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How Biden’s transition team will work around Trump’s blockade of the government

The Post's Lisa Rein explains how the Trump administration is adding challenges to the transition process for President-elect Joe Biden. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford, Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President-elect Joe Biden has tapped a vast network of allies with extensive government experience and relationships to spearhead a transition of power carefully calibrated to work around the Trump administration’s unprecedented efforts to obstruct a smooth changeover.

With the Trump White House blocking the administration from formally cooperating with Biden, the members of the Democrat’s transition team are under strict orders not to have any contact with current government officials, even back-channel conversations, according to people with knowledge of the situation, who presented several explanations for the directive.

Biden transition team members are instead making contact with recently departed government officials and other experts to help them prepare for the new administration. And they are relying on a team led by a former senior State Department official to handle an influx of calls from foreign leaders — all without the benefit of a secure government line or language interpretation services provided by the current State Department.

The scramble shows how President Trump’s refusal to accept defeat has become much more than a symbolic stand. His administration’s blockade comes amid a deadly pandemic, an economic downturn and volatility abroad, stoking growing concerns that it will set back Biden’s effort to meet the swirl of crises confronting the nation.

“The problems become much more severe the longer this goes,” said Max Stier, the president of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which assists on presidential transitions, including the current one. “Our government is the biggest and most complex organization not only in this country, but probably in the world and probably in history. So, taking it over effectively is a huge task.”

Details about the Biden strategy came from interviews with transition team members, lawmakers and other Democrats with knowledge of the situation. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid or because they were not authorized to talk on the record.

On Tuesday, Biden sought to play down the significance of Trump’s resistance. “We’re already beginning the transition. We’re well underway,” he said. “The fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge we’ve won is not of much consequence.”

The same day, he announced his selection of scores of experts and former government officials to serve as team members who are prepared to go into each agency and begin setting the stage for a Biden agenda.

The agency review teams that Biden announced are filled with experts on a variety of policies who served in the last administration. A majority of the names on the Veterans Affairs team, for example, served under Robert McDonald, President Barack Obama’s second secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

These members normally would gain funding and access to rooms and people inside their assigned agencies such as the Defense Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department. But since the General Services Administration has not recognized Biden as the next president and has not officially started the transition process, they are unable to enter the various agency buildings and receive information.

The Biden team has drawn up lists of recently departed senior officials at key agencies to help transition officials get up to speed on ongoing projects, budgets, trouble spots, technology and personnel, a senior transition official said, describing “a whole plan for this contingency where we don’t have cooperation but have to move forward.” The plan was put in place to anticipate refusals of some agency heads to engage even if the GSA declares Biden the winner, the official said, for example from John Ratcliffe, the Trump-appointed director of national intelligence.

Over a decades-long career in Washington, Biden has cultivated a long list of friends, associates and former aides with deep ties in just about every corner of government. Those connections and that experience are reflected in the team he has assembled. Now, their abilities to prepare for a new administration under extraordinary circumstances are being tested.

“While there are certain things that we can’t do, like be in touch with the people in the federal agencies now, the teams are moving forward as aggressively as they can,” said former Delaware governor Jack Markell, a Biden ally who is involved with the transition.

Among its activities, the Biden team is processing the commitments he made during the campaign and figuring out personnel decisions, including Cabinet secretaries, Markell said. He saw a silver lining in the difficult situation created by the Trump administration: Some of the people Biden is relying on “have not been out of government for so long.”

Other Democrats expressed a similar confidence in the team’s familiarity with the inner workings of the federal bureaucracy, wagering that their experience could help overcome the stonewalling by the current administration.

Democrats have been out of power in Washington for less than four years. Think tanks and nonprofit groups are populated by Obama administration veterans, particularly in the active areas of environmental protection. Several prominent Democrats said the Biden team has workarounds at its disposal, among them the testimony of Trump officials before Congress and insight from congressional Democrats on government operations.

Another recent trend is just as significant: Hundreds of senior civil servants and government leaders appointed by Trump have left the government in frustration or because they were forced out.

Still, Democrats say, there is no substitute for the kind of cooperation that Obama gave to Trump or that other presidents have provided to their successors. “A messy transition is especially dangerous this year, given the state of the pandemic and the number of simmering crises around the world that have been mishandled by Trump,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

The limitations have grown clear to those involved in the process. Transition team members have received some informal outreach from career employees at the Education Department but were told not to engage with the civil servants, according to two transition advisers.

The thinking, one of these advisers said, is that any communication between the administration and the transition groups could undermine possible legal action down the road. If the Trump administration is able to argue that Biden’s transition advisers are getting what they need without the formal process, that could undercut a possible case, the adviser said.

Others offered different explanations, such as a desire to wait for GSA clearance and do the transition by the book, or to protect agency staffers who may be violating the law by working with the Biden team without GSA certification.

The inability to get information could be increasingly problematic in the days ahead, with the transition seeking information about personnel vacancies, pending litigation, contracts and procurement. All of the related questions cannot be answered simply by consulting outside people, the transition adviser said.

Foreign policy also has proved to be a challenge. The Biden team has juggled a flurry of phone calls from the leaders of the most powerful U.S. allies, including Japan, Britain, France, Canada and South Korea since Monday.

Under a normal transition, the State Department would be facilitating those calls on a protected line to avoid surveillance by hostile foreign intelligence services and other malign actors. The department also would be providing government-trained interpreters so that the Biden team does not have to rely on its own people or a foreign government’s interpreters, who can offer a different flavor to a bilateral discussion.

The Biden team has relied on a former senior State Department official to handle the influx of calls from allies seeking to start on the right foot with a new American president, according to foreign diplomats familiar with the discussions.

The order from Trump officials to prohibit contacts with the Biden team also is thwarting Biden’s aides’ ability to receive need-to-know classified information about foreign threats on U.S. adversaries and infectious-disease and vaccine-development issues related to the coronavirus pandemic.

“You only have public information, but what’s classified you don’t have, and that is the single biggest issue you’re not going to get” without access to current government officials, said Jeffrey Neal, who retired from the Department of Homeland Security in 2011 and was a consultant to federal agencies until last year.

The turmoil at many agencies in the Trump era, when key government departments were left with leaders in acting roles, could have benefits for the incoming Biden team, some former government officials said.

Veterans Affairs, left without a Senate-confirmed leader of its massive health system for four years, focused largely on refining some key policies that were priorities under Obama, such as the prevention of veteran suicides and expanding veterans’ medical care outside the VA system.

“There hasn’t been leadership in place in the health system to put in big policy changes or initiatives, so the [agency review] teams will walk into a familiar environment,” said David Shulkin, who served as the head of the health system under Obama before becoming Trump’s first VA secretary. He said he has been in close touch with the Biden transition team.

Annie Linskey, Seung Min Kim and Greg Miller contributed to this report.