Donald Trump continued to rage against the dying light of his US presidency on Saturday, falsely claiming to be the victim of mass voter fraud and praising rightwingers and conspiracy theorists who gathered in Washington to echo his fabrication.
Trump emerged from the White House to applause, cheers, waving and whistles from hundreds of supporters lining both sides of the street. They punched the air, took pictures with phones and held signs that included “Best prez ever” and “Stop the steal”.
The crowd also waved flags including “Trump 2020: Keep America great”, “Trump 2020: No more bullshit”, “All aboard the Trump train!” and “Trump 2020: Pro life, pro God, pro gun”. A stand had been set up to sell merchandise, as if at a Trump rally. Some ran excitedly after the motorcade. There were chants of “USA! USA!”, “We want Trump! We want Trump!” and “Four more years! Four more years!”
Fringe extremist figures such as Infowars founder and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, Enrique Tarrio, chairman of the far-right Proud Boys group and Jack Posobiec, who promoted the infamous “Pizzagate” conspiracy that led to a 2016 shooting at a Washington restaurant, spearheaded rallies that Trump called “heartwarming”.
Hours later, after night fell in the nation’s capital, demonstrators favoring Trump clashed in the streets with counter-protesters, with videos posted on social media showing fistfights, projectiles and clubs. Police arrested at least 20 people on a variety of charges, including assault and weapons possession, officials said. One stabbing was reported, two police officers were injured and several firearms were also recovered by police.
Trump has still not conceded that he lost the 3 November election to Joe Biden, despite a protracted count showing the Democrat has comfortably secured the electoral college votes needed for victory, seizing formerly safe Republican states in Arizona and possibly Georgia, where a hand recount is under way.
Across the US, Biden has more than 5m more votes.
The president has refused to cooperate with a transition of power to Biden, who will enter the White House on 20 January, or even provide his successor with national security briefings. Trump continued on Saturday to claim, without evidence, that the election was “rigged” and that he is the rightful winner.
On Friday, federal and state officials said the election was the “most secure in American history”, with no evidence votes were compromised or altered.
Plenty of Trump supporters accept the president’s assertions, however, with thousands rallying in Washington in demonstrations organised under titles including “Million MAGA March” and “Stop the Steal”.
One attendee of the peaceful daytime rally, Mike Sembert, from Fort Meyers in Florida, told the Guardian he had come because “we need our president back and we need four more years”. He said the election was fraudulent and votes were cast by “illegals and dead people”.
Anti-Trump protesters have also continued to congregate in Washington since street celebrations erupted when Biden’s win was confirmed a week ago. Signs, some reading “Loser” and “Failure”, have plastered a non-scalable fence erected around the entire White House perimeter.
There has been an “outrageous and illegitimate attempt to overturn the election which must be stopped in its tracks by people in the streets making clear: the election is over,” said Sunsara Taylor, a counter-protester. “Biden won. Trump lost.”
The courts, as well as the major news organisations that typically project election winners, appear in no mood to indulge Trump. The president’s campaign has suffered a slew of legal losses in Michigan, Arizona and Pennsylvania after arguing that ballots were illegally counted.
“The Trump campaign keeps hoping it will find a judge that treats lawsuits like tweets,” Justin Levitt, a Loyola Law School professor and elections law expert, told CNN. “Repeatedly, every person with a robe they’ve encountered has said, ‘I’m sorry, we do law here.’”
The bulk of senior Republicans have either sided with Trump or refused to condemn his refusal to acknowledge his loss, a stance that will lead America down a “dangerous path”, former president Barack Obama has warned. There are some notable Republican exceptions. George W Bush, another former president, has congratulated Biden on his win.
The tumultuous transition comes as the US is ravaged by a surge in coronavirus cases. On Friday, a new daily record of 184,514 infections was recorded by Johns Hopkins University, with Americans now dying at a rate of around 1,000 a day. Nearly 250,000 people in the US have died due to the pandemic, by far the worst death toll in the world.
Biden has urged people to take basic precautions, such as wearing masks, while attacking the “woefully lacking” Trump administration response to the crisis.
“I will not be president until next year,” the president-elect said. “This crisis does not respect dates on the calendar, it is accelerating right now. Urgent action is needed today, now, by the current administration – starting with an acknowledgement of how serious the current situation is.”
At the march, counter-protesters in Washington said supporters of the president attacked them.
Sunsara Taylor, a spokeswoman and co-founder of RefuseFascism.org, told the Guardian her group was part of a nationwide protest to “stand on the victory of his electoral defeat … to expose, oppose Trump’s attempt to overturn this election”.
Around 11.15am, Taylor said, about 15 to 20 activists convened at the west end of Freedom Plaza, near the White House, and started setting up signs. Because there were a lot of Trump supporters around it was “elbow-to-elbow” crowded, she said, so the activists decided to move into the street.
“His mob of supporters descended on us as soon as we set off,” Taylor said. “They assaulted some of us. They grabbed. They shoved. Every single person had hands put on them by multiple MAGA meatheads, but we held it together. We marched together.”
No one was seriously injured. Taylor’s group then regathered, she said, in Black Lives Matter Plaza, the stretch of 16 Street NW near the White House which was renamed this summer.
After dark, there were multiple confrontations as small groups of Trump supporters attempted to enter the area around the plaza.
In a pattern that kept repeating itself, Trump supporters who approached the area were harassed, doused with water and saw their MAGA hats and pro-Trump flags snatched and burned, amid cheers. As night fell, multiple police lines kept the two sides apart.