There is a growing expectation among President Donald Trump's advisers that he will never concede that he lost re-election, even after votes are certified in battleground states over the coming weeks, according to multiple people familiar with the president's thinking.
"Do not expect him to concede," one top aide said. More likely, the aide said, "he'll say something like, 'We can't trust the results, but I'm not contesting them.'"
Another adviser said that after the legal battles and recounts, the closest the president is likely to get to a concession is, "he'll acknowledge the results and that we'll never know how accurate they are."
"But we're not there yet," the adviser said.
In the meantime there is also growing frustration inside the White House — what allies described as "embarrassment" as well as "uncertainty and doubt and confusion" — over the president's refusal to acknowledge the election result and chart a path forward.
"This is unsustainable," another aide said.
Allies caution that no final decision has been made on where Trump intends to take this fight or when it might end. And a small group of senior advisers — most of them in the Trump campaign — still believe there is a path to victory for the president.
But those allies are a shrinking minority, and some advisers say the president is coming around to the fact that the election result won't be reversed. "Even Trump realizes that the likelihood of the result changing is almost zero," one of them said.
There's an effort among those allies who know that Trump has lost to get the president to focus on next steps. "Overwhelmingly, the understanding is getting into the president's ear that he needs to have a strategy to move on," one aide said.
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Part of that strategy involves a message that allows the president to claim victory as the most successful Republican in decades, a force with 89 million Twitter followers and 71 million votes that is not going anywhere.
"He's setting himself up as the main opposition leader," one ally said. Aides expect him to leave open the possibility of running in 2024, effectively freezing the GOP field.
To underscore his power in the Republican Party, aides are encouraging Trump to be heavily involved in the Senate runoff race in Georgia, including holding a rally in the state soon. (NBC News has said the results of the state's other Senate race is still "too close to call," and it, too, may go to a runoff.)
While some aides had hoped the president would begin to move forward in the coming days, many anticipate it taking weeks. For the Trump campaign, Nov. 15 is seen as the unofficial end of the election, according to an official. That's when the campaign officially wraps up, and only a bare-bones staff will stay in place.
The latest vote certification deadline in the handful of states the president is contesting is Dec. 1. But recounts, including in Georgia, could take longer.
Officials are waiting for direction on whether to proceed with assisting President-elect Joe Biden's team with a transition. And the lack of strategy is in part what's kept Trump out of public view for one of the longest stretches of his presidency.
Aides are concerned Trump could scuttle the Republican support for his decision to fight the election results in battleground states if he says something publicly that they might struggle to defend, as was the case during his appearance last Thursday in the White House briefing room when Trump insisted he'd won states he had lost and that there was widespread corruption.
"There's a sense that if he goes out and does anything forcefully, that's the one way he risks losing Republican support," one of the president's allies said. "And that's when the whole house of cards comes tumbling down."
People close to the president said he plans to continue amplifying his message of widespread fraud in the election, despite no evidence of that. And whatever acknowledgment Trump makes about Biden taking over on Jan. 20, it is likely to include a grievance that the election is just the latest in a series of attacks on him, in line behind the Russia investigation and impeachment.
Inside the White House, there's a push to get the president to also focus on his legacy and accomplishments while in office.
Reacting to Biden senior counsel Bob Bauer's comments Tuesday that Trump's long-shot lawsuits are "theatrics," one White House official said, "It's not wrong for the Biden team to call it theater."
This official says many members of the White House staff are actively looking for new work, despite a directive from the top that any political appointee searching for a new job should be fired.