Normally, presidents — who uniquely understand the challenges of their job — try to ease the path for their successor during their final weeks. But Trump, who has never shown much interest in the actual work of the presidency, seems set on making Biden’s ascension as difficult as possible.
The breadth of the unfolding damage is astonishing. Trump has created chaos at two of the three key Cabinet agencies that project security and stability at home and abroad: the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security. With government funding close to expiring, the third key department, Treasury, is also on shaky ground.
Trump began with post-election “loyalty” purges that seem equal parts temper tantrum and head-in-the-sand denial. First he fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and installed Christopher C. Miller as acting secretary. Miller, the Pentagon’s sixth leader in less than four years, was a deputy assistant secretary of defense as recently as August, meaning that in barely three months, he leapfrogged over dozens of higher-ranking officials to lead the nation’s military. Trump has also forced out the chief of staff and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
Then Trump turned on DHS, an agency already so riddled with vacancies that just a third of its 17 Senate-confirmed leadership roles are occupied. The director of the department’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Christopher Krebs, had taken an increasingly aggressive stance to defend the election’s integrity in the face of Trump’s false allegations of fraud. By the time Krebs was fired by presidential tweet Tuesday, his ouster seemed inevitable. With this, the forced resignation of Krebs’s deputy, Matthew Travis, and the White House’s earlier ouster of the assistant director for cybersecurity, Bryan Ware, four of CISA’s top five positions in cybersecurity and infrastructure protection are vacant.
This situation would be bad enough if CISA’s only responsibility were election security. But its mission is much broader. The “ISA” (Infrastructure Security Agency) part of CISA has put the agency on the front lines fighting a scourge of ransomware threats to the health-care sector amid the covid-19 pandemic. As hospital beds fill with covid patients nationwide, the smooth functioning of hospital computer networks is critical. CISA also has a vital role protecting the intellectual property and supply chains necessary to distribute the covid-19 vaccines under development.
CISA represented a rare success story for the Trump administration: an agency that had earned bipartisan respect for its work and steady leadership. This makes its gutting to satisfy the president’s personal pique all the more galling.
CISA’s parent department, meanwhile, has its own Kafka-esque leadership struggle. DHS has been without a Senate-confirmed secretary or deputy secretary since April 2019, when Kirstjen Nielsen was forced out. In recent months, both the courts and the Government Accountability Office have concluded that Trump appointee Chad Wolf and his predecessor as acting secretary, Kevin McAleenan, were wrongly installed. To “fix” this problem, DHS has twice tried briefly installing FEMA Administrator Peter Gaynor as the acting secretary in order to ratify a change to the department’s order of succession that would place Wolf ahead of Gaynor — efforts that one court has already deemed a “sham.”
That the nation’s third-largest Cabinet department — which oversees the Secret Service, Coast Guard, immigration and transportation security — can’t convince a court who is legally in charge should be a flashing red alarm for America’s safety.
On top of Trump’s reckless actions, there is also danger from his inaction. Since Election Day, though he continues to tweet, Trump has largely disappeared from public view. Before Thursday, his coronavirus task force hadn’t held a public briefing in more than four months despite a nationwide spike in covid cases. There is no consistent federal messaging about travel, mask-wearing or social distancing.
The country is navigating a public health nightmare without national leadership. A quarter-million Americans have died in the pandemic.
And there is the economy: The federal government is operating under a temporary spending bill and is poised to run out of money on Dec. 11. A possible shutdown looms, which would cut off federal programs that have been critical to shoring up American families amid record unemployment, including an eviction moratorium and the extended jobless benefits that haven’t already lapsed.
Amid all this, the General Services Administration is stonewalling on the transition. By not designating Biden president-elect, the Trump administration is limiting Biden’s access to classified information. His “agency review teams” cannot meet with government employees. On Tuesday, Biden received a national security briefing from a dozen former officials.
The country is watching Trump and his allies pursue a sham legal effort to deny the reality of his defeat that is equal parts outlandish and implausible. At some point in the next 61 days, it will fail. But little stands in the way of Trump’s broader push to deal his successor the weakest possible hand. Where Trump’s “leadership” will steer the country before Jan. 20, 2021, is an open question. It’s clear, however, that his actions threaten not just the incoming Biden administration but all Americans.
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