Trump prepares to launch a second term early, even without winning

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President Donald Trump has struggled to convince the country he already won the election. So he’s just going to do the next best thing: Act like he’s starting his second term early.

Trump and his aides have settled on a plan for him to take full advantage of his existing perch at the White House to look as presidential as possible, according to three people briefed on the strategy. He may fire a few Cabinet members and top aides, including FBI Director Christopher Wray and Defense Secretary Mark Esper. He could sign a slew of base-pleasing executive orders. He might even resume his travel schedule. Meanwhile, Trump’s team is planning to mount even more legal challenges and cast evidence-deficient aspersions on the integrity of ballots.

The president is frustrated by what he views as unfair election results in states like Arizona, and is steaming at the possibility of losing to a candidate he considers “weak,” Democratic nominee Joe Biden. The irritation is compounded by Biden’s moves to launch his presidential transition operation and signal confidence about ultimate victory in key states such as Arizona and Nevada, which have him close to clinching the presidential race.

Trump’s team “will flatly say they are wrong if the AP calls the race for Biden,” said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a longtime Trump ally.

“We were at the White House until 3 a.m. on election night,” he added. “I was punchy physically, but I also could not get my head around what is going on until today. The president is going through something similar.”

Yet after two days of staying out of the public’s view, stewing over media coverage and feeling irritated with a handful of top advisers, Trump and his team have settled on the approach of barreling toward a second term — even if, during the final months of his campaign, Trump repeatedly failed to lay out any agenda for another four years.

Thursday night, Trump made his first public appearance since election night, expanding on the baseless claims of election fraud he has been spouting on Twitter. He made no mention of any governing moves, but did vow to fight the election results in court all the way to the Supreme Court — a proposition seen by most legal experts as unlikely and detached from the realities of a state-by-state electoral system.

"It’s going to end up perhaps at the highest court in the land, we’ll see," Trump said, before leaving without taking questions.

In the coming days, Trump’s post-election governing agenda may kick off with firings of key aides who have long rankled the president, especially those within the intelligence and national security community. Those firings could happen within the next week, even if the results of the election favor Biden or remain unclear.

"The first thing is going to be: Who’s left, who’s been loyal and who’s been competent?” said one Republican close to the White House. “That’s going to be the first criteria. Who’s been loyal and who’s competent.”

Along with potential firings, Trump is also expected to spend the next week signing a flurry of executive orders on everything from trade to manufacturing to China as a way to show he is staying busy. He may also tackle a few executive orders on his favored cultural and social issues, according to two Republicans close to the White House.

“Just as he promised the American people, President Trump is fighting hard for a free and fair election while at the same time running the country and carrying out his duties to put America First,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement.

The Trump campaign is separately dispatching surrogates like David Bossie, Corey Lewandowski, Pam Bondi and Ric Grenell to battleground states like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Nevada to raise doubts about state election results and elicit local media coverage for the campaign’s spate of ongoing legal challenges, which Trump aides and advisers anticipate will last for the next several weeks.

“We are in this fight. We are going to stay in,” Trump deputy campaign manager, Justin Clark, told reporters on a call on Thursday.

In recent months, Trump has shrunk his circle of top advisers to longtime aides, family members and a few top campaign officials. Those aides, along with chief of staff Mark Meadows and top White House attorney Pat Cipollone, have been advising the president on his strategy and moves in the days after the election.

Ever since the president delivered remarks at the White House in the early hours of Nov. 4, he has stayed out of view. Trump has tweeted but not given any public remarks about the election or his plans moving forward. Trump allies and advisers say he has passed the time watching media coverage and speaking by phone to friends and fellow politicians.

One ally said once Trump reemerged, it would to resume his activities in a “big” way.

Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.

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