In his appearance at the White House Trump revelled in victories in Florida and Texas and told supporters that “it is clear we have won Georgia”, even though this state had not yet been called.
He then vowed to fight the election results in the Supreme Court.
“Millions and millions of people voted for us tonight. And a very sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise that group of people, and we won’t stand for it. We will not,” he said.
“This is a fraud on the American public,” he claimed, although there has been no evidence of this. “This is an embarrassment to the country.”
“We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.
“So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation; this is a very big moment, this is a major fraud on our nation.
“We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we’ll be going to the US Supreme Court. We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at 4 o’clock in the morning and add them to the list, OK?”
Biden’s campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon responded: “If the President makes good on his threat to go to court to try to prevent the proper tabulation of votes, we have legal teams standing by ready to deploy to resist that effort.”
The count had shown Trump on track to win a slew of battleground states, keeping alive his hopes of stunning the world by winning a second term in the White House. But by the time he stood up at the White House, key remaining states were too close to call.
Trump had earlier won Florida, Ohio and Texas, and was well placed to win North Carolina, killing off Democrats’ hopes of achieving a definitive election-night repudiation of his time in office.
But Biden retains a plausible path to victory, with Associated Press calling Arizona for Biden at 6.51pm (AEDT), and with many votes still to be counted in the “rust belt” states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Democrats also remained hopeful of closing the gap in Georgia, with a significant number of votes outstanding in the Atlanta area.
Addressing supporters in Delaware about 4.45pm on Wednesday (AEDT), Biden urged Democrats to “keep the faith” as votes are counted over the coming days. “We are feeling good about where we are,” Biden said. “We are going to win this.”
He added: “We are feeling real good about Wisconsin and Michigan. And, by the way, it is going to take time to count the votes. We are going to win Pennsylvania!”
Goaded by Biden’s speech, Trump immediately tweeted that he would be making a statement: “A big WIN!”
The President alluded to his earlier vow to send lawyers in to challenge late-counted votes. “We are up BIG,” he tweeted, “but they are trying to STEAL the election. We will never let them do it. Votes cannot be cast after the Poles are closed!”
Even without all the votes counted, it was clear that pollsters had underestimated Trump’s level of support in several key states – just as they did in 2016.
As of 7pm (AEDT) on Wednesday, Trump’s lead had narrowed in Georgia and North Carolina to about 2 points each.
Arizona, traditionally a Republican state that has undergone rapid demographic changes in recent years, was a big win for the Democrats.
Crucial to Trump’s victory in Florida was his improved performance in the Miami area, which has a big concentration of Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American voters.
Trump’s efforts to paint Democrats as socialists proved effective with these voters, many of whom fled dictatorial left-wing regimes.
Exit polls showed Trump made big gains with Latino voters in several states from his performance in 2016.
Florida elections analyst Matthew Isbell described the Miami results as a “bloodbath” for Democrats.
Biden was on track to win about 54 per cent of the votes in Miami-Dade County, down from 63 per cent for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It was essential for Democrats to run up a big margin in Miami-Dade in order to offset losses in other parts of the state.
As he did four years ago, Trump ran up big margins in the conservative Florida panhandle region.
Despite heightened tensions – national guards were put on standby in case of violence – election day in America was mostly trouble-free, with minor problems such as polling booth delays and disinformation campaigns quickly dealt with by state authorities.
In an interview on Fox News earlier in the day, Trump declared he had a “solid chance” of winning a second term.
“This reminds me, I hope it reminds me, of four years ago,” he said. “Tremendous changes have taken place over the last week.”
While campaigning in Pennsylvania, Biden said he felt good about the result, but added: “it ain’t over till it’s over”.
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Farrah Tomazin is a senior journalist covering the 2020 US presidential election.