If both David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler — the two embattled Georgia senators he was campaigning for — lost their runoff elections the following day, the GOP would lose control of the U.S. Senate. And Trump did not want the blood of Georgia on his hands.
The TV in the plane's conference room was set to Fox News, with the sound off. As the screen showed footage of supporters filling up the Dalton, Georgia, rally space, Trump's spirits lifted briefly. "Look at that crowd," he mused.
Then Fox shifted to an interview with Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — whom Trump loathed for refusing to deny Joe Biden's win or validate myths about fraud. The president's disgust set back in. "What a horrible, incompetent guy," he growled.
The day before, the Washington Post had published an extraordinary recording of Trump's phone call pressuring Raffensperger, a Republican, to "find" 11,780 votes to overturn the results of the election in Georgia. Trump had accused Raffensperger of a "criminal offense."
Loeffler and Perdue had been desperate to get Trump to return to Georgia. They'd backed his 11th-hour demands for $2,000 stimulus checks, an about-face for the two multimillionaire conservatives.
In return for an enthusiastic Trump at the rally, Loeffler submitted to an even greater concession: She agreed to join other Trump loyalists in voting against the Electoral College results certification which was coming up on Jan. 6 — the day after the Georgia runoffs. It was a decision she would reverse once rioters stormed the Capitol.
The situation in Georgia was fraught. Establishment Republicans feared Trump's volatile denunciation of top state election officials would depress turnout.
In a series of phone calls through early and mid-November, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, had tried to impress upon Trump just how high the stakes were for the Georgia runoffs. McConnell's pitch was direct and unvarnished: We need these wins to protect all the progress we've made on a range of issues, he warned. Trump's own legacy was on the ballot.
But the president wasn't hearing it. He would immediately derail these conversations with McConnell by ranting about the stolen election and his conspiracies of fraud.
Before the flight, Trump was briefed on turnout scenarios. Republicans anticipated correctly that Democrats would dominate the early Georgia vote, but they underestimated how big the Democrats' turnout would also be on Jan. 5 itself. Republicans believed 900,000 Election Day voters would put them in a decent position to win the runoffs and that anything over 1 million was golden. They were wrong.
Trump's growing congressional conspiracy caucus had a high-profile member on Air Force One that day. Joining the aides and family members who usually accompanied the president was the recently sworn-in Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who had gained national notoriety for her past QAnon support and whose district included Dalton.
Also aboard were two key allies — Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Club for Growth president David McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman who co-founded the Federalist Society and had studied law under the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
They sat around the long table in the conference room in brown leather chairs, served quinoa salad with roasted chicken before waiters brought in macarons. Graham asked instead for his standing dessert order when flying on Air Force One: strawberries and cream.
The president came down when they were finished eating and stood at the head of the table, where he chatted with them for most of the flight. Graham and McIntosh, who had exchanged strategy notes before the flight, tried to shake him out of his mood.
"Look — if they win, you'll be vindicated," McIntosh said, pleading with Trump to offer a full-throated endorsement of Loeffler and Perdue. "Everyone knows that if they win, you'll get the credit for putting them over the top. And it'll show that in an election where they don't cheat, Republicans win."
Trump disagreed: "No, they won't, David. They'll blame me if we lose. But if we win, they won't give me the credit."
Graham tried another tactic: "This is about your legacy, Mr. President."
"We've got to win these so that the Democrats can't unwind your legacy on everything from the courts to the economic policies to your work with China," Graham insisted.
At one point in the flight, Trump pulled McIntosh into his private office cabin to sign an autograph for McIntosh’s personal trainer, an avid supporter of the president. McIntosh tried to open a conversation about the future. "Mr. President, you know, if it doesn't turn out..."
Trump interrupted, by asking: "What do you think my odds are?" — referring, 62 days after the election, to his chances of serving a second term. McIntosh leveled, "It doesn't look great, sir." Trump agreed, "Yeah, that's probably right."
"Mr. President, if it doesn't work out, will you run again?" McIntosh asked. Trump's response was a rare and transitory blip from his usual strident pose. "Yeah, I'm thinking about that," he said. "But you know, I'm going to be four years older."
In Dalton, Trump stepped out onto the stage with his wife, pointing, smiling, waving, and clapping, as Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." blared. He was in his element, and the crowd went wild.
Less than 48 hours after Trump's Georgia rally, both races had been called for the Democrats, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The Republicans had lost control of the Senate.
Trump was right that everyone would blame him. After all, he had spent months puncturing confidence in the voting system, turning his fire on Georgia’s own GOP leadership, and obsessing over states that he had lost fair and square.
He had allowed outsiders and conspiracists to supplant the professionals around him. He had fed a national sense of mistrust, rage and despair. Georgia was the last state where Trump would take his stand.
He was about to incinerate his legacy. Within 24 hours, the feral ground troops the president had summoned to execute his fantasy of overturning the election would storm the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
🎧 Listen to Jonathan Swan on Axios' new investigative podcast series, called "How it happened: Trump's last stand."
Read the rest of the "Off the Rails" episodes here.
About this series: Our reporting is based on multiple interviews with current and former White House, campaign, government and congressional officials as well as direct eyewitnesses and people close to the president. Sources have been granted anonymity to share sensitive observations or details they would not be formally authorized to disclose. President Trump and other officials to whom quotes and actions have been attributed by others were provided the opportunity to confirm, deny or respond to reporting elements prior to publication.
"Off the rails" is reported by White House reporter Jonathan Swan, with writing, reporting and research assistance by Zach Basu. It was edited by Margaret Talev and Mike Allen and copy edited by Eileen O'Reilly. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo, Aïda Amer and Eniola Odetunde.