A Surreal Scene Unfolds in Washington as Donald Trump Tries to Undo the Election

6 minute read

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Around this time in January 1993, the last incumbent President to lose his re-election bid flew to West Point, N.Y., to stand before a sea of cadets in their dress grays to talk about leadership and America’s place in the world. It was, in effect, President George H.W. Bush’s farewell address, one of the performances that all soon-to-be-ex-Presidents since Harry Truman have grimaced through.

“Losing is never easy. Trust me, I know something about that,” Bush said to laughter weeks after Bill Clinton bested him. “But if you have to lose, that’s the way to do it: Fight with all you have. Give it your best shot. And win or lose, learn from it, and get on with life.”

Fast forward to today, when President Donald Trump is doing anything but getting on with his life. He addressed a rally here in Washington for those who believe — against all fact — that Trump actually won his re-election in November and that President-elect Joe Biden can be blocked from taking power on Jan. 20. With the White House as his backdrop, Trump rattled through a litany of baseless allegations of voter fraud. Surrounding him, thousands of supporters, including a handful of extremist groups, have synced for the gathering.

As a result, Washington’s mayor has urged residents to avoid the parts of town that are to be occupied by this crowd, which when last it met burned signs at Black churches and escalated into violence. Arrests on weapons charges have already started. All 10 living former Secretaries of Defense have warned against military involvement in electoral outcomes. It’s a surreal moment to see unarmed National Guard members in the streets and crowds wearing Make America Great Again flags as capes in the grocery store.

All the while, there’s tight security at the Capitol, where Congress today is set to certify the results of the election. Lawmakers are being urged to use underground tunnels to get between office buildings and the Capitol itself. By midday, a House of Representatives office building was being evacuated. Trump and his allies plan to try to use Congress to countermand the results. Trump continues to assert that Vice President Mike Pence “can decertify the results or send them back to the states for change and certification” and call the entire election “illegal.” That posture came via a statement released after a New York Times bombshell said Pence was looking for a way out. (Pence absolutely cannot set aside the results. Just ask Al Gore who had to certify George W. Bush’s win in 2001. To that point, Pence conceded in a statement just moments before the drama unfurled on Capitol Hill.)

The largely maskless crowds started gathering yesterday in downtown D.C. One speaker told the crowd to hug a stranger in an apparent mock of the coronavirus’ deadly spread. “It’s a mass-spreader event!” the speaker said. Other organizers have been coaching guests on how to smuggle guns into the District, which has strict laws against weapons. Even as Sen. Mitt Romney flew back to Washington yesterday, a plane with rally-destined guests chanted “traitor” because the Utah lawmaker won’t back the antics today.

By today, the masses were packed shoulder-to-shoulder and, again, sans mask in a space south of the White House typically reserved for the National Christmas Tree. As was the case over the summer at the height of protests for racial justice, businesses have boarded up their windows in preparation for conflict. But unlike before, counter-protesters are expected to stay away, which in turn denies some pro-Trump agitators the conflict they seek.

Elder members of Trump’s Republican Party have indicated that they’ve had enough of the shenanigans and are ready to be rid of the drama. On the Senate floor on Wednesday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, said it’s time for Republicans to give up the ghost. Yet Trump is refusing to acknowledge his loss, starting this week by claiming he won eight states that he lost and asserting somehow things would be righted for him. “I’m complaining about eight different states, and I think we’re going to win them all,” he said Monday in Dalton, Ga., on a campaign swing for two Republican candidates for Senate that appear on track to have dual losses.

Having lost at every meaningful juncture in his legal fights, Trump is now looking at a mob-like mood in the capital to force Congress to overturn the results, and he has at least a dozen allies in the Senate who are willing to turn the pro-forma day of state roll calls into made-for-TV drama. The outcome is preordained, but Washington will still tune-in to see how nasty things can get at the Capitol. C-SPAN has never looked so much like a Real Housewives reunion.

All of which is to say this: This is not normal.

Other Presidents have used their final weeks in office to enjoy the perks of the position one last time. Barack Obama invited the cast of Hamilton to the White House this week four years ago for an #ObamaLegacy celebration. George W. Bush spent 90 minutes in the Oval Office taking photos with staffers and their families and hosted a dinner for military leaders and their spouses. Today? Roughly a mile from the Capitol, Trump is standing in the wind, once again railing against elections he says were corrupt.

While still running the country and packing offices, the White House staffs in previous transitions have fielded calls from their successors and proactively reached out with new developments. For instance, George W. Bush took a call from Obama on New Year’s Day 2009 to discuss a terrorist attack on a plane in Detroit and now plans to attend Biden’s inauguration as the lone living Republican President. This time? Trump and Biden have not spoken since Election Day, obstruction is the watchword inside much of Trump’s transition planning and there’s no guarantee that the outgoing President will participate in the incoming one’s arrival in power.

Therein is the reason much of Washington stocked the pantry for a few days as the city hunkers down for what may well be Trump’s last stand: this President has never bowed to the norms of the office since he started his campaign on a golden escalator. Why expect him to start now?

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com