Joe Biden took the lead in an extremely close presidential election on Wednesday, while President Donald Trump made premature declarations of victory, put forth false claims of fraud, sued to stop ballot counts in places where he was trailing, and pushed for states where he still had a chance to not be called until more votes were in.
On Wednesday afternoon, Trump campaign officials held a press call with reporters in which they repeated the president’s claim that he had already won. “We are declaring a victory in Pennsylvania,” campaign manager Bill Stepien said. At the time, hundreds of thousands of mail-in votes in largely Democratic areas still had not been counted. But Stepien claimed that counting those ballots would be theft, saying the campaign had sent Rudy Giuliani, Pam Bondi, and Corey Lewandowski to Philadelphia “to ensure that we don’t see magical ballots delivered by Gov. [Tom] Wolf, that this margin of victory that we are certain of is not stolen by the Democrats and stolen by Joe Biden.” By Wednesday evening, after a day of local officials slowly but steadily tallying the votes, Trump’s once sizable lead had shrunk considerably.
At the Philadelphia event later in the day, Giuliani—who ranted without any evidence that votes were being stolen and claimed that 125,000 unidentified ballots, presumably for Biden, “should be deducted from the count”—was described by Eric Trump as “really leading the legal effort” for the campaign in its final days. This seems highly plausible from the chaotic and scattershot approach, which seems to be: sue in any close states where Trump is leading to halt the count. Or in Giuliani’s words, “So we are going to continue the lawsuit here, we’re going to bring a second one, and then we’re going to bring a federal lawsuit and we’re going to take a very good look at whether we bring this nationally. We certainly are going to bring it here and in Wisconsin. Quite possibly, we’ll do a national lawsuit and really expose the corruption of the Democrat Party.”
For example, on Wednesday Trump filed a lawsuit in Michigan to stop the count, mainly out of heavily Democratic Detroit, on the basis that the campaign’s legal observers didn’t have enough access. But by the afternoon, Biden had already overtaken the president in the state and the Associated Press, CNN, NBC, Fox News, and the rest declared him the winner of its 16 electoral votes. The Trump campaign made a similar claim and effort to stop the counting in Pennsylvania. It was rejected, according to NBC News, on the grounds that “observers are not there to audit ballots, so it appeared that the board of elections in Philadelphia County was complying with state law.” The count in Pennsylvania continued, and Trump’s lead continued to shrink. Similarly, the Trump campaign lost a lawsuit over observer status before the Nevada Supreme Court to stop the count in pro-Biden Clark County in a state where, at the time of this writing, he trails by the slimmest of margins.
The Trump campaign ended the day by suing the state of Georgia to pause the vote count over an anecdotal claim that a poll observer witnessed a pile of absentee ballots being improperly handled. Georgia’s vote count continued through the evening, and Trump’s lead shrunk to less than 1 percentage point.
On Wednesday night, CNN reported that the lawsuits with little chance of success were directly ordered by Trump in order to “buy themselves more time as they are waiting on votes in places like Arizona to come in.” This effort to shift the narrative is the same reason the Trump campaign is trying to muddy the water in the states that could push Biden to 270 by suggesting fraud, asking for recounts, and pushing networks not to call key races against Trump.
Which brings us to Arizona. During the campaign’s press call, senior adviser Jason Miller excoriated Fox News and the AP for having called Arizona for Biden when other networks had not. “We call on both Fox News and the Associated Press to immediately withdraw their calling the state for Joe Biden,” Miller said. “This was erroneous, it was a mistake. Everybody knows it.” Miller may ultimately have a point—as Arizona posted more returns on Wednesday evening, the race began to tighten—but it shows the inconsistency in Trump’s approach. He’s demanding vote counts be stopped in places he’s leading and go ahead at full speed in places he’s trailing, like Arizona. On Wednesday, CNN reported that Trump had actually “angrily” called Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on the phone to complain about the results.
Trump could ultimately catch up in Arizona and hold on in Pennsylvania and Georgia. But the prospect of him pulling off that trifecta looked dimmer and dimmer as Wednesday rolled on. At the very least, his campaign’s day after the election strategy did not appear to be working. If he wins those states in a clean count, it will be despite the strategy, not because of it.