DECEMBER 14, 2020
For the first 174 years of our nation’s history, no law dictated how long a president could hold office. Until the 22nd Amendment was ratified in 1951, the “two-term rule” was merely a tradition established by our first president.
Troubled by the possibility that the country could one day slide into tyranny, George Washington set aside personal ambitions for the good of the republic, calling it quits after eight years. Others followed suit.
Norms such as these maintain an orderly society and are just as important as the policies enshrined in the Constitution.
One of us served as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State, and the other led President George W. Bush’s Department of Homeland Security. Together, we have seen firsthand what can happen to nations when democratic norms unravel, and we remain gravely concerned about President Donald Trump’s assault on the customs that have made America the world’s most durable constitutional system.
Over the years, American citizens have grown to expect certain things of their political leaders. Among them: respect for the free press, firm opposition to political violence and a willingness to accept election results.
Presidents cannot be prosecuted for violating these norms, but they can endure public outrage and political consequences. These “civic guardrails” exist to protect us in turbulent times.
President Trump’s wanton attitude toward tradition is not new. Over the past four years, he has called for imprisoning political opponents, dangled pardons for those willing to commit crimes on his behalf and demonized journalists who dare to question these actions.
Trump’s claims aren’t based in fact
Weeks after the election and after a litany of court defeats, he continues to spread baseless conspiracies about voter fraud and refuses to concede to President-elect Joe Biden. This behavior poses an immense threat to future elections, encouraging unfounded paranoia, legal chicanery and a spiraling cycle of partisan retribution.
The president’s behavior is causing both long-term dangers to our system and presenting more immediate challenges to the crises we face today.
Even after the most hard-fought elections in our country’s history, the transition between administrations has been marked by bipartisan cooperation, allowing the incoming administration to hit the ground running on day one.
But for weeks after Election Day, the Trump administration needlessly stalled on ascertaining the winner of the election, thus preventing the process from officially beginning. It finally relented in late November and allowed the transition to move forward, but the delay may have been costly.
In the battle against COVID-19, each day means thousands more Americans become sick and die. Dr. Anthony Fauci recently warned that “the virus is not going to stop and call a time-out while things change.” He’s absolutely correct; we cannot defeat this virus without cooperation between administrations.
It appears that distribution of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will begin soon — and beginning Jan. 20, President-elect Biden will be responsible for ensuring that 330 million Americans are inoculated.
This will be a massive logistical undertaking. November saw the highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States. It is imperative that the new administration be well positioned to handle the pandemic.
Delays put national security at risk
The national security implications of the Trump administration’s delay are just as stark. President-elect Biden has only just begun receiving vital daily intelligence briefings, a necessary procedure to help bring any president-elect up to speed.
These classified briefings could contain crucial information on foreign threats, troop drawdowns in Afghanistan and ongoing nuclear negotiations with Russia.
Moreover, background checks and security clearances for new officials now have less time to be processed, meaning key defense and intelligence posts could remain vacant after inauguration.
The bipartisan 9/11 Commission cited the delay in the 2000 transition as a contributing factor to our nation’s ability to preempt and respond to that deadly terrorist attack.
We cannot allow this needless and costly foot-dragging to be the new normal. President Trump’s willingness to forego bipartisan norms and sew chaos and distrust in the election signals to autocrats and adversaries that there are vulnerabilities in our system that can be exploited, and he is setting a terrible example for burgeoning democracies across the globe.
When one of us — Madeleine Albright — fled authoritarianism as a young child, the United States was a beacon of hope, a reminder that a better life was within reach for those daring enough to seize it. We can still be that example.
Democracy is resilient, but it’s built on a delicate foundation of mutual trust. Without public faith in our institutions, American democracy will fail. The hard work of restoring that faith must begin right away, with leaders from both sides of the aisle coming together to ensure President-elect Biden has the smoothest transition possible.
Together, we can ensure that norms are once again normal.
Democrat Madeleine Albright served as Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. Republican Michael Chertoff served as Secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush. Both are members of the bipartisan National Council on Election Integrity.
Courtesy/Source: This article originally appeared on USA TODAY