US President Donald Trump erupted Thursday in a tirade of unsubstantiated claims that he has been cheated out of winning the US election as vote counting across battleground states showed Democrat Joe Biden steadily closing in on victory.
"They are trying to steal the election," Trump said in an extraordinary statement at the White House two days after polls closed.
Providing no evidence and taking no questions afterward from reporters in the room, Trump used the remarks of nearly 17 minutes to make the kind of incendiary statements about the country's democratic process that have never been heard before from a US president.
According to Trump, Democrats were using "illegal votes" to "steal the election from us."
"If you count the legal votes, I easily win," he claimed. "They're trying to rig an election. And we can't let that happen."
Beyond the rhetoric, Trump's complaints were specifically targeting the integrity of the huge number of ballots mailed in, rather than cast in person on Election Day.
The big shift to postal ballots this year reflected the desire of voters to avoid risking exposure to Covid-19 in crowded polling stations during a pandemic that has already killed more than 230,000 Americans.
However, because Trump often denied the seriousness of the virus and told his supporters not to support mail-in ballots, far fewer Republicans took advantage of the option, compared to Democrats.
Several major US television networks cut away from live coverage of Trump's event soon after it started, with MSNBC citing the need to correct false claims by the president.
Biden closes in
Trump's rant came as returns from still undeclared states around the country showed Biden trending toward victory.
Biden, 77, was just one or at most two battleground states away from securing the majority to take the White House. Trump, 74, needed an increasingly unlikely combination of wins in multiple states to stay in power.
In comments to reporters in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, Biden said "we continue to feel very good."
"We have no doubt that when the count is finished, Senator [Kamala] Harris and I will be declared the winners," he said.
Trump, who shocked the world in 2016 when he won the presidency in his first ever run for public office, lashed out in a series of written statements before holding the White House appearance -- the first in public since the night of Tuesday's election.
Biden, who has promised to heal a country bruised by Trump's extraordinarily polarising four years in power, appealed for "people to stay calm."
"The process is working," he said in Wilmington. "The count is being completed. And we will know soon."
All about Pennsylvania?
In Georgia, a generally Republican state, Trump had a razor thin and steadily slipping lead of less than 3,500 votes. With 98 percent of ballots already counted, the president and Biden were headed to a photo finish.
In Arizona and Nevada, Biden held on to slim leads. If Biden wins both those states he would also win the presidency.
But the biggest piece of the puzzle was Pennsylvania, where Trump's early lead was again steadily draining away, as election officials homed in on processing mail-in ballots, which are more typically cast by Biden supporters.
The Democratic hopeful currently has 253 of the 538 electoral college votes divvied up between the country's 50 states. He has 264 with the inclusion of Arizona, which Fox News and the Associated Press have called in his favour, but other major organisations have not.
If Biden took Pennsylvania, he would grab 20 more electoral college votes, thereby instantly topping the necessary 270 for overall victory.
With just over 325,000 ballots outstanding, the official overseeing elections in Pennsylvania, Kathy Boockvar, told an early evening press she could not give an estimate for a complete count.
"It's very close in Pennsylvania, right?" Boockvar said. "So that means it's going to take longer to actually see who winner is."
Latest results showed Trump's lead in the state had shrunk to around 61,000 votes
Trump tries to stop counts
Trump's campaign continued to insist that the president has a way to win, citing pockets of Republican support yet to be counted in such close races.
But Trump's overwhelming focus was on claiming, without evidence, that he was a victim of mass fraud.
Trump prematurely declared victory Wednesday and threatened to seek Supreme Court intervention to stop vote-counting but it has continued nonetheless.
Since then, his team fanned out across the battleground states challenging the results in court and staging a series of press conferences where supporters lodged allegations of irregularities.
"STOP THE COUNT!" Trump tweeted earlier Thursday, referring to his unsupported claim that the mail-in ballots in particular are fraudulent.
But while Trump was demanding that counting be halted in Georgia and Pennsylvania – where he is leading – his supporters and campaign insisted that it continue in Arizona and Nevada, where he is trailing.
The campaign has announced lawsuits in Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania and Michigan – where it has already been dismissed – as well as demanding a recount in Wisconsin, where Biden won by just 20,000 votes.
Bob Bauer, a lawyer for the Biden campaign, dismissed the slew of lawsuits as "meritless."
"All of this is intended to create a large cloud," Bauer said. "But it's not a very thick cloud. We see through it. So do the courts and so do election officials."