As President Donald Trump's lawyers cling to their far-fetched schemes to overturn the presidential election, it was increasingly clear Thursday that cracks are forming in Trump's Republican wall of support, as more GOP members stepped forward to say that President-elect Joe Biden should receive national intelligence briefings and others began to acknowledge the long-shot nature of the President's quest.
There is still no sign that Trump and leading Republicans plan to actively congratulate Biden. Trump is still tweeting conspiracy theories about the election to stoke outrage within his politically activated base, and GOP members are looking to him for help in winning two likely runoff elections in Georgia that will decide who controls the Senate.
But after Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford told a local radio station Wednesday that the President-elect should begin receiving presidential intelligence briefings by the end of the week, a number of senior GOP senators spoke up Thursday to say they shared that thinking, including Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the chamber's most senior Republican, Senate Majority Whip John Thune and even South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Trump loyalist who has encouraged the President not to concede.
In making his argument, Lankford noted that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks the bipartisan committee that investigated them found that the compressed time frame for the transition after the contested 2000 election may have contributed to the lack of preparedness for the attack.
In their report after the attacks, the commission said that the dispute over the election and the "36-day legal fight" following "cut in half the normal transition period." The loss of time, the commission said, "hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees," diminishing US preparedness before the terrorist attacks.
The intermediary step by Republicans in the President's orbit illuminated the widening divide between the practical reality that Biden must be equipped with key national security knowledge to begin running the country in January and the political fiction being perpetrated by the President and his supporters.
Ohio's Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who heads a state the President won last week, said on CNN's "New Day" that "we need to consider the former vice president as the President-elect." While he said the President has the right to pursue legal options, the Ohio governor said there were more pressing issues facing the country.
"I'm worried about this virus, I'm not looking at what the merits of the case are. It would appear that Joe Biden is going to be the next president of the United States," DeWine said, adding that America needs to "come together as a country."
The illusory quality of Trump's election fraud claims was once again underscored by a set of election integrity checks that are being conducted in Arizona, which CNN called for Biden late Thursday night. Trump had tweeted Thursday that an audit of Arizona votes would mean "that we will easily win" that state. But post-election audits filed with the Arizona Secretary of State's office from more than half of Arizona's counties showed that there is no evidence of systematic voter fraud or major discrepancies that would affect the outcome of the race. Several GOP-leaning counties chose not to conduct the audits; reports from other remaining counties have not yet been submitted.
A group of national, state and private election officials said in a joint statement Thursday that there is no evidence that "any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised."
"The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history. Right now, across the country, election officials are reviewing and double checking the entire election process prior to finalizing the result," the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council and the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Executive Committees said. The group includes federal employees who are working in the Trump administration.
The most surreal feature of the suspended reality at the White House is still the behavior of the President himself. A leader who jealously dominated television coverage on the campaign trail and in office has not made public remarks for an entire week -- even as his fate dominates Washington.
During that time, Trump has showed little interest in addressing the most important issue facing the country: the record-breaking climb in US coronavirus cases. On Thursday, the influential model from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted that US deaths are likely to reach 438,941 by March 1. (The model found that the toll could be even higher -- 587,000 deaths by March 1 -- if states were to relax their restrictions and mask mandates).
But the President's Twitter feed Thursday indicated that he was much more fixated on what he views as his mistreatment by Fox News, his once favored network, which he believes should be defending him more vociferously in the midst of the twilight zone that he has created by refusing to acknowledge Biden's victory.
Trump sent or retweeted more than a dozen tweets critical of the network throughout the day Thursday, claiming the networks' ratings "have completely collapsed" because "they forgot what made them successful, what got them there."
"They forgot the Golden Goose," Trump tweeted. "The biggest difference between the 2016 Election, and 2020, was @FoxNews!"
The President, whom CNN quoted sources as describing as increasingly "dejected" on Thursday, continues to tweet falsehoods about election fraud. But a week-and-a half after Election Day there are few signs that his campaign has convinced any court to take his complaints seriously. In this odd limbo between defiance and admitting defeat, the President is wavering between fighting on and a recognition that his hold on power is coming to an end, the sources told CNN.
Even the Trump children disagree on the path forward. While his adult sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, have urged their father to continue challenging the election results, his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner have taken a more measured approach, CNN reported Thursday, encouraging the President to think about potential damage to his legacy as they weigh their own post-White House ambitions.
It remains quite possible that Trump will leave office having never acknowledged that he was beaten in the election.
Trump faces legal realities
Each day, the Trump's campaign's public position that the President can still win the election continues to be eroded by developments on the electoral map.
In addition to Biden's win in Arizona, the President trails in Georgia, where a hand recount is beginning, by 14,000 votes -- a cushion for Biden unlikely to be overturned. CNN's White House team reported Thursday that Trump vacillates by the hour and the day between charging ahead with his improbable legal challenges and acknowledging that they are unlikely to succeed.
Meanwhile, Biden's political choreography -- which late Wednesday included the naming of Ron Klain as his White House chief of staff -- and his departure to his family beach house to decompress after the election is meant to signal that his ascent to power is assured.
That is one reason why there has been a perceptible fraying of the President's position in Washington, as the assumption begins to solidify that Biden will be the next President, despite Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's inflammatory comment this week that the administration was preparing a transition to a second Trump term.
In what may have been a signal to establishment Republicans -- in a venue that the President himself might take account of -- former George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove wrote in a Wall Street journal op-ed that the election will not be overturned whatever the result of Trump's legal gambits.
Some Republican senators are still hedging, out of an apparent desire not to anger Trump's fervent political supporters who will continue to be a hugely influential force in their party, but more and more of them are finding a middle ground.
Lankford, who referred to Biden as President-elect at his church last week, has said he will intervene if the victorious Democrat remains unable to access intelligence briefings. Graham, Thune, Ohio's Rob Portman and Missouri's Josh Hawley agreed that Biden should be briefed while Trump's legal challenges play out. Two sometime critics of Trump, GOP Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, have also joined that call.
And CNN's Manu Raju and Ted Barrett reported Thursday night that some Republicans are increasingly unnerved by Trump's purge of national security and defense officials at the Pentagon, including former Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
"I've been a little concerned about it," Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe said of the Pentagon firings, adding he'd been told "now it's come to an end."
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a member of the Senate GOP leadership, told CNN's Capitol Hill team that Trump's chances of reversing the election's outcome looked like a "a very narrow road."
Even Sen. Kevin Cramer, a Republican from North Dakota who is a Trump ally, said he thought the Trump administration should sign the necessary paperwork to allow the transition to proceed, a step they have so far refused to take.
"I just think we ought to be cooperating," Cramer told CNN. "I think you can cooperate with a transition -- a peaceful transition -- while also contesting in appropriate legal ways."
As Republican lawmakers stake out safe ground -- trying to appear that they are still supporting the President's legal pursuits while also signaling that the transition should begin -- some Democrats have been hammering their GOP colleagues for indulging the President's election fantasies.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer chided them Thursday for "deliberately casting doubt on our elections for no other reason but fear of Donald Trump."
"These Republicans are all auditioning for profiles in cowardice," Schumer said.
Covid surge continues unabated
While Trump tended to his political wounds and settled his personal grudges this week, all of the metrics gauging the progress of the coronavirus pandemic were trending in the wrong direction with case numbers surging, deaths increasing and some hospitals once again facing capacity issues.
On Thursday, the US broke the record for Covid-19 hospitalizations for the third consecutive day, surpassing 67,000 hospitalizations.
The glimmer of hope on the horizon continued to be Pfizer's promising announcement earlier this week that their vaccine trial is more than 90% effective with officials widely expecting that the company will apply for emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration before the end of this month. Administration officials are hopeful that other vaccine candidates will also become available.
US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room" Thursday night that all Americans who wish to be vaccinated will be able to be by April. He said targeted vaccinations will begin in December and January as the government partners with large chain pharmacies and networks, including CVS and Walgreens, to speed distribution.
Azar said he hoped enough vaccine doses will be available for the most vulnerable Americans in December, followed by all senior citizens, emergency first responders and health care workers in January.
"By the end of March to early April, we think across all of the vaccines that we have invested in, we have enough for all Americans who wish to get vaccinated," Azar said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease specialist, also sounded a positive note on Thursday, telling ABC's Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America" that "help is really on the way."
"If you think of it metaphorically, you know, the cavalry is coming here," Fauci said, touting the major positive impact that the vaccines will have.
"If we could just hang in there, do the public health measures that we're talking about," Fauci said. "We're going to get this under control, I promise you."