In the almost three weeks since the American people delivered their verdict in a democratic election, Donald Trump has taken steps like no president before to undo the results and cling to power.
The president has launched a barrage of lawsuits to disenfranchise millions of voters on the thinnest evidence, tweeted lies and conspiracy theories, and stymied Joe Biden’s incoming administration even as thousands in the US die each day in a pandemic.
This week those efforts intensified, with a surreal press conference in which his lawyers alleged a vast conspiracy unparalleled in American history, and an overt pressure campaign by the president to convince state officials to overturn the result.
These acts, brazen even by Mr Trump’s standards, prompted rebukes from some prominent Republicans, even as most of his party has refused to acknowledge Mr Biden’s victory or publicly reject the president’s attempt to undo the election.
The attempt by an incumbent US president to stay in office despite losing an election have revealed alarming weaknesses in America’s democratic experiment. The traction of Mr Trump’s baseless claims among his supporters also leaves Mr Biden to govern with swaths of the public holding the false belief that he stole his way into office.
“There have been transitions where there has been tension, but there hasn’t been what we’re seeing now. We haven’t seen this kind of wholesale rejection of the vote,” said Nicole Hemmer, a historian with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project at Columbia University.
Mr Trump had long-approached his re-election battle with little care for democratic norms. He was impeached for using government money to solicit election interference on his behalf from Ukraine, although the president was ultimately acquitted by his party in the Senate. And he publicly urged his Department of Justice to investigate Mr Biden, fuming when his appointees failed to take overt action.
The president spent much of his campaign telling his supporters that the US election system was rife with fraud arising from the use of mail-in ballots, preparing the ground to denounce any outcome other than his victory as a fraud upon the American people.
Since November 3, Mr Trump has continued to peddle that falsehood. He has not only refused to concede, but he and his supporters have baldly suggested courts, election officials or Republican-controlled state legislatures simply disregard or throw out millions of votes.
The US had seen contested elections before, as well as “sore losers”, said Timothy Naftali, who teaches history and public policy at New York University. In 1824, the election ended in a tie, with the House of Representatives choosing the president, and the 1876 vote was disputed in several states, leading to a political crisis resolved just days before inauguration.
More recently, the 2000 election was resolved through litigation and ultimately by the US Supreme Court. But none of those cases involved an incumbent president wielding his power and influence to publicly sow confusion and doubt about his defeat.
Mr Naftali pointed to Mr Trump’s comments about supposed mass voter fraud ahead of the election, saying: “The president was already seeding the clouds for this conspiracy theory before the election was over.
“It’s not like we haven’t had presidents who have gone to the dark side to ensure re-election, that’s not new. What’s new [are] Trump’s tactics to engage in a federally sponsored disinformation campaign at home to ensure re-election,” he said.
Though judges have generally rejected Mr Trump’s lawsuits, noting among other things that his campaign has not presented evidence to support its claims of massive voter fraud, the president has seen some temporary wins from throwing sand in the gears of the election.
On Tuesday, two Republicans officials in Wayne County, which includes Detroit, refused to certify its ballots and forced a deadlock on a local elections board, a startling portent for the upcoming certification of Mr Biden’s statewide win in Michigan. The officials backtracked and approved the ballots that same day but, after reported calls from Mr Trump, they sought on Wednesday to take back their approval.
Similar problems at the statewide level in Michigan could open the door for the Republican-controlled state legislature to assert that with no certified results, they should determine the winner. “If the state board follows suit, the Republican state legislator will select the electors,” Jenna Ellis, a Trump campaign legal adviser, tweeted on Tuesday.
On Friday, Mr Trump welcomed top Michigan Republican lawmakers to the White House. His press secretary claimed it was merely a routine get together. “This is not an advocacy meeting,” Kayleigh McEnany told reporters.
After the meeting, the Michigan Senate leader and House speaker, Mike Shirkey and Lee Chatfield, rejected the idea that they would make a dramatic intervention to undo Mr Biden’s 154,000 vote margin victory in the state.
“We have not yet been made aware of any information that would change the outcome of the election in Michigan and as legislative leaders, we will follow the law and follow the normal process regarding Michigan’s electors, just as we have said throughout this election,” they said in a statement.
On the whole, Mr Trump’s attempt to flout the verdict of a democratic election has so far failed, with neither evidence, law, nor high-powered lawyers or the weight of votes on his side.
The calibre of his legal team was on display at a press conference on Thursday, as Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, repeated election fraud claims already rejected by courts as what appeared to be hair dye ran down his face, while another lawyer, Sidney Powell, touted conspiracy theories involving the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez.
“What’s happening right now is tempered by the foolishness of the Trump team’s arguments and the fact that they’re getting laughed out of court over and over again,” said Ms Hemmer at Columbia University. But she added the events showed the vulnerabilities of the US democratic system that a more competent set of actors in a closer election could easily exploit: “It is holding on by a thread.”
The president’s behaviour has enjoyed both tacit and explicit approval from much of his own party, including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, though there have been some exceptions.
Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican senator, said on Thursday it was “difficult to imagine a worse, more undemocratic action” by a US president than Mr Trump’s “over pressure on state and local officials to subvert the will of the people”.
Other Republicans, like Senators Ben Sasse and Joni Ernst, have denounced the antics at Thursday’s press conference, while Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, has forcefully rejected attempts by Mr Trump and his allies to cast Mr Biden’s win in the state as fraudulent.
Mr Trump’s scorched earth approach to his defeat has gone beyond contesting the election. He has refused to begin the transition process, a period in American government that is fraught even in calm times, let alone as the US struggles with the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead, his administration has taken moves on big policy issues that would tie Mr Biden’s hands. The Treasury Department is refusing to extend certain stimulus measures beyond December and the Defense Department, drawing down troops in Afghanistan and Iraq after Mr Trump purged its top leadership.
Most critically, perhaps, Mr Trump has not opened the door to the incoming Biden administration on the federal pandemic response, which Mr Biden will soon oversee.
“There’s a whole lot of things that we just don’t have available to us,” Mr Biden said this week, such as the distribution plan for Covid-19 vaccines. “Unless it’s made available soon, we’re going to be behind by weeks or months.”
Lamar Alexander, the Republican senator from Tennessee, on Friday pushed Mr Trump to begin the transition, though his statement did not acknowledge Mr Biden’s victory, instead saying he had a “very good chance” of becoming president.
Mr Trump’s obstinacy stands in marked contrast to the ordinary approach of previous administrations, who have made the handover as smooth as possible, including the Obama administration in 2016 when Mr Trump was preparing to take office.
Russell Riley, co-chair of the Miller Center’s Presidential Oral History Program, noted that US officials have usually viewed it as a “mark of honour and patriotism” to be helpful to the incoming government, even if it was of the opposing party.
“This is something that shouldn’t have to be said in the middle of a global pandemic in which literally thousands of Americans are dying every day,” he added.
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