NOVEMBER 10, 2020
The question is not whether President Donald Trump is leaving. It’s how much destruction, revenge and chaos he will wreak on the way out the door.
Trump’s refusal to concede the election, delusional tweets about states tipping his way and failure to so far grant President-elect Joe Biden access to federal funding and resources to power up his administration mean America is in for a rocky 71 days. Trump may be a lame duck, but he retains the authorities of the presidency until noon on January 20, and his chokehold on the Republican Party was if anything strengthened by winning 70 million votes last week. So the President has the power — institutional and political — and apparently the motivation to create a great deal of disruption before returning to civilian life.
Attorney General William Barr, who has shown a propensity for using his own power to advance the President’s political aspirations, on Monday told prosecutors they should examine unsupported allegations of voting irregularities before states certify results in the coming weeks. The move will raise concerns of a fresh attempt by the Trump administration to overturn the will of voters, but like the President’s campaign, Barr’s memo failed to produce any evidence of fraud. However, it did lead the top election crimes prosecutor to quit in protest over the change in policy.
And Trump waited only two days after the election was called for Biden to start exacting retribution on those he sees as enemies inside his administration.
He sacked Defense Secretary Mark Esper, apparently because he showed insufficient loyalty to the President’s political goals. And a senior administration official told CNN’s Jake Tapper that Esper is worried Trump will next fire CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray. The pair is said to be at risk for putting US national security ahead of the President’s desire to use the intelligence services to pursue his “deep state” conspiracy theories.
Esper’s firing reflected the President’s capacity to rock key agencies of the government in his remaining weeks in office to make it easier to enforce his will and create disruption in the government that could hobble Biden’s early days in office.
“Frankly, he can do a lot of damage, by destabilizing every major agency, by firing a whole series of senior leaders,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday.
Monday’s developments emphasized that while Biden’s margins in states where the result of the election have yet to be finalized make any overturning of results almost impossible, Republicans are seeking to create a shadow over his triumph in order to delegitimize his presidency in the minds of millions of conservative voters. That may end up being Trump’s most destructive legacy.
A transition that is more important than normal
Traditionally, and in accordance with law, an outgoing administration makes available financing, office space and other federal resources to make the business of inheriting an entity as vast as the multi-trillion dollar US government as smooth as possible, on the principle that even political opponents share a desire to preserve the national interest. Typically, this process begins within hours of an election being called.
New administrations swiftly send “landing teams” into federal agencies to get up to speed in operations, to consider staffing needs and to receive briefings on vital programs. In national security and military departments, incoming officials learn of covert activity under way, behind-closed-doors diplomacy and threat information that a new president needs to know. The process also allows officials to get a jump on establishing their national security clearances.
The current transition is even more critical given the raging coronavirus pandemic that is as bad now as it has ever been and a consequent economic crisis.
But so far, Trump-appointed General Services Administration administrator Emily Murphy has yet to trigger the procedure to initiate the transition — known of ascertainment — as the President continues to insist baselessly that his second term is being stolen by Democrats.
His attitude — hardly surprising after his consistent prioritization of his personal and political goals — and the organizational roadblocks mean the next few months will be as acrimonious and chaotic as the previous three-and-a-half years of his presidency.
“I think this is going to be the most hostile and tumultuous presidential transition in modern history, at least since the 1932 transition in the middle of the Great Depression,” said Rebecca Lissner, a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University and co-author of the new book “An Open World” that lays out a new roadmap for US foreign policy.
“What we need to fear is what can happen when you have an outgoing Trump administration that actively hobbles the incoming Biden team whether by virtue of incompetence or whether by virtue of outright sabotage, something that does become a more distinct possibility in light of the President’s refusal to accept the result of the election,” Lissner said.
Biden team steps up rhetoric
Some national security experts are worried that the President could take steps such as ordering all US troops out of Afghanistan or seek to radically change the US footprint in Asia — moves that might be difficult for Biden to reverse.
And if a President who has consistently chafed at the limits of his power and politicized the Justice Department pursues pardons for his acolytes caught up in criminal cases — or even seeks to create prospective immunity for his family members or himself — he will stoke massive controversy and recriminations.
So far, the Biden team has sought to give the President space to digest his defeat. But with the Trump campaign vowing to pursue long-shot legal challenges, delays in starting the transition become more serious the more time passes.
Trump’s obstruction contrasts with recent handovers of power in which presidents have ordered their staff to do everything to accommodate their successor’s teams. Obama administration officials were surprised and grateful with cooperation from President George W. Bush’s White House during the last economic crisis in 2008-09. President Barack Obama sought to offer the same courtesy to Trump’s nascent administration, but in many cases incoming officials on a mission to gut the federal government turned a blind eye.
The President-elect on Monday got straight to work on the most important task his administration will face from day one: tackling the pandemic. He announced the formation of an advisory board that sent a strong message that science and not politics would dictate the fight against the virus.
It was an almost surreal moment, after months of Trump’s misinformation over the virus, when a figure of authority who is close to assuming the mantle of the presidency pleaded with Americans of all political persuasions to wear masks.
“It’s not a political statement,” Biden said.
One advantage for Biden is that his staff numbers seasoned Washington hands such as Ron Klain — who served as chief of staff to vice presidents Biden and Al Gore — and Jake Sullivan, a former senior national security aide, who are prepped for senior West Wing roles. Despite such experience, however, Democratic operatives have been on the outside for the last four years. So it was significant to see Coons strike a new note of urgency on Monday evening on the need to get the process moving properly as the Biden camp realizes a contested transition is a possibility.
“President Trump needs to accept that he has lost the election. His allies and colleagues here in the Senate need to speak up about this matter and we need to move forward,” Coons said on “The Situation Room.” Those remarks will be interpreted as a calculated escalation of the Biden camp’s rhetoric since Coons is close to Biden and is considered a possible candidate for a Cabinet post, including secretary of state.
The Biden team has come to realize that the transition is going to be more contentious than they had initially assumed, CNN’s Jeff Zeleny reports.
The GOP calculation
Only a minority of Republicans, including Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have publicly accepted that Biden won the election. Others, as they have throughout the Trump administration, have treated the situation with delicacy because they hope to have a political future.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a Senate floor speech that the President had every right to pursue legal challenges to the election despite the fact that even GOP officials running elections in key states say there is no evidence to support Trump’s claims of massive fraud.
“Let’s not have any lectures. No lectures, about how the President should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spent four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election and who insinuated that this one would be illegitimate too, if they lost again,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, referring to Democrats.
The newly reelected Kentucky senator is as always plotting several moves ahead in his political power game. While the nation’s interests might dictate a smooth transition, McConnell’s Republicans have no incentive to cross Trump’s fervent supporters. A likely pair of Georgia runoff elections is looming in January that will decide control of the Senate. And looking forward, there remains no option for Republicans, as they contemplate a tough slate of seats to defend in the 2022 midterm elections, but to rely on Trump’s base.
Still, there is also a sense that Republicans are going out of their way to give the President time to accept reality — just the latest occasion when his ego has dictated the course of governance over the last four years.
As the days pass, and the Trump campaign fails to produce convincing evidence and arguments to back up the President’s claims of electoral fraud, the inevitability of Biden’s assumption of power will set in.
Many foreign leaders are already looking past Trump. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a photograph of himself during a telephone conversation with he President-elect on Monday.
Even inside the White House, where sources told CNN that aides have been threatened with the sack if they look for new jobs, the fiction that Trump will be in power past January is beginning to fray. The President now sees “a path to losing,” an adviser told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Monday evening.
But that doesn’t mean the next two months are going to be an easy ride.