Washington • President-elect Joe Biden prepared Sunday to start building his administration, even as Republican leaders and scores of party lawmakers refrained from acknowledging his victory out of apparent deference to President Donald Trump, who continued to refuse to concede.
With Biden out of the public eye as he received congratulations from leaders around the world, his team turned its attention to a transition that will swing into action Monday, with the launch of a coronavirus task force and swift moves to begin assembling his team.
But more than 24 hours after his election had been declared, the vast majority of Republicans declined to offer the customary statements of goodwill for the victor that have been standard after U.S. presidential contests, as Trump defied the results and vowed to forge ahead with long-shot lawsuits to try to overturn them.
While some prominent Republican figures, including the party’s only living former president, George W. Bush, called Biden to wish him well, most elected officials stayed silent in the face of Trump’s baseless claims that the election was stolen from him.
[Read more: Biden names aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch to help lead his COVID-19 response]
Biden did not respond to Trump’s attacks on the result, but he also was not waiting for a concession. On Sunday, he unveiled his official transition website as he prepared a series of executive actions for his first day in the Oval Office — including rejoining the Paris climate accord, moving aggressively to confront the coronavirus pandemic and restoring labor organizing rights for government workers — aimed at unwinding Trump’s domestic agenda and repairing the United States' image in the world.
But Republicans' silence suggested that even in defeat, Trump maintained a powerful grip on his party and its elected leaders, who have spent four years tightly embracing him or quietly working to avoid offending him or his loyal base. For many prominent Republicans, the president’s reluctance to accept the election results created a dilemma, making even the most cursory expression of support for Biden seem like a conspicuous break with Trump.
Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri was the most senior Republican to suggest that Trump had most likely lost and cast doubt on his allegations of a stolen election, but he stopped short of referring to Biden as the president-elect in an exceedingly careful television interview.
“It’s time for the president’s lawyers to present the facts, and it’s time for those facts to speak for themselves,” Blunt, chair of the Rules Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week.” “It seems unlikely that any changes could be big enough to make a difference, but this is a close election, and we need to acknowledge that.”
“I look forward,” Blunt added, “to the president dealing with this however he needs to deal with it.”
At the White House, there was little indication that Trump was dealing with it at all. As he played a second consecutive day of golf at his private club outside Washington, the president recirculated a groundless claim by Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, who told Fox News, “I think that it is a corrupt, stolen election.”
Privately, the president’s advisers, several of whom have quietly been candid with Trump that the chances of success in any challenge to the election outcome were not high, had concluded they had little option other than to allow the president to keep fighting until he was ready to bow to the reality of his loss.
On Friday, a large group of them met with the president in the Oval Office to discuss the way forward, giving him a brutally honest assessment of his likelihood of prevailing. After another meeting at Trump’s campaign headquarters Saturday, where political aides again laid out the small chances of changing the outcome of the race, Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law, asked the group to go to the White House to outline it for Trump, according to people briefed on the meeting.
Campaign officials continued to discuss their legal strategy for challenging the election results Sunday and named Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, who lost his bid for a Senate seat Tuesday, to lead their recount effort in the state.
On his first full day as president-elect, Biden kept a low profile, emerging publicly only to attend Mass, as he does most Sundays. Afterward, he visited the cemetery where his son Beau; his first wife, Neilia; and their daughter, Naomi, are buried. In a sign of one specific stylistic change coming to the White House, he also stayed quiet in another way: Aside from circulating a video posted by his presidential transition, he had not sent a single tweet by Sunday evening.
Leaders around the world sent their congratulations to Biden, underscoring the international community’s acceptance of the results, even by those who had cultivated close personal ties with Trump, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Boris Johnson of Britain. A few refrained, including the leaders of Russia and China, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.
There were signs that Trump would come under increasing pressure to accept the election results. The nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, a nonprofit that assists in transfers of power between administrations, called on his team to “immediately begin the postelection transition process.”
“While there will be legal disputes requiring adjudication, the outcome is sufficiently clear that the transition process must now begin,” members of the group’s advisory board — including Mike Leavitt, the former Republican governor of Utah, and Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff under Bush — wrote in a letter reported earlier by Politico.
“This was a hard-fought campaign, but history is replete with examples of presidents who emerged from such campaigns to graciously assist their successors,” they wrote.
Bush extended his congratulations to Biden in a statement issued after the two men spoke Sunday.
“Though we have political differences, I know Joe Biden to be a good man, who has won his opportunity to lead and unify our country,” Bush said in a statement.
And a former member of Trump’s Cabinet, Gary Cohn, also acknowledged Biden’s victory, tweeting his “congrats” to “President-elect @joebiden and Vice President-elect @kamalaharris.”
“With over 145M votes cast,” he continued, “both campaigns should be applauded for getting an unprecedented number of citizens engaged in the democratic process.”
The silence from most other leading Republicans cut both ways for the president. While it allowed Trump to continue the fiction that he had not lost, it also left him to battle against the election results without the full, vocal support of his party behind him.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the majority leader, has declined to say anything since Friday, before the election results were known, when he released a generic statement encouraging officials to “count all the votes.” No member of his leadership team has either, apart from Blunt’s carefully worded statements Sunday.
In a brief interview later Sunday, Blunt said a public vetting of the Trump campaign’s claims of fraud could help reassure voters on both sides of the election’s legitimacy.
“I think it is best for both the president and Biden to have as much information out as is possible,” he said.
At the same time, just two Republican senators — Mitt Romney of Utah and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — and a handful of House members had acknowledged Biden’s win by Sunday evening, while others were trying to cast doubt on the results.
“Every legal challenge should be heard,” said Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader. “Then and only then will America decide who won the race.”
Speaking on Fox News, McCarthy questioned why news media outlets had called the presidential race for Biden, who was leading by tens of thousands of votes in key battleground states, before learning the final results of contests in competitive House districts — many of those in deep-blue California and New York — where thousands of mail-in ballots remain uncounted.
“Why would you call the presidential race first?” he asked.
News outlets call races after analyzing returns and concluding the outcome is certain, and the results in the congressional races in which ballots are still being tabulated — all but a handful of them in states that Biden easily won — have no bearing on the presidential race.
Still, some Republicans were grasping for evidence of wrongdoing. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina urged Trump to refuse to concede and fight on. He acknowledged, though, that a claim he circulated over the weekend that a postal worker was said to have overheard talk of what he believed was corruption taking place at a facility in Erie, Pennsylvania, remained unverified.
“Do not accept the media’s declaration of Biden,” Graham, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said on Fox News on Sunday morning. He called the election “contested” and urged: “Do not concede, Mr. President. Fight hard.”
Those comments reflected the advice of some of Trump’s top advisers, chiefly Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, who were urging him Sunday to continue to fight the results.
A remarkably small number of Republicans called for the country to move on and acknowledged Biden’s victory. Among them were three governors of blue states — Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Larry Hogan of Maryland and Phil Scott of Vermont — and fewer than a dozen House Republicans.
They included centrist Reps. Tom Reed of New York and Fred Upton of Michigan; Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump; and four lawmakers who will not be returning to Congress next year: Reps. Paul Mitchell of Michigan, Will Hurd of Texas and Francis Rooney of Florida, who are retiring, and Rep. Denver Riggleman of Virginia, who lost his primary this year.
Rep. Don Young of Alaska, whose race remains undecided after a more difficult than expected reelection bid, said he wished “the president-elect well in what will no doubt be the most challenging chapter of his political career.”
“It is time to put the election behind us, and come together to work for a better tomorrow for our nation,” Young said in a statement.
On “Fox News Sunday,” Romney provided a contrast to many of his Republican colleagues. He said that he believed it was “appropriate” for Trump to pursue recounts and legal challenges in certain battleground states, but cautioned against widespread condemnations of the American system of elections.
“It’s important for the cause of democracy and freedom that we don’t allege fraud and theft and so forth, unless there’s very clear evidence of that,” Romney said. “To date, that evidence has not been produced.”
Romney noted that he had a legal team ready to challenge the results of the 2012 election when he was the Republican nominee, but decided not to go forward once he saw such efforts would be futile.
“At some point, truth, freedom and democracy have to ascend,” he said, “and you step aside.”