Donald Trump never admits defeat, but he faces a stark choice now that Democrat Joe Biden has won the White House – concede graciously for the sake of the nation, or decide not to and get evicted anyway.
After nearly four tortured days of counting yielded a victory for Mr Biden on Saturday, Mr Trump was still insisting the race was not over.
He threw out baseless allegations of voter fraud, promised a flurry of legal action and fired off all-caps tweets falsely insisting he had “WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT”.
Mr Trump is not expected to ever formally concede, according to people close to him, but is likely to grudgingly vacate the White House at the end of his term.
His ongoing efforts to paint the election as unfair are seen both as an effort to soothe a bruised ego and to show his loyal base of supporters that he is still fighting. That could be key to keeping them energised for what comes next.
“He intends to fight,” Mr Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow said as it was becoming clear that the president was headed for defeat.
Asked would Mr Trump ever concede, the president’s longtime friend and adviser Roger Stone – whose prison sentence was commuted by Mr Trump in July – said: “I doubt it.”
Mr Stone asserted that Mr Biden, as a result, would have “a cloud over his presidency with half the people in the country believing that he was illegitimately elected”.
Allies suggested that if Mr Trump wants to launch a media empire in coming years, he has an incentive to prolong the drama. So, too, if he intends to keep the door open to a possible 2024 comeback — he would be only a year older then than Mr Biden is now.
There are many in his inner circle egging him on, including his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. The former New York mayor has been promising to provide the president with evidence of voter fraud but has produced little, including during a press conference he held on Saturday in the parking lot of a small Philadelphia landscaping company.
Mr Trump’s adult sons, Donald Jr and Eric, have also urged their father to keep fighting and challenged Republicans to stand with them.
But other political allies and White House officials have pressed Mr Trump to change his tone and commit to a smooth transition.
They have emphasised to him that history will be a harsh judge of any action he takes that is seen as undermining his successor. And they have advised him to deliver a speech in the coming week pledging to support the transition.
Mr Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner has told others that he has urged the president to accept the outcome of the race — even if Mr Trump will not come to terms with how it was reached.
At Fox News, where prime-time hosts wield enormous influence over Mr Trump, Laura Ingraham gave voice to the president’s belief that the election had been unfair, while also pleading with him to keep his legacy in mind — and preserve his status as a Republican Party kingmaker — by gracefully leaving office.
“If and when it’s time to accept an unfavourable outcome in this election, and we hope it never comes, President Trump needs to do it with the same grace and composure that he demonstrated at that town hall with Savannah Guthrie,” she said on Thursday.
“President Trump’s legacy will only become more significant if he focuses on moving the country forward.”
This story is based on interviews with more than a dozen Trump aides and allies, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.
That the peaceful transfer of power was even in doubt reflected the norm-shattering habits of the president, who even in victory never admitted that he had lost the popular vote in 2016.
Most aides believed the president would take the weekend to decide on a plan, which will most certainly involve more legal action. But some aides believe the legal skirmishes are more about putting up the appearance of a fight than producing results.
There were some indications that Mr Trump was moving in a less contentious direction, even as he continued to angrily complain to aides, reviving old grievances about the Russia investigation that began under president Barack Obama.
In a statement on Friday, Mr Trump suggested that he would avail himself of every avenue under the law to challenge the election’s result. Allies interpreted it as a begrudging acknowledgement of the likely outcome.
“We will pursue this process through every aspect of the law to guarantee that the American people have confidence in our government,” Mr Trump said in the statement.
“I will never give up fighting for you and our nation.”
The White House released a terse statement on Saturday saying that the president “will accept the results of a free and fair election” and that the administration “is following all statutory requirements”.
Still, there were concerns that Mr Trump’s rhetoric would inflame tensions in a nation that was already bitterly divided before the election.
The Biden campaign made clear its patience had limits.
“As we said on July 19, the American people will decide this election,” Mr Biden’s spokesman Andrew Bates said on Friday.
“And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House.”