WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama all but invited Donald Trump on Tuesday to jump into a fight with him, baiting the Republican nominee as he faces an overwhelming disadvantage in the polls just three weeks before Election Day.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama mocked Trump for complaining, while the race is still afoot, that the vote-counting system may be “rigged.”
“If you start whining before the game’s even over, if whenever things are going badly for you and you lose, you start blaming somebody else, then you don’t have what it takes to be in this job,” Obama said, his voice cracking with amusement.
“ … I’d invite Mr. Trump to stop whining and go try to make his case to get votes.”
Though taking on the popular sitting president would be an unconventional strategy at this point, Trump has proved that he is susceptible to provocation, and Obama seemed to be aiming straight for that vulnerability.
Trump, whose disdain for Obama dates back to his amplification of the so-called birther movement that tried to delegitimize Obama’s presidency, publicly held his fire. He referred to Obama only generally at a rally in Colorado.
But a more significant rejoinder appeared to be in the works; he planned to invite Obama’s estranged half-brother as his guest to Wednesday’s final presidential debate, a campaign aide said.
Malik Obama, a few years older than the president, is the son of Obama’s father and a different wife. He has met the president a few times, but the two are not close. He has told reporters in recent weeks that he supports Trump for president.
For Trump, the prolonged silence was a departure. He has repeatedly responded to criticism by firing in anger, fueling Hillary Clinton’s argument that he lacks the temperament to serve as president.
Trump feuded with Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly after she questioned him harshly during the first GOP primary debate last year, and he spent days during the summer complaining after the parents of an Army captain killed in Iraq criticized him.
And after the first presidential debate, as Trump attacked a former Miss Universe whom he had publicly shamed for gaining weight, supporters began steadily abandoning him, polls show.
Obama’s direct jab at Trump was the culmination of Democratic efforts to frame the election not just as a choice between party philosophies but as a crucial moment in American democracy. The delivery of their message has grown increasingly dire as Trump levels charges of a vast conspiracy to rob him of electoral victory.
With his dark warnings about the election results, Trump is “trying to distract from the bad story line of his verbal and physical assaults on women,” said senior Clinton adviser Jennifer Palmieri. “And because he’s losing and he wants to blame somebody else — and that’s what losers do.”
Standing alongside Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Obama vowed to be more “subdued” talking about the presidential race than he has been on the campaign trail while stumping for Hillary Clinton. As it turned out, he cast more shade in the dignified setting of a Rose Garden news conference than at almost any turn in recent weeks.
He mocked Trump for his “flattery” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He faux-marveled at how some Republicans abandoned their skepticism of Putin to support Trump.
Then he turned to Trump’s complaints of a “rigged system,” suggesting that Trump is discrediting the election process rather than trying to sell his ideas to voters.
“It happens to be based on no facts,” he said. Serious analysts, he said, “will tell you that instances of significant voter fraud are not to be found.”
Generations of defeated presidential candidates in the U.S. have conceded to their winners and participated in a peaceful transfer of power, Obama said.
“Democracy by definition works by consent,” Obama said. What Trump is doing, he said, “is unprecedented.”
Trump’s protests fail to show “the kind of leadership and toughness” voters want in a president, Obama said.