One of the innate powers of the presidency is the bully pulpit it provides—the opportunity to virtually take any setting and turn it into a stage to showcase the awesome influence of the office you hold.
On Wednesday, that setting was a cell phone, put on speaker, placed close to a microphone, set on a table, inside a conference room, tucked within a Wyndham hotel in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, over which Donald Trump repeated a long-list of wild conspiracy theories as to why he won the 2020 election when, in fact, he hadn’t.
“We have to turn the election over,” the president declared, saying the quiet part loud. “We can't let it happen for our country. And this election has to be turned around because we won Pennsylvania by a lot and we won all these swing states by a lot.”
Though there may have been a tinge of fight in his voice, these are inglorious times for the president, who has embraced the very bunkered existence that he spent months accusing Joe Biden of living. Trump hasn’t taken questions in weeks. He’s barely appeared in public. When he has, it’s been so brief and odd-sounding as to raise questions about the point of it all. He claims to be fighting for the future of democracy. But the most tangible activity in which he’s engaged has been golf.
“Trump wants this to continue,” a senior administration official said, describing why the campaign, Republican National Committee, and government are wasting resources on this. “[Basically] everyone else has to fake it.”
And for a brief moment on Wednesday, they did. Earlier in the day plans were forming in the West Wing for Trump to personally travel to Pennsylvania to address what was billed as a State Senate “hearing” on election security and allegations of voting fraud. It was, to put a fine point on it, going to be his Gettysburg in, well, Gettysburg.
But he and his advisers abruptly nixed those plans on Wednesday. And, instead, he quite literally phoned it in, leaving the task of showing up to his attorneys Jenna Ellis and Rudy Giuliani.
The event, held the day after Pennsylvania certified that Democratic President-elect Joe Biden had won the state, was presented as a “public hearing” on Team Trump’s baseless allegations of massive “irregularities” and “fraud” that tipped Pennsylvania to Biden. By the time Trump called in, a number of “witnesses” had offered hear-say, personal anecdotes, and contextual-free data to illustrate what they deemed to be a massive effort to shift hundreds of thousands of votes to Biden. Addressing the crowd via a cell phone Ellis held up, the president cheered them on and added his own garbled musings about a fictitious universe in which he was the victor.
At one point, it appeared that someone else was trying to reach Ellis on the phone—the subtlest of incoming call beeps interrupting the president’s monologue. Ellis didn’t give in to the temptation to check who was on the other line. The caller went to voicemail, another casualty of a fraught post-election season.
Trump himself didn’t seem to notice. He kept at his Fox News-ready talking points about how “if you were a Republican poll watcher, you were treated like a dog” and cheered on Giuliani’s best efforts to forestall the inevitability of a Biden inauguration in January:
“This is going to be your crowning achievement,” Trump alleged, “because you're saving our country.”
His face hidden behind a mask with the words “You Are Not Alone” on it, Giuliani sat there at the table, fidgeting with the papers and the manilla folder in front of him. There was no hair dye dripping down his face this time. No sweat on his brow to wipe away. His body language gave off the appearance of a man genuinely uplifted by the atta-boys he was getting from the president and the crowd.
And yet, he must have surely imagined that life would have handed him a different script than this; that he’d be spending the day before Thanksgiving literally anywhere else than a hotel conference room with mostly maskless fellow conspiracists and a number of no-name state lawmakers who seemed delighted to hear the president over a cell phone.
In a way, it is a fitting chapter to his marriage with Trump, which has been forged through years of scandal, saga, and political high-wire acts.
Multiple sources with direct knowledge said that a number of Trump’s close advisers have, over the years, tried to get him to ditch Giuliani, who they viewed as a nuisance and a scandal-magnet. They did so during the Mueller investigation, the Michael Cohen fiasco, the Ukraine saga (during which Giuliani’s actions triggered a series of events that led straight to Trump’s impeachment), and the tail-end of the 2020 presidential election (during which his Trump-approved plan to destroy the Biden campaign with sketchy Hunter Biden dirt emphatically did not work).
And they’re doing so now, as several key players in Trumpworld leadership, including 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien, have sought distance from the fling-anything-and-everything-against-the-wall approach Giuliani has taken in his bid to undo the vote. Multiple Trump confidants have told the president that his legal “strike force” is making him look like an idiot, two people with knowledge of the conversations say.
But still, he sticks with Rudy, as each eggs on the reality-defying, democracy-nullifying urges of the other. They can’t ditch each other now, it seems, because where else could they go?
The former New York City mayor’s reputation has been irrevocably changed by what has transpired these last four years, with former associates seeking distance and former boosters saying they no longer recognize the man they once revered. According to two sources familiar with the matter, Giuliani has already told the president that whenever Trump steps out of office, he will remain loyal to him, both as an attorney and as a friend.
As for Trump, there are simply few other people to whom he believes he can turn in times of peril—which certainly won’t come to an end once he finally leaves 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Law enforcement and investigators, particularly in New York, are actively digging into his family business empire. And this month, as it has started to sink in that Biden could soon occupy the Oval Office, Trump has made clear to confidants that he fears the prosecutors potentially waiting for him on the other side, according to two people familiar with his private comments.
“Are they gonna try and fuck with me?” the president has asked in recent months, according to another source with direct knowledge of his question.