The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t brand everyone who served Trump with a Scarlet T

President-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

James Stavridis is a former supreme allied commander of NATO, dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and is an operating executive at the Carlyle Group.

Now that the electoral dust has mostly settled and President Trump will soon (albeit grudgingly and angrily) accept that there are moving vans in his future, the federal government will go through a significant period of transition.

While on active duty, I went through five transitions from one political party to another. The smoothness of the handoff varied widely. Some were quite ugly, but it doesn’t have to be so. One of the best I saw came in 1993 when the Clinton team replaced Bush 41's administration. I was a young special assistant to the Secretary of the Navy Sean O’Keefe, a proud Irish American. Rather than skulking out the door, O’Keefe worked hard with newcomers to provide an excellent turnover, then hired a bagpiper — who learned to play something approximating “Anchors Aweigh.” O’Keefe paraded through the Pentagon on his final day in office with his team marching behind that piper, cheerily waving goodbye. (Somehow, he and some of the staff ended up in an Irish bar in Alexandria.) There was no rancor, no finger pointing, just pride in what had been accomplished and a cooperative attitude wishing his successors well.

Now I fear that we are headed into rough seas as power is transferred. There are reports that current Pentagon officials for a while blocked cooperation with Biden transition team members. Beyond that, some incoming officials may be tempted to identify everyone who served with President Trump (not just the political appointees but many career officials too) as the enemy, effectively branding them with a scarlet letter T and shoving them overboard at the first opportunity. Neither action will serve us well as a nation.

One thing that new political appointees often get wrong is to assume that career government employees who faithfully served the last administration will not serve them with the same fealty. Incoming administrations often want to treat career officials who got too close to their predecessors the same way a dead pharaoh’s living servants were said to have been buried with the old boss.

There needs to be an order from the top not to shoot the survivors. Fortunately, the prospective Biden national security team has the necessary wisdom to try to bridge the divide. I know most of them well from my days as a combatant commander, and they are collectively smart, balanced and sensible. All are the kind of people we would want running the nation’s security and diplomacy structure. Unlike the Trump philosophy of conducting seemingly endless reprisals against career intelligence and military officers (notably, the shameful treatment of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch), the instincts of the Biden team will be generally good, especially at the high levels.

What I worry about, however, is what may be occurring at middle and lower levels of the transition. I am already hearing from current, nonpolitical officials who fear they will be denigrated and treated as persona non grata by the incoming team. Some of that is normal business, but given all the national acrimony, I fear such treatment will only increase.

Are there some purely political actors who signed up with Donald Trump and must now face the reputational consequences? Of course. But even here, we should try to approach those who served with a modicum of respect for their efforts, even if we judge them to be misguided.

For the Biden team, the best approach is to take advantage of talent where it exists, especially during the first few turbulent months. That may include keeping some individuals who chose to serve in the Trump administration on the new team for some time — ambassadors in key countries come to mind, as well as seasoned professionals serving in key national security roles. It means listening with an open mind to the experiences of the staff at all levels. And it should include a realization that everything that happened over the past four years in national security was not necessarily a mistake that needs to be undone.

A wholesale, conscious unwinding, of course, was the foolish, ill-conceived approach of the Trump team when they arrived on the scene, and it was not good for the country. A better rule of thumb comes from that marvelous novel of leadership by Mario Puzo, “The Godfather.” As Michael Corleone tells us, “Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

Branding everyone who came into government over the past four years, or who worked closely with those who did, with a Scarlet T would be counterproductive. As a nation, we need to take an approach that puts reconciliation, not judgment and score-settling, at the very top of the agenda.

Read more:

Kate Cohen: Trump needs a long timeout

Max Boot: There’s no room for complacency about our post-election crisis

Jennifer Rubin: A miserable end to a miserable presidency

Paul Waldman: Joe Biden has to move fast

Richard Norton Smith: Transitions are never easy. Especially this one.