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White House uncertainty grows over Trump post-election actions

Officials around the Trump administration are sending mixed signals privately about support for President TrumpDonald TrumpMore than two-thirds of Americans approve of Biden's coronavirus response: poll Sarah Huckabee Sanders to run for governor Mexico's president tests positive for COVID-19 MORE's refusal to concede the election to Joe BidenJoe BidenFive examples of media's sycophancy for Biden on inauguration week Drastic measures for drastic times — caregiver need mobile health apps Boycott sham impeachment MORE.

Republicans and some of the president's family members have publicly entertained the president's unproven claims that widespread voter fraud is to blame for his deficit in key swing states such as Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

But inside the White House, there is more uncertainty about the benefits of Trump’s ongoing fight.

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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoWhite House installs new leadership at federally-funded international broadcasters US carrier group enters South China Sea amid tensions between China, Taiwan Biden can hold China accountable for human rights abuses by divesting now MORE epitomized the rhetoric coming from Trump's most ardent defenders when he told reporters Tuesday that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

But Sen. Chris CoonsChris Andrew CoonsDemocrats seek answers on impact of Russian cyberattack on Justice Department, Courts Senators introduce bill to award Officer Goodman the Congressional Gold Medal Senate chaos threatens to slow Biden's agenda MORE (D-Del.) said a number of Republicans have asked him to privately extend their congratulations to Biden, an acknowledgment that their public declarations are more intended to appease Trump and avoid upsetting his supporters.

The West Wing is emptier than usual as chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sights and sounds from Inauguration Day Trump leaves White House, promises to be back in 'some form' LIVE INAUGURATION COVERAGE: Biden signs executive orders; press secretary holds first briefing MORE and a few other staffers recover from COVID-19, and some in the administration have started to circulate their resumes.

A former White House official said Trump’s decision to challenge the results would likely be futile and potentially inflict “lasting damage” to the Republican Party’s brand in the long term, though the person acknowledged that if evidence of fraud were ultimately discovered it could prove instructive for future elections.

Even aspects of the campaign operation appear to be setting up for life after Trump in the White House.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) announced layoffs this week in a move that typically reflects the end of an election cycle, and the Trump campaign said the president plans to form a leadership political action committee that would allow him to retain influence in the GOP after he leaves office.

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The contrast between what is being said publicly by Trump’s supporters and what is being discussed privately among some in the administration sets up a tenuous situation that experts and some lawmakers worry could inflict long-term damage to the country, even if Trump eventually acknowledges his defeat.

“Our enemies don’t stop plodding against us because the outgoing White House refuses to recognize a peaceful transition,” said Chris Whipple, who authored a book on White House chiefs of staff and has written a new book, "The Spymasters," on the CIA. “Transitions are critical and they can be dangerous periods. I just don’t think that we have the luxury of letting Donald Trump go through this for very much longer.”

Surrogates have thus far failed to support Trump’s claims of widespread fraud in the election that undergird his refusal to concede, and it appears highly unlikely that the Trump campaign’s legal challenges would change the results of the election even if they were successful. Legal experts said a lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania on Monday seeking to halt the certification of results was unlikely to succeed, and other lawsuits have been dismissed. 

Another former White House official argued that it had only been a week since Election Day and that Trump was entitled to more time to let his campaign’s legal challenges play out, noting Democratic presidential nominee Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreParis Agreement: Biden's chance to restore international standing Al Gore: 'If I were still in the Senate, I would vote to convict' Trump Four points for Biden to make in his inaugural address MORE did not technically concede his loss for weeks after Election Day in 2000.

Biden senior legal counsel Bob Bauer described the suits as “noise” and “theatrics” during a briefing with reporters on Tuesday.

Sources close to the administration believe it will ultimately fall to a close adviser of member of Trump’s family — Ivanka TrumpIvanka TrumpRubio: Trump impeachment trial is 'stupid' The Hill's Morning Report - Biden's crisis agenda hits headwinds NRSC chair says he'll back GOP incumbents against Trump primary challengers MORE, Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerJilani: China 'sending clear message' to Biden officials with sanctions that opposition could lead to 'future pay cut' Would Trump have gotten away with a self-pardon? History will never know Trump grants clemency to more than 100 people, including Bannon MORE, Melania TrumpMelania TrumpScorned and mistreated, Melania Trump deserved much better from the media The Hill's Morning Report - Biden takes office, calls for end to 'uncivil war' K Street navigates virtual inauguration week MORE or Meadows — to level with Trump and get him to accept the election results.

In the meantime, the formal transition process has ground to a halt.

Multiple federal agencies have indicated they will not begin cooperating with Biden officials as part of the transition process until the General Services Administration certifies the Democrat as president-elect. 

As of Tuesday, the Trump administration still had not signed off on paperwork giving Biden and his team access to federal funds and physical space for the transition process. 

Biden insisted Tuesday that the move has not impacted his team’s ability to plan for taking over. 

“I’m confident that the fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge we won at this point is not of much consequence in our planning and what we’re able to do between now and Jan. 20,” Biden said during a press appearance in Delaware.

Former administration officials say that the circumstances would create disadvantages for Biden’s team, though it would not preclude the incoming administration to execute planning on its own with private resources. 

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Anita McBride, a former chief of staff for first lady Laura Bush who was privy to the 2000 transition that was delayed due to contested results in Florida, noted that many individuals who are likely to serve in Biden’s administration have prior government experience that will likely benefit them in the transition period. 

“They know the score, they know how to get things done, they know how to get things organized,” McBride said. “They are probably at less of a disadvantage than someone coming into the government for the first time.”