We’ve seen this before. In 2000, the delayed transition “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,” the 9/11 Commission concluded. To avoid a possible repeat of such a vulnerability, the commission recommended that “we should minimize as much as possible the disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administrations” so that “transitions can work more effectively and allow new officials to assume their new responsibilities as quickly as possible.”
Trump is now actively undermining that recommendation — for no purpose other than ego. It would cost him nothing to begin the transition; in the extremely unlikely event that he is able to overturn the election results in several states and secure a victory, the transition authorization could easily be rescinded.
Transition sources tell me the Trump administration also hasn’t yet complied with the 9/11 Commission’s recommendation that “the outgoing administration should provide the president-elect, as soon as possible after election day, with a classified, compartmented list that catalogues specific, operational threats to national security; major military or covert operations; and pending decisions on the possible use of force.”
“This is serious stuff. We are talking about the national security of the country, and Trump and Republicans on the Hill are playing politics with it,” John Bellinger , a former senior official on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, told me. “The loss of time in a truncated transition really does pose a threat to the national security of the country.”
Much of the outrage has focused on Emily Murphy, who as administrator of the General Services Administration has the formal task of “ascertaining” the winner of the election. She’s a longtime public servant who, I’m told, justifiably fears the wrath that Trump would bring down on her if she authorizes the transition. Hopefully she can be persuaded that avoiding another 9/11, or its equivalent, is worth getting fired or flamed by Trump.
But make no mistake: This delay is Trump’s doing. With the exception of 2000, when the outcome of the election was genuinely unclear, each president has expeditiously authorized his successor to proceed with a transition. Trump is creating one final crisis, destroying one final norm, just for the hell of it. The delay in authorizing the transition will also slow efforts to distribute coronavirus vaccines and fortify public health protections against the virus.
Transitions are difficult in the best of times. President-elect Joe Biden needs to tap 4,000 political appointees, including 1,250 who need Senate confirmation, according to the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition. He’ll also need to draft a $5 trillion budget and take charge of 2 million civilian employees and 2 million troops. Add to that the difficulty of doing all this virtually during a pandemic. And now Trump is denying the Biden team the ability to send in “landing teams” to coordinate with executive agencies, to get personnel in place and to access the federal funds dedicated to the transition.
“This does not have to be a political crisis. The election was not historically close,” writes William J. Antholis, director of the University of Virginia’s Miller Center for public policy. Indeed, Biden’s battleground margins and electoral vote count are similar to Trump’s in 2016, which Trump called a “landslide.” Overall, Biden won by 4.4 million votes (and still climbing).
In particular, Antholis notes, national security transitions are “complicated and dangerous.” It’s no coincidence that the Bay of Pigs in 1961, Black Hawk Down in 1993 and the 9/11 attacks all came during the first year of presidential terms.
A group of former senior officials in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations this week urged the Trump administration “to immediately begin the post-election transition process,” and recalled George H.W. Bush’s 1993 message to the man who defeated him, Bill Clinton: “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”
George W. Bush, who knows from tragic experience about the need to avoid transition delays, said this week: “The American people can have confidence that this election was fundamentally fair, its integrity will be upheld, and its outcome is clear.”
It’s understandable that current Republican officeholders don’t want to cross Trump by calling on him to concede. But if they don’t insist that he at least authorize the start of a transition, they, too, are sabotaging our national security because of one man’s hurt feelings.