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Election observers demand access to counting room in Detroit. Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

President Trump and his allies are setting the stage to claim a Joe Biden presidency would be illegitimate, baselessly questioning everything from how ballots are counted to whether "fake" polls suggesting blue waves that never came are tantamount to voter suppression.

Why it matters: Arguing that he was wrongfully removed from office could give Trump a face-saving way to explain a possible election loss. It also could distract from a Biden presidency in transition.

  • Trump said today in a statement from his campaign: "If you count the legal votes, I easily win the election! If you count the illegal and late votes, they can steal the election from us."

Driving the news: The hashtag #stopthesteal is going viral among fringe and more mainstream conservatives, says Bryce Webster-Jacobsen of GroupSense, a cyber threat intelligence firm.

  • Groups on Facebook are starting to organize real-world protests.
  • Inside QAnon, people are spreading a conspiracy theory that there are watermarks on legitimate ballots and that illegitimate non-watermarked ballots are being injected in states that are turning blue.
Via Twitter

What they're saying ... Don Jr. tweeted: "You didn't see all of these games, statistical impossibilities and magic ballots in 2016 because the Democrats figured they had it in the bag and wouldn't have to break out all the stops."

  • Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said on a campaign call: "The Democrats are lying, cheating and stealing. It’s happening all over this country."
  • Rudy Giuliani, Eric Trump and other surrogates have been holding news conferences and appearing on Fox News shows to discuss plans for litigation.

Reality check: Ben Ginsberg, a Republican election lawyer who has been critical of Trump's tactics, told Axios: "This just smacks of a little bit of desperation."

The bottom line: Close elections are common, and there’s no proof of widespread irregularities. But as Trump has shown over and over, he can quickly get 40% of the public to believe him, and elected GOP officials to fall in line.

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Barbarians at the Oval

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump plunked down in an armchair in the White House residence, still dressed from his golf game — navy fleece, black pants, white MAGA cap. It was Saturday, Nov. 7. The networks had just called the election for Joe Biden.

Off the Rails

Descent into madness

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photos: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Trump was sitting in the Oval Office one day in late November when a call came in from lawyer Sidney Powell. "Ugh, Sidney," he told the staff in the room before he picked up. "She's getting a little crazy, isn't she? She's really gotta tone it down. No one believes this stuff. It's just too much."

Off the Rails

Last stand in Georgia

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Drew Angerer, Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

On Air Force One, President Trump was in a mood. He had been clear he did not want to return to Georgia, and yet somehow he'd been conscripted into another rally on the night of Jan. 4.