As America finds itself in an election contest twilight zone between the reality of the vote tallied and the fantasy of the fraud Trump claims has been committed, Foreign Editor David Pratt looks at what comes next.

It’s the job of the United States Secret Service to know things in advance. Working on that basis you can read into it what you will that as early as last Friday, the service began strengthening the protective cordon around the Democratic challenger for the presidency, Joe Biden.

It’s not that there was any significant security risk to Biden, just the near inevitability that he is about to make history and become the president-elect of the United States.

For those Americans and countless numbers of us across the world watching this incredible political drama unfold, few of us have rarely, if ever, seen anything like it in a US presidential contest.

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What’s more, even as Biden finally chested the tape first in this race to the White House, it was clear this drama will almost certainly be far from over should President Donald Trump make good on his threats to challenge the election result through the US courts.

After days of uncertainty, the turning of the tide finally became a decisive flood. Over the past few days in an astonishing shift in the tally as postal ballots were added to the total, Trump has had no choice but to look on, at times fuming from the White House press briefing room, as his lead in the four key states of Georgia, Nevada, Arizona and, above all, Pennsylvania was eroded. Only in Arizona was the reverse true, as the president made some inroads into the Biden lead. But even here the Democratic nominee has stayed in front by a whisker.

Far and away, though, it has been a tale of Biden’s seemingly unstoppable garnering of those 270 Electoral College votes needed to make him president-elect.

Nowhere has this been more dramatic than in Pennsylvania, the state where he was born which carries 20 electoral votes – more than enough to win the presidency.

Speaking on Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Biden’s US electoral victory was “imminent”, adding the Democratic nominee would soon no longer be referred to as the former vice-president but “president-elect”.

“It’s a happy day for our country,” Pelosi declared at a press conference in the US Capitol. “Because Joe Biden is a unifier.”

She continued: “President-elect Biden has a strong mandate to lead and he will have a strong Democratic House with him.”

By that same evening, in a speech from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, Biden, unlike Pelosi, stopped short of declaring victory or calling himself president-elect. Ever cautious of the tensions, acrimony and premature or false claims that have been the hallmarks of this election campaign emanating from the Trump camp, Biden chose his words carefully but still said he is set to win the election “with a clear majority, with the nation behind us”.

Biden, who would be the oldest president in American history, spoke too of a “mandate for action” to begin work on issues that included coronavirus, the economy, climate change and systemic racism. But above all he urged patience and calm as the results came in.

“We have to remain calm, patient, let the process work out as we count all the votes,” he said.

Acknowledging the country’s divisions he also urged that Americans “put anger and demonisation behind us”, adding: “We may be opponents, but we’re not enemies.”

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But Biden knows that far from graciously conceding defeat, Trump remains determined to fight the election outcome through the courts even if this could prove more difficult than the president imagines. One campaign lawyer from within Biden’s own team called the Trump lawsuits meritless, more political strategy than legal.

“I want to emphasise that for their purpose these lawsuits don’t have to have merit. That’s not the purpose ... It is to create an opportunity for them to message falsely about what’s taking place in the electoral process,” lawyer Bob Bauer told the Associated Press (AP) agency, accusing the Trump campaign of “continually alleging irregularities, failures of the system and fraud without any basis”.

As The New York Times (NYT) also pointed out on Friday, already Trump’s pledge to fight the outcome of the election in the courts has crashed into “sceptical judges, daunting Electoral College math and a lack of evidence for his claims of fraud”.

Reports from White House correspondents tell of a “frenzy within the West Wing” and a president “angry and frustrated”, railing against some within his campaign team whom he sees as having failed him. Trump’s anger no doubt comes from the fact that none of the dozen or so lawsuits his team had brought in battleground states appeared to be gaining any traction in the courts or giving him the edge in any recounts.

Earlier last week, his campaign’s legal adviser even pointed to the fact that the president had appointed three Supreme Court justices while urging them to “step in and do something”, as if they owed Trump favourable legal decisions.

The stark reality facing Trump’s team is that they would need to get tens or even hundreds of thousands of mail ballots cast out across multiple states if it was to make any difference to the outcome. So far, Trump’s aides have done little to explain how exactly they might go about doing this.

As if all this were not bad enough news for the president, reports confirmed that Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, has contracted coronavirus, as the US set a daily record for new cases for the third straight day.

Further adding to Trump’s woes his campaign team is still struggling to find prominent Republican lawyers to lead any legal battle, as James Baker did for George W Bush during the 2000 Florida recount.

Trump instead appears to be relying on figures from within the ranks of his personal lawyers. Among these is the controversial figure of Rudy Giuliani, Pam Bondi, the former attorney general of Florida and Richard Grenell, the president’s former acting director of national intelligence.

So far, Trump has also heavily relied on those closest to him and from within his own family who have accused Republican leaders of betraying him by failing to endorse the president’s baseless claims of fraud in the election.

Some election watchers say certain Republican officials with one eye on their own jobs are wary of getting involved and already regard the president politically as a busted flush.

Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor who gave more than $100,000 to Trump’s re-election campaign this year, told the Financial Times that most of the Republican Party is “taking a wait-and-see approach before sticking their neck out one more time for Trump”.

Such suggestions have angered those closest to Trump. Donald Trump Jr, the president’s eldest son, tweeted: “The total lack of action from virtually all of the ‘2024 GOP hopefuls’ is pretty amazing. They have a perfect platform to show they’re willing & able to fight but they will cower to the media mob instead.”

Meanwhile, Eric Trump, the president’s second son, echoed this view but then perhaps thought twice after first posting then deleting a Twitter message saying: “Where is the GOP?! Our voters will never forget ...”

Thinking of the voters and the wider American public, and efforts to heal wounds after this bitterly contested election, seems far from the minds of some within the Republican Party.

Others, however, have spoken out about Trump’s baseless accusations of fraud.

Among those who have voiced concern is Mitt Romney, the sole Republican senator who voted to remove Trump from office in his impeachment trial.

“Counting every vote is at the heart of Democracy,” said Romney, a view shared by Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator, who tweeted: “Taking days to count legally cast votes is not fraud.”

Those who were more forthright in condemning the president’s remarks were few and far between, however, with Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland, saying there was “no defence for the president’s comment, which he said “undermined” the country’s democratic process.

Failure to further pressure the president to concede and accept his almost inevitable election defeat has drawn criticism from many US media outlets, not least CNN. With the writing on the wall, the priority now, say these Trump campaign critics, should be to prevent partisan emotions from boiling over onto America’s streets.

With Biden’s victory now all but certain it is this post-election scenario that has increasingly become the focus of attention as was reflected in Biden’s speech late Friday from his hometown of Wilmington.

“Strong disagreements are a healthy sign of a vigorous debate,” Biden said. But the “purpose of our politics is not unending warfare”. He called for coming together as a nation to heal. “The duty of care, for all Americans.”

But even as Biden was making the case for reconciliation, behind the scenes his team were stepping up their transition planning. Conversations, according to The New York Times, are said to be already under way as to who might fill key posts, both in the West Wing and across the agencies, guided heavily, the newspaper says, by Biden’s plan to assemble what would be the most diverse cabinet in history.

As far back as May, Biden’s team quietly began raising money for his transition operation with at least $7 million already said to be in the kitty. Officials are also said to be examining closely which types of action could be taken almost immediately to roll back some of Trump’s executive orders. Those in line for key positions will, of course, come largely from within the ranks of officials who have worked closely with Biden during the campaign.

“We have an expression where I come from: You never forget those who brung you to the dance,” was how Biden summed it up during a stop in Philadelphia last week.

At the forefront of the transition team’s mind, however, will be how to handle the various scenarios that could unfold should Trump refuse to concede and his administration not participate in a transition.

Writing in the US-based Foreign Policy magazine a few months ago, Timothy Naftali, the historian and associate professor of public service at New York University, detailed how the transition of power between US presidents has long been a weakness of the US political system, especially right now.

“Should he (Trump) lose in November, there is every reason to assume that he will once again, as he did four years ago, do all he can to subvert the already flawed institution of the presidential transition,” warned Naftali.

“A silver lining, perhaps, is that misbehaviour by a defeated Trump might inspire Americans to take a harder look at fixing their presidential twilight zone,” Naftali added.

And that precisely is where this remarkable presidential contest finds itself – a twilight zone between the reality of the votes and Electoral College seats tallied and the fantasy of the fraud that Donald Trump claims has been committed.

As the world continues to look on at this most compulsive of political dramas, in some parts of America there is already a celebratory atmosphere beginning to brew. In others, those Trump heartlands, the mood is at best sombre.

Some Americans will insist, of course, that now is not the moment for celebration. Not only because at time of writing confirmation of Joe Biden’s win is still forthcoming, but because America remains beset with challenges, not least the pandemic as well as social and political division.

In many parts of the country and beyond, though, there will be a collective sigh of relief that Donald Trump’s days in the White House are now numbered.