Donald Trump has confirmed the worst fears of his opponents by making a false declaration of victory in the US presidential election and threatening to plunge the nation into a constitutional crisis.
Results so far show his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, with an edge in the race to 270 electoral college votes after flipping the state of Arizona, but it could be days before the outcome is known.
“The president’s statement tonight about trying to shut down the counting of duly cast ballots was outrageous, unprecedented and incorrect,” said the Biden campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, in a statement.
The Democrats went further on Wednesday mid-morning when Dillon said in a live address, “We believe we are on a clear path to victory by this afternoon” and that Biden was on course to become the president of the United States.
That Trump had been widely predicted to make a baseless assertion of triumph and resort to the courts to stop votes being counted did not make his 2.21am speech at the White House any less shocking. Some likened the move, unprecedented in American history, to a presidential coup.
“Once again, the president is lying to the American people and acting like a would-be despot,” tweeted Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee. “We will count every vote. And ignore the noise.”
Trump spoke in the East Room with numerous US flags behind him and flanked by two TV screens, which had been showing Fox News. Around 150 guests were standing with few face masks and little physical distancing. Donald Trump Jr, Ivanka Trump and other family members sat in the front row.
“Millions and millions of people voted for us tonight, and a very sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise that group of people and we won’t stand for it,” Trump said to whoops and cheers. “We will not stand for it.”
There is no evidence for Trump’s allegation of disenfranchisement.
The president listed some correct state victories, some false claims of state victories, and dived deep into unfounded conspiracy theories.
“And did I predict this, did I say this? I’ve been saying this from the day I heard they were going to send out tens of millions of ballots because either they were going to win or, if they didn’t win, they’ll take us to court.”
He added: “This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity – for the good of this nation, this is a very big moment – this is a major fraud on our nation.
“We want the law to be used in a proper manner, so we’ll be going to the US supreme court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. OK? It’s a very sad moment.
“We will win this and as far as I’m concerned we already have won it.”
Trump’s demand for all voting to stop did not make sense after polls had already closed, but appeared to be an attempt to sow confusion about mail-in ballots. Millions are still to be counted in key battleground states in the midwest such as Pennsylvania and they are expected to heavily favour Biden.
Trump has spent months arguing that mail-in ballots are prone to fraud. Experts say there is no evidence for this.
The president appears to be pinning hopes that a conservative majority on the supreme court, including his recent appointment Amy Coney Barrett, will rule in his favour. The role of the attorney general, William Barr, who has been loyal to Trump, could also be critical.
The scenario could also involve support from Republican senators, conservative media and the millions of people who voted for Trump’s re-election, creating a powder keg with high potential for battles in the courts and the streets.
Trump’s attempt to enflame divisions to his political advantage provoked a fierce backlash. Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, said: “The counting will not stop. It will continue until every duly cast vote is counted. Because that is what our laws – the laws that protect every American’s constitutional right to vote – require.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, tweeted: “Donald Trump’s premature claims of victory are illegitimate, dangerous and authoritarian. Count the votes. Respect the results.”
The Minnesota congresswoman Ilhan Omar added: “The irony of worrying about people turning America into Somalia while allowing Trump to do literally what Somali dictators used to do.
“We send election observers into other countries, we shouldn’t need ours monitored.”
David Plouffe, a former campaign manager and White House senior adviser for Barack Obama, predicted “dark and scary days” to come.