an upcoming Fox News interview and had it distributed to reporters at the back of the airplane.
“It’s really a contest to see whether or not we can all stand it, right?” Trump said at his frostbit event in Michigan, describing the icy weather but also finding an apt description of the beleaguered national sentiment as a bitter and lengthy campaign concludes.
“We love it! And I’m loving it,” proclaimed Trump, though he hardly sounded convinced, complaining about the angle of his stage, the wind “pouring up the nose” and wondering which “genius” had planned his event.
Increasingly, Trump’s efforts on the trail amount to willing into existence the reality he’d rather be facing than the one he actually is. For him, coronavirus is a media exaggeration designed to prevent his campaign from hosting massive crowds. He insists the numbers for his rallies are bigger than ever, despite the pandemic. Even in states where some polls show him trailing, Trump is not quick to acknowledge a shortfall.
“I shouldn’t even be here. They said I have Georgia made,” Trump said later Sunday, standing beneath two fluttering American flags in a state that’s voted Republican in the last six presidential elections. “But I said, I promised – we have to be here. They said, ‘Sir, you don’t have to come to Georgia. It’s won.’ “
‘How the hell can we be tied?’
Not one for introspection, but deeply prone to insecurity about potential failure, Trump has offered only fleeting glimpses of turmoil about potentially falling short.
“How the hell can we be tied?” Trump has asked about states where he and Biden are running neck-to-neck, viewing his rival as an unworthy and mortifying opponent to lose to.
He has joked he might drive an 18-wheeler into the distance, escaping the political life he chose for himself five years ago. And he has mused about fleeing overseas to escape humiliation – or, in the sneers of his critics, to avoid prosecution.
Aides insist those asides are sarcastic and aren’t reflective of a preoccupation with losing. In a serious way, Trump has not divulged to many what he might do should he lose. The delicate matter is not discussed widely among his team and has not been raised often with the President, who believes adamantly he will win.
Looking to victory past November 3 also amounts to bad luck in Trump’s mind, those around him say. While he has suggested mass firings in his Cabinet should he win, he has not made his intentions explicitly known – though by his final, muggy rally on a Miami area tarmac on Sunday night, he seemed ready to offer a hint.
“Don’t tell anybody, but let me wait until a little bit after the election. I appreciate the advice,” Trump said just after midnight in response to a “fire Fauci” chant that had broken out in the crowd.
Even the straightforward question of what would comprise his second term agenda has gone mostly unanswered – partly, one official said, because Trump doesn’t want to jinx his chances of winning.
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If Trump does fail to win a second term – the first president to do so in almost 30 years – few believe he would fade into the background like his predecessors, who mostly stepped away from public life. Trump will almost certainly continue tweeting. Some on his team speculate he would even continue holding rallies just for the sake of it – or as a potential money-making venture.
After all, it is the rally where Trump has seemed most himself, even after four years of being president and ample time to adjust to a more presidential way of behaving. In the final month of the campaign, they are essentially all he has done aside from being hospitalized with coronavirus. On Sunday, Trump likened himself to Pavarotti, the Italian tenor who he claimed would refuse to sing in the cold.
“I don’t have that,” Trump insisted. “I’m not a diva.”
Ten hours and three rallies later, Trump boasted he could draw bigger crowds than his rivals, who have enlisted musical acts in the final stretch but are intentionally limiting their events because of rampant coronavirus.
“I do this without a guitar!” he exclaimed underneath a full moon in Georgia.
Still, at stops where the crowds fall short of his expectation, Trump does make less of an effort. He sounded dour and spoke for only about 20 minutes on Friday in Minnesota when rally was limited by the state’s coronavirus restrictions.
And Trump is not shy about dressing down advisers after events he deems subpar.
As his plane lands at small regional airports across the upper Midwest, Pennsylvania and the Southeast, Trump sometimes looks out the window as he taxis past the crowds awaiting his address and asks aides for a headcount. Because of the pandemic, they are smaller now than they were in 2016, a fact Trump has refused to admit even as it remains patently obvious to any casual observer. Often, aides throw out numbers with little rooting in reality.
“The crowds are bigger. Everything’s hotter,” Trump told a crowd in Hickory, North Carolina, on Sunday after buzzing the crowd in his Marine One helicopter.
Trump has repeated a near-identical choreography everywhere he goes. As Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” begins blasting from speakers beneath Air Force One, Trump emerges at the top of the steps and slowly descends. He makes his way to stage as the song culminates, delivers what has become a mostly surprise-free but riddled-with-falsehoods speech, ends by declaring he will still “make America great again,” and departs to the thumping gay pride anthem “YMCA.”
While his younger aides buoyantly form the letters with their arms during the song’s refrain, Trump performs his own moves: hands clenched into fists, elbows akimbo, the rhythm his own.
Differences between the rallies can be hard to discern. Sometimes he adds a new insult of his rivals; this weekend’s addition was claiming his Democratic rival Joe Biden’s signature aviator sunglasses were too small for his face and that his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, has been mispronouncing her own name.
Regional distinctions hardly matter; Trump delves into Minnesota’s politics in Michigan and Pennsylvania’s politics in Iowa. Often it is the weather that provides the clue; even in mild cold Trump prefers to wear a long black overcoat and black leather gloves.
Recently, as aides struggled to get Trump to recite the salient political points they hope will galvanize voters, video screens have appeared where Trump plays mini campaign ads that make those points for him.
He does not often leave the tarmac. When he does, like on a trip to a small race track in West Salem, Wisconsin, last week, he doesn’t like to venture far. On route to the venue, which snaked past a Sam’s Club and a snow-dusted cow field, campaign aides ensured a billboard was visible along the route blaring the words “TRUMP COUNTRY.”
He has not gone in for retail politics, partly because any unscheduled appearance at a restaurant or takeaway would place him squarely in the optics of coronavirus. When he stopped for pizzas in Pennsylvania in August, he seemed somewhat taken aback by the acrylic glass barriers between himself and the cashier. Trump rarely, if ever, encounters voters who do not support him.
Life on the road
A lover of routine, Trump has spent only a handful of nights away from the White House, preferring to fly back even from late-night rallies. When he spent the night at Mar-a-Lago for the first time since March before voting early in West Palm Beach, Trump made only the briefest of appearances at the breakfast buffet, popping his head through a door to say hello as guests poured themselves orange juice.
Not that he has been sleeping much at home. On Thursday, after returning to the White House in the dark after a two-day Western swing, Trump was tweeting at 3 a.m. about the prospect of an election decided by the Supreme Court.
It isn’t clear how much of his wife or teenage son he has seen lately; first lady Melania Trump has recently embarked for the first time on the campaign trail herself. All three had coronavirus last month; Trump has taken to touting his 14-year-old son Barron’s infection as evidence of the mild effect on young people, suggesting he had it for either two minutes, 14 minutes or 15 minutes. His wife’s diagnosis has also proved useful: “At least those rumors that we don’t live together proved to be false,” he said Saturday in Pennsylvania.
Along the way he has found some new interlocutors, including the rapper Lil Wayne, who had been in touch with the White House about Trump’s plan for bolstering Black communities and was invited to meet the President at his Doral golf club in South Florida last week. Recounting the meeting at the White House the following day, Trump referred to his new supporter as “Little Wayne.”
But he has mostly opted for the familiar. While not particularly wistful, Trump does sometimes wax nostalgic about his only previous campaign. He has assembled many of the same aides, most decades his junior, to accompany him as he attempts to repeat his victory this year. He will hold his final campaign rally on Monday evening in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the same place he held his final event in 2016.
He claimed to confuse two of his longtime advisers – Hope Hicks and Sarah Sanders – during a sunny rally in Iowa on Sunday.
“My bad!” he called out from the stage.
He has even said he misses his black-and-gold Boeing 757, whose white leather interior was where much of his 2016 campaign played out.
No room for introspection
The President has often lamented that his political efforts since then have felt comparatively staid, people who have spoken to him said, weighed down by the massive apparatus that accompanies any president and saddled with an incumbent’s responsibilities.
He hasn’t appeared as mawkish about the potential “lasts” he is experiencing now. There was little to mark the moment when he traveled to Nashville in October for what would be his final presidential debate. In the draped-off holding room where Trump reviewed talking points from a red folder, his team had arranged for a display of blown-up photos of his rallies to boost his mood.
The pace of this autumn’s news cycle would have made self-reflection difficult even for the most introspective candidate, which Trump is decidedly not. A surprise Supreme Court vacancy, an outbreak of coronavirus at the White House and his own infection and subsequent hospitalization have made an already consequential election feel generational in importance.
Trump’s campaign determined long ago that undecided voters were a rarity in this contest and have focused their efforts instead on ensuring Trump supporters actually cast ballots. That is part of their rationale for scheduling Trump’s final campaign blitz.
And while the push continues on Monday with a frenzied final day of stops in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, there is little expectation the essential dynamics of the race will change before voting ends on Tuesday night.
What happens afterward remains anyone’s guess, including at the White House and among Trump’s political advisers. A massive legal infrastructure is in place in both campaigns to contend with challenges and recounts. Trump himself has offered little assurance he will encourage calm should the results not appear in his favor.
“As soon as that election’s over, we’re going in with our lawyers,” Trump said in North Carolina on Sunday, stopping between his second and third rallies of the day to speak with reporters as the sun set behind him.
After inviting supporters to enter a chance to win tickets to an election night party at his hotel in downtown Washington, Trump scrapped a planned appearance there. He was put off, he said, by Mayor Murial Bowser’s restrictions on large gatherings.
Instead, he is expected to watch election returns from the White House, where he will also receive constant updates from his political team. Guests have been invited for an event in the East Room, but the precise outlines of the election night plans weren’t yet clear.
Television networks and other news outlets have already cautioned their audiences that its unlikely they will be able to declare a winner on Tuesday night, given the preponderance of early and mail-in ballots whose tallying will take more time.
How Trump reacts to the information coming to him about percentages of early votes and turnout numbers is anyone’s guess. But no officials have ruled out Trump declaring himself the winner even in the absence of formal vote counts or media projections.