from The Water's Edge

Transition 2021: A Divisive and Damaging Presidency Nears Its End

Each Friday, I look at what is happening in President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition to the White House. This week: The mob that stormed the Capitol Building this week highlighted how Donald Trump’s presidency has left the United States worse off than when he started.
Supporters of President Donald Trump breach security barriers at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021.
Supporters of President Donald Trump breach security barriers at the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. Leah Millis/Reuters

I had planned to open this next-to-last installment of the Transition 2021 series by reviewing President Donald Trump’s foreign policy successes and failures. But not after Wednesday’s invasion of the Capitol. It seems too narrow to focus on assessing the merits of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement or the wisdom of personal summitry with Kim Jong-un after a mob egged on by the president overran the House and Senate. A broader perspective is needed.

The ultimate standard for judging any president is what might be called the campsite rule: Did they leave the country better off than they found it? Trump didn’t. He is not responsible for creating the many divisions that plague American society. They predated him, and indeed, helped bring him to office. He nonetheless repeatedly deepened and enflamed America’s divides. He did not, to borrow the words that Abraham Lincoln made famous, appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

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The damage Trump has done is significant. Joe Biden will take office on January 20 with a substantial majority of Republicans believing that he was not legitimately elected, in great part because Trump has repeatedly made demonstrably false claims about election fraud. More than 370,000 Americans are dead from a virus that Trump downplayed despite knowing full well about its virulence. That epic failure has left the U.S. economy reeling and impoverished millions of Americans. He has regularly undermined public confidence in the media, in science, and in government institutions. Even when he saw his supporters ransacking the Capitol he declined to condemn them. Instead, he excused their actions and said they were “very special.”

Trump’s actions this week did equally grave damage to America’s standing abroad, something that he had already eroded with his embrace of autocrats ranging from Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte and Kim Jong-un to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman. What happened Wednesday was so deeply harmful because, as Anne Applebaum wisely notes, it resulted not from policy disagreements but as “part of an argument over the validity of democracy itself: A violent mob declared that it should decide who becomes the next president, and Trump encouraged its members.” Authoritarians around the world gloated over the scenes being beamed from Capitol Hill, parading it as evidence of America’s decline and the hollowness of its democracy. While autocrats took heart, America’s friends and allies were left wondering whether the United States they knew still exists—and just as important, whether it can be counted on in the future.

Perhaps Wednesday’s terrible events will mark a turning point in American politics. After peering into the abyss, we may as a country recoil in horror and choose to find our “better angels.” That is devoutly to be wished for. But it cannot be assumed. Even after a mob ravaged the Capitol, nearly two-thirds of House Republicans voted to challenge Pennsylvania’s electoral count. What we do know is that Joe Biden will be sworn in on January 20 as the president of a deeply troubled nation that is far worse off than it was just four years ago. And that responsibility for that sad state of affairs rests squarely with Donald Trump.

What Biden Is Saying

Biden didn’t say much about foreign policy this week, which is not surprising given the week’s events. His pick for national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, was talking, however. In an interview with NPR, Sullivan said that the Biden administration hopes to link domestic and foreign policy: "What Joe Biden is proposing, and what I am reinforcing as the national security adviser, is that every element of what we do in our foreign policy and national security ultimately has to be measured by the impact it has on working families, middle-class people, ordinary Americans here in the United States.” 

In an extended appearance on Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, Sullivan discussed a range of issues. He ventured that Biden will “have a period where he can consult with our partners and allies in Europe and Asia and elsewhere” to “develop a common agenda on issues where we share deep concerns about China.” When it comes to the other great power, Sullivan said that it “most likely was Russia” that launched the Solar Winds cyberattack and that Biden will “impose substantial costs” on the Kremlin. But he held out hope that the administration will be able to engage with Russia on arms control “right out of the gate in the early days and weeks of the administration.”

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Biden’s Appointments

Biden has begun to flesh out his national security team. It looks to be an Obama administration reunion. The president-elect has announced that he is nominating Kathleen Hicks as deputy secretary of defense. She would be the first woman to hold DoD’s number two position. She was deputy undersecretary of strategy, plans, and forces and principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. She holds a Ph.D. in political science and is currently senior vice president at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

Biden has nominated former aide Colin Kahl to take on Hick’s old position as undersecretary of defense for policy. Kahl was a deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and Biden’s national security advisor as vice president. An academic political scientist by training—he began his career as a professor at the University of Minnesota—he is currently the Steven C. Házy senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.

Today Biden announced twenty-one appointments to the staff of the National Security Council (NSC). Leading the list was Jon Finer, who was named principal deputy national security advisor. Finer, who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council, held several positions in the Obama administration, including as senior advisor to then-deputy national security advisor Antony Blinken. Biden plans to expand the size of the NSC staff and to add new positions covering issues such as democracy and human rights, emerging technologies, and global health.

Over at the State Department, Biden is expected to name Ambassador Wendy Sherman, a lead negotiator in the Iran nuclear deal and a former undersecretary of state for political affairs, as deputy secretary of state. Ambassador Victoria Nuland, a former assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, is the expected choice for undersecretary of state for political affairs, the number three position at State. Sherman and Nuland know the State Department well. They have both served in a variety of positions there. That institutional knowledge will come in handy as the building has seen an exodus of talent over the last four years.

The Biden Agenda 

My colleague Alice Hill and Todd Stern of the Brookings Institution joined me last week on the special Transition 2021 series of The President’s Inbox to discuss how Biden will likely combat climate change. This week my colleagues Ted Alden and Jennifer Hillman assessed how Biden will approach trade policy. Don’t expect major changes to Trump’s trade policies anytime soon.

Richard Haass and David Rubenstein, the president and chairman respectively of the Council on Foreign Relations, assessed the Trump administration’s foreign policy and overviewed the foreign policy challenges Biden will face.

My colleague Stewart Patrick highlighted ten global summits in 2021 “that will test the mettle of President-Elect Joe Biden, as he executes a 180-degree turn from ‘America First’ and tries to translate his multilateral rhetoric into concrete steps to address real-world problems.”

Kristen Cordell argued that “the Biden team recognizes assistance as a crucial foreign policy tool” and will put “development at the service of strategic competition and national security goals.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Deputy Mayor for International Affairs Nina Hachigian argued that Biden should “make cities and states his partners in foreign as well as domestic policy.”

Anthony Musa recommended steps the Biden administration should take to promote and protect LGBTQ+ rights around the world.

Serra Sippel and Akila Radhakrishnan argued that the Biden administration must do more to promote global reproductive rights and gender equality beyond simply repealing the global gag rule that prohibits U.S. funding for foreign organizations that offer abortion services.

The Vote Count

The final step in Election 2020 was completed early yesterday morning when Congress certified Biden as president-elect. Trump finally acknowledged in a video posted to Twitter late last night that Biden will take office on January 20. However, he will not be attending Biden’s swearing in. It’s no doubt for the best, but it breaks a tradition that symbolizes a core democratic principle about the orderly and peaceful transfer of power.

Inauguration Day is twelve days away.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.