President Trump said on Thursday that he would leave the White House if the Electoral College formalized Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s election as president, even as he reiterated baseless claims of fraud that he said would make it “very hard” to concede.
Taking questions from reporters for the first time since Election Day, Mr. Trump also threw himself into the battle for Senate control, saying he would soon travel to Georgia to support Republican candidates in two runoff elections scheduled there on Jan. 5.
When asked whether he would leave office in January after the Electoral College cast its votes for Mr. Biden on Dec. 14 as expected, Mr. Trump replied: “Certainly I will. Certainly I will.”
Speaking in the Diplomatic Room of the White House after a Thanksgiving video conference with members of the American military, the president insisted that “shocking” new evidence about voting problems would surface before Inauguration Day. “It’s going to be a very hard thing to concede,” he said, “because we know that there was massive fraud.”
But even as he continued to deny the reality of his defeat, Mr. Trump also seemed to acknowledge that his days as president were numbered.
“Time is not on our side,” he said, in a rare admission of weakness. He also complained that what he referred to, prematurely, as “the Biden administration” had declared its intention to scrap his “America First” foreign policy vision.
Asked whether he would attend Mr. Biden’s inauguration, as is customary for a departing president, Mr. Trump was coy.
“I don’t want to say that yet,” the president said, adding, “I know the answer, but I just don’t want to say.”
In his remarks on Thursday, Mr. Trump said he would visit Georgia on Saturday. Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, later clarified that the president meant Saturday, Dec. 5.
The election results left Democrats holding 48 seats in the U.S. Senate. If Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, the Democratic challengers in Georgia, can both pull off victories over Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, their party will gain de facto control of a Senate divided 50-50 because Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would wield a tiebreaking vote.
The president added that he could return to the state to back the Republicans a second time, “depending on how they’re doing.”
Iran’s top nuclear scientist, who American and Israeli intelligence have long charged was behind secret programs to design an atomic warhead, was shot and killed on Friday as he was traveling in a vehicle in northern Iran, Iranian state media reported.
The scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, believed to be 59, has been considered the driving force behind Iran’s nuclear weapons program for two decades, and continued to work after the main part of the effort was quietly disbanded in the early 2000s, according to American intelligence assessments and Iranian nuclear documents stolen by Israel.
Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s killing, whoever was responsible, could have broad implications for the incoming Biden administration. It is bound to set off a sharp reaction in Iran, as did the American attack on Jan. 3 that killed Qassim Suleimani, the Iranian major general who ran the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
A shadowy figure, Mr. Fakhrizadeh had long been the No. 1 target of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, which is widely believed to be behind a series of assassinations of scientists a decade ago that included some of Mr. Fakhrizadeh’s deputies.
The assassination comes at a time of heightened tensions between Iran and the Trump administration. Mr. Trump was dissuaded from striking Iran just two weeks ago, after his aides warned it could escalate into a broader conflict during his last weeks in office.
Mr. Trump had asked senior advisers in an Oval Office meeting on Nov. 12 whether he had options to take action against Iran’s main nuclear site at Natanz in the coming weeks. Days later, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state and former C.I.A. director, visited Israel on what will likely be his last trip there in office.
Attacking Iran to force it to stop expanding its nuclear program would be a significant blow to Mr. Biden, who wants to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. Such a strike on the eve of a new administration could poison relations with Tehran to such an extent that negotiating a restoration of the deal, or toughening its terms, could be impossible.
Since Mr. Trump dismissed the secretary of defense, Mark T. Esper, and other top Pentagon aides last week, Defense Department and other national security officials have privately expressed worries that the president might initiate operations, whether overt or secret, against Iran or other adversaries at the end of his term. Others have speculated that Mr. Netanyahu, who at various moments has been on the edge of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, might seek to act while Mr. Trump is still in office.
While Mr. Trump’s top advisers — including Mr. Pompeo and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — argued against a military strike against Iran, top American officials and commanders still warn of Iran’s malign activities.
“For decades, the Iranian regime has funded and supported terrorism and terrorist organizations,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, said last week on a webinar about the Middle East.
American officials would not comment on the assassination on Friday morning, saying they were seeking information. But some American officials argued that the death of Mr. Fakhrizadeh, the latest in a string of such mysterious killings of Iran’s top nuclear scientists, would send a chilling message to the country’s other top scientists working on that program: If we can get him, we can get you, too.
An unlikely fight is breaking out over President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice for agriculture secretary, pitting a powerful Black lawmaker who wants to refocus the Agriculture Department on hunger against traditionalists who believe the department should be a voice for rural America.
Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress and perhaps Mr. Biden’s most important supporter in the Democratic primary, is making an all-out case for Representative Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, an African-American Democrat from Ohio.
Mr. Clyburn, whose endorsement of Mr. Biden before the South Carolina primary helped turn the tide for the former vice president’s nomination, has spoken to him on the phone about Ms. Fudge as recently as this week. The lawmaker has also lobbied for her with two of the president-elect’s closest advisers and discussed the matter with Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
“I feel very strongly,” Mr. Clyburn said in an interview on Wednesday about Ms. Fudge, who leads the nutrition and oversight subcommittee on the House Agriculture Committee.
“It’s time for Democrats to treat the Department of Agriculture as the kind of department it purports to be,” he added, noting that much of the budget “deals with consumer issues and nutrition and things that affect people’s day-to-day lives.”
But there are complications. Two of Mr. Biden’s farm-state allies are also being discussed for the job: Heidi Heitkamp, a former senator from North Dakota, and Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who served as agriculture secretary for President Barack Obama.
The delicate proxy clash over the post, which is usually not as coveted as more high-profile cabinet positions, has pitted Democrats eager to emphasize issues like hunger and nutrition against more traditional members of the party who believe the department should represent rural America. The sprawling agency oversees farm policy, the Forest Service, food safety and animal health, but also the food stamp program, nutrition services, rural housing and rural development.More broadly, the debate illustrates the challenge Mr. Biden faces as he builds his administration. Every appointment he makes interlocks with others, and if he does not select a diverse candidate for one position it becomes more likely he will for other posts.
The Agriculture job specifically is pinching Mr. Biden between two of his central campaign themes, which he repeated in plain terms this month in his victory speech: that he owes a special debt to African-American voters, and that he wants to be a president for all Americans, including those who didn’t vote for him. And nowhere did Mr. Biden fare worse than in rural America, particularly the most heavily white parts of the farm belt.
As soon as Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois learned officially on Monday that there would be a Democratic opening at the top of the Judiciary Committee, he was on the phone to his colleagues trying to nail down their support for the position.
“Never take anything for granted,” Mr. Durbin said of his bid to replace Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who stepped aside as the senior Democrat on the panel under intense pressure from progressive activists who deemed her insufficiently aggressive for the job. “I have been through these contests before.”
One fellow Democrat whom Mr. Durbin did not talk to was Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, who made clear by the next afternoon that he was also interested in the job. Some of the same progressive activists who pressed to shove Ms. Feinstein aside said they would be backing him.
The competition set up a rare internal power struggle that reflected broader disputes among Democrats over the direction and approach of their party in a new Congress. As they sort through the results of the election, which handed them control of the White House but left their hopes of taking the Senate hanging by a thread, some are pushing for a new, more combative style and generational change.
The effort to confirm President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has begun in earnest, and yet, President Trump continues to shed doubt on the elections results as though, by some mechanism, he might yet overcome the title of the official loser of the 2020 presidential election.
On Monday, the Trump administration finally authorized a weeks-delayed transition process after Michigan certified Mr. Biden as its winner. Still, Mr. Trump continued to press quixotic lawsuits and tweeted messages of fraud and defiant resolve. His inability to concede the election is the latest reality-denying moment in a career preoccupied with an epithet: Loser.
After Mr. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States in January 2017, his administration asserted that the inauguration’s audience was the largest ever, despite all evidence to the contrary. But any suggestion otherwise would have rendered Mr. Trump a loser in some imagined contest about inaugural crowd sizes.
Now, nearly four years later, the citizens have cast their ballots, baseless lawsuits alleging electoral fraud have been dismissed and states have certified the vote. Still, the loser of the 2020 presidential election continues to see crowds that the rest of the country does not.
Mr. Trump’s career has been filled with moments that required audacious attempts to twist a negative into a positive, often by saying something over and over until it either displaces the truth or exhausts the audience into surrender.
Such behavior by the president reflects a binary-code approach to life that spares no room for nuance or complication. If a person isn’t a one, then that person is a zero.
“You are either a winner or a loser,” Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, said in an interview last week. “Reality is secondary. It is all about perception.”