Donald Trump vowed to drag the US election into the courts as he falsely claimed he had beaten Joe Biden to win the presidency while the knife-edge vote is still too close to call.
The Republican incumbent claimed there is a “fraud on the American nation” and said he would go to the Supreme Court to get vote counting stopped, as the nail-biting contest continued.
The Democratic challenger, who has long anticipated an attempt by Mr Trump to cast doubt on the result, earlier said that his campaign was still “on track” for victory as he insisted every vote must be counted.
But paving the way for a legal battle amid fears of unrest on the streets of America, Mr Trump gave a speech in the White House to say there was a “massive fraud” in the election and accuse a “very sad group of people” of trying to disenfranchise his supporters.
“This is a fraud on the American public, this is an embarrassment to our country,” he said.
“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.
“We want the law to be used in a proper manner. So we will be going to the US Supreme Court, we want all voting to stop.”
Even during the divisive election campaign overshadowed by the complexities of voting during the coronavirus pandemic, Mr Biden’s campaign expected the incumbent to seize on record numbers of postal votes to allege he was being cheated.
Neither candidate has achieved the 270 electoral college votes necessary for victory and counting is still under way in key battleground states including Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, where Mr Biden hopes to make up ground.
Mr Trump, however, has seized major victories in the key bellwethers of Florida and Ohio, which both have long records of choosing the winner of the White House.
Former vice-president Mr Biden still has clear routes to victory, however, having won a major coup by seizing Arizona, a state that has only backed a Democrat in the race once in 72 years.
Earlier in the fraught night, Mr Biden took to a stage in Delaware to say “we’re feeling good about where we are”, while hoping for gains to follow in the hours and days to come.
“I’m here to tell you tonight, we believe we’re on track to win this election,” he told supporters in his hometown of Wilmington.
“We knew, because of the unprecedented early vote, the mail-in vote, that it’s going to take a while, we’re going to have to be patient.
“It ain’t over until every vote is counted, every ballot is counted.”
But, moments later, Mr Trump, in his first public reaction on the results, tweeted his unsubstantiated claim that his opponents are trying to “steal” the election after a divisive race that has been overshadowed by Covid-19.
He claimed “a big WIN!” in a post that was quickly shielded by Twitter with a warning that the claim was “disputed”, and the social media giant telling users he was making a “potentially misleading claim” about the election.
Florida was a must-win for Mr Trump to reach the 270 required for victory, with no Republican having won the White House without the Sunshine State’s support since 1924.
It has backed the winner in every election since 1996 and has only gone with the losing candidate twice since 1928.
Ohio is also a significant victory for Mr Trump, having been key to his chances of remaining in the White House, and whoever has won the state has gone on to take the presidency since 1964.
Mr Trump held on to Texas in a fiercely-contested battle and claimed the swing states of Ohio and Iowa, while Mr Biden won modest victories in Minnesota and New Hampshire.
Mr Biden said he was “feeling real good” about Wisconsin and Michigan and is “still in the game” in Georgia.
It could take days for the victor to emerge, with officials saying counting could continue throughout the week in the key states of Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The lack of clear winner and claim and counterclaim raised fears of unrest on the streets of America after one of the most divisive campaigns in history.
Mr Biden has painted the election as the “battle for the soul” of the nation, saying democracy itself is at stake. Mr Trump has reprised his “Make America Great Again” mantra.
Economic fairness and racial justice have been key issues in the election race. Both men have also clashed over the Covid-19 response as the nation reels from more than 230,000 coronavirus deaths and millions of job losses.
Steady queues of voters flocked to the polls on Tuesday after around 100 million Americans voted early, setting the nation on course for a record turnout figure.
National polls have consistently put Mr Biden ahead, but the race was predicted to be closer in the battleground states.
Each state gets a number of electoral college votes roughly in line with its population and they largely hand them all to the winner in that state. With 538 up for grabs across the States, 270 is the key number to win the presidency.
Mr Trump had already jeopardised the likelihood of a simple race by refusing to commit to a peaceful transition of power and having warned of a “rigged election”.
Along with his attacks, which have largely centred on unfounded claims over postal voting, he has long-threatened to challenge the result in the courts if it is not in his favour.