When President-elect Joe Biden is sworn into office on Jan. 20, the list of crises he will face includes a massive cyber intrusion, a still-raging global pandemic, a slowing economic recovery and a lingering reckoning over the nation’s racial tensions.
Trump has sought to play down or even deny the still-expanding cybersecurity breach that many experts blame on Russia, even as its impact has spread to a growing number of federal agencies. The delayed and turbulent transition process could complicate the Biden administration’s ability to address the challenge and shore up the nation’s cyberdefenses.
Trump has been far more vocal on other issues that have captured his focus, ranging from baseless claims of election fraud to a rolling purge of administration officials deemed not sufficiently loyal. In his final weeks in office, Trump is making a series of moves aimed at cementing his legacy and handicapping Biden’s presidency — from abruptly pulling troops from war zones to cracking down on Iran to encouraging the Justice Department to investigate his political enemies.
The result is a situation without precedent in American history: One president ending his term amid crisis is seeking to delegitimize a successor and floating the prospect of mounting a four-year campaign to return to power.
“In ordinary times and in the best of times, transitions are incredibly hard,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, adding that the number of challenges facing the country call for a smooth transition that does not resemble the current state of affairs.
“We live in a system where there’s one president” at a time, he said. “President Trump is still president. There are ways in which he’s not making it easier, but he’s making it harder.”
The White House pushed back in a lengthy statement listing what it described as Trump’s “unprecedented accomplishments” and fight against “the Swamp.”
“The American people elected Donald Trump as President for a four-year term, not until November 3, 2020,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said. “President Trump’s first term goes until January 20, 2021 as prescribed by the U.S. Constitution and he has every right to continue to advance policies that fulfill the commitments he made just as every President before him has done.”
Biden’s incoming administration has long described a “perfect storm” of four crises facing the country — the pandemic, economic distress, climate change and racial injustice. It suddenly has another to add: a historic cyber intrusion into government networks that probably began months ago and could reverberate for months to come.
The organized attack has affected numerous federal agencies, American companies and institutions, with national security officials working around-the-clock to assess the scope and seriousness of the breach.
In a statement last week, Biden stopped short of attributing the hack to Russia but implicitly criticized the Trump administration for not having a forceful response.
“Our adversaries should know that, as president, I will not stand idly by in the face of cyber assaults on our nation,” he said Thursday.
While agency officials across the government are briefing the Biden team on the hack and a number of other issues, Trump is not expected to participate personally in the transition, according to officials close to him, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The White House prevented Biden from receiving customary intelligence briefings for weeks as Trump complained about having to participate in the transition at all, according to officials.
The president has told advisers not to share information with Biden’s team that could be used against him, a senior administration official said.
Trump has refused to concede the election and sought to delegitimize Biden by claiming his victory was tainted by fraud. The traditional meeting between an outgoing president and an incoming successor, typically occurring at the White House and symbolizing the peaceful transfer of power, is unlikely to take place under Trump, officials said.
Trump’s administration is instead spending its final days trying to reshape the government Biden will take over and notch last-minute policy victories that could be difficult to overturn.
The president’s personnel team, led by personnel director Johnny McEntee, is rapidly installing loyalists across the government on boards and other powerful entities. Shortly before the election, Trump signed an executive order that would remake the federal civil service and potentially make it easier for him to place political allies into career positions that last well into the Biden administration.
Many of the jobs and board seats Trump is filling with longtime political allies had been left vacant for years. Now, the multiyear positions are being filled by people who regularly speak to Trump, such as White House aide Andrew Giuliani, former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Trump Organization lobbyist Brian Ballard.
It’s not uncommon for a president to fill open positions during the lame-duck period. Former president Barack Obama made more than 100 such appointments after the November 2016 election, a period that also included several last-minute moves to cement his policy vision before ceding the government to an opposing party.
Chase Untermeyer, who served as White House personnel director for former president George H.W. Bush, said his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy’s Board of Visitors in the final weeks of Bush’s term was similar to Trump’s decision to fill boards and commissions with allies.
“Anything that Donald Trump may be trying right now has got quite a heritage,” he said, highlighting the “midnight appointment” moniker that dates back to 1801. After appointing a number of judges in his final days in office, outgoing president John Adams left town and refused to attend Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration.
While Trump could be following Adams’s example, his refusal to concede the race and talk of mounting another run for president in 2024 add a different flavor.
Trump has promised not to back down in his attempts to overturn an election he clearly lost, and he has entertained increasingly radical, if unlikely, strategies. In a meeting last week, for example, he discussed deploying the military to rerun the election — an idea shot down by aides — and appointing a special counsel on voter fraud.
Trump has mused to other aides about appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Biden’s son Hunter, though it is unclear whether the Justice Department will actually do so, according to two advisers.
Trump, who accepted the resignation of Attorney General William P. Barr earlier this month, has also urged the Justice Department to back up his baseless claims of voting irregularities. So far, that effort has been unsuccessful — though it has convinced millions of Americans that Biden would not be a legitimate president.
Trump’s moves to handicap his successor also involve foreign policy, the latest signal that the idea of politics stopping at the waters’ edge may be a relic of the past.
At the Pentagon, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper after the election and abruptly announced a swift drawdown of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. One former senior administration official said Trump’s precipitous withdrawals of troops in the Middle East could leave Biden “a real mess.”
“He’d do almost anything to complicate the life of Joe Biden,” the official said.
Yohannes Abraham, executive director of Biden’s transition, said Friday that while it is receiving cooperation from officials in several agencies, the Pentagon was among several “pockets of intransigence” hampering the president-elect’s team.
The comment came after acting defense secretary Chris Miller abruptly halted all briefings for the incoming administration and announced a “holiday pause” beginning Saturday.
Abraham disputed Miller’s claim that the Biden team had agreed to the pause.
“Let me be clear, there was no mutually agreed upon holiday break,” he told reporters Friday, adding that briefings should continue because “there’s no time to spare.”
Key career positions within the State Department and other agencies have been left empty, a result of the Trump administration’s years-long campaign against federal bureaucrats. One Biden adviser said they were taken aback at how decimated the federal government was below the top levels.
Biden’s ability to roll back Trump’s Iran policy could also be limited by late-stage moves by the president. Trump administration Iran hawks have worked for months to undermine what is left of the 2015 international nuclear deal, seeking new global sanctions on Iran at the United Nations and outside of it, adding unilateral U.S. sanctions that Iran would want to undo as a condition of fresh talks or a new deal.
U.S. sanctions announced Monday on Iranian officials the Trump administration says are to blame for the kidnapping and presumed death of an American appear aimed at limiting Biden’s flexibility in any new negotiations.
“There should be no agreement negotiated with Iran ever again that doesn’t free Americans who are unjustly detained in that country,” a U.S. official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the White House. “We all expect negotiations next year. That negotiation must include the return home of all the Americans unjustly detained in that country.”
Iran itself has complicated any quick U.S. return to the 2015 Iran deal, which has been on life support since Trump’s unilateral withdrawal in 2018.
Iran is violating the deal by stockpiling enriched uranium, and conservative lawmakers in Tehran have imposed new requirements that appear designed to hamper any new negotiations. One new law directs Iran to speed up its production of enriched uranium and expel U.N. nuclear inspectors if key sanctions aren’t lifted by early February, about two weeks after Biden becomes president.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani signaled willingness to reengage, however.
The Trump administration has also amped up rhetorical pressure on China over trade practices, human rights and more — redoubling efforts to shift blame on the way out the door.
Before last month’s election, Trump complained that losing the race would mean that Biden would take credit for work that began under his watch. He specifically mentioned vaccine development for the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recovery.
To be sure, even as Trump makes moves that could hamper Biden’s ability to govern, the rollout of the vaccine and burgeoning economic relief legislation could be two areas where the incoming administration would benefit from the lame-duck period.
But even those areas are not without drama, as some governors complain of vaccine shortages and lawmakers haggle over attempts to claw back the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending powers shortly before Biden takes over. The Treasury Department has already pulled the plug on some of the Fed programs, returning money Biden would’ve been able to use to prime the economy.
Trump’s suggestion that he may run for office again gives him a personal stake in seeing Biden fail. He will waste no time highlighting any stumbles by his successor, aides said. He is looking to begin campaigning in earnest soon and is likely to criticize Biden daily — a break from previous presidents who have at least temporarily stayed out of the fray.
“I think Trump is trying to seed the landscape with land mines,” said Chris Whipple, author of “The Spymasters,” a book about the CIA. “He’s going to make the transition as painful as possible for Biden at every turn.”