from The Water's Edge

Transition 2021: When Presidents Don’t Concede

President-Elect Joe Biden speaks at a news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 10, 2020.
President-Elect Joe Biden speaks at a news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 10, 2020. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Each Friday, I look at what is happening in President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition to the White House. This week: Trump puts the transition process in limbo and Biden begins building his team. 

November 13, 2020

President-Elect Joe Biden speaks at a news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 10, 2020.
President-Elect Joe Biden speaks at a news conference in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 10, 2020. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
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We were warned. At a campaign rally last month, President Donald Trump told the crowd: “They ask me, ‘If you lose, will there be a friendly transition?’ Well, when I won, did they give me a friendly transition? They spied on my campaign. They did all this stuff. That was not a friendly transition.”

Trump’s riff was wrong on the facts. The Obama administration spent months back in 2016 drafting transition documents to help incoming officials prepare for what lay ahead. It even handed over a playbook for how to respond to a pandemic. But the hostility to a transition that Trump signaled in his campaign remarks has now become fact. Not only has he refused to concede a race he has clearly lost, he has discouraged his subordinates from acknowledging his defeat, let alone work with the incoming Biden team.

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As a result of Trump’s refusal to concede, the head of the General Services Administration (GSA), a Trump appointee, has refused to “ascertain” that the election has been decided. That refusal means that the wide range of administrative procedures designed to ensure a smooth transition of power cannot go into effect. One specific example is that the Director of National Intelligence has declined to give President-Elect Joe Biden access to the President’s Daily Brief (PDB), as is customary. The administration has even gone so far as to refuse to pass along congratulatory messages from foreign governments and to deny Biden the ability to place calls to foreign leaders through the State Department’s secure operations center, a perk he previously was entitled to as a former vice president.

Biden has taken Trump’s obstinacy in stride. The president-elect told reporters on Tuesday that his transition is “well underway” and that Trump’s refusal to concede “is not of much consequence in our planning and what we’re able to do between now and January 20th.” And there’s a lot the Biden team can do without the Trump administration’s cooperation. Biden announced the creation of a thirteen-member coronavirus task force on Monday to help devise his administration’s strategy to curtail COVID-19. And by all accounts he is mulling over his cabinet choices while his transition team drafts the terms of the policy decisions he will announce upon assuming office.

There are signs of a growing backlash to Trump’s efforts to block the normal transition process from unfolding. Several former Democratic and Republican national security officials, including former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former CIA and NSA Director General Michael Hayden, wrote a letter to the GSA warning that “delaying the transition further poses a serious risk to our national security.” Sitting Republican senators have likewise begun to call for Biden to begin receiving the PDB, and former White House chief of staff John Kelly did the same late this afternoon. And while it may take a week or longer, events will eventually compel the GSA to acknowledge that the election has been decided, thereby unlocking the traditional transition procedures. Better late than never as the saying goes.

So the United States looks headed for a peaceful transition of power but not a cooperative one. As Ivo Daalder and I wrote in a piece for Foreign Affairs yesterday, the next nine-plus weeks will be fraught with turbulence and danger. That’s inevitable when an incumbent president refuses to concede and challenges the legitimacy of the election.

What Biden Is Saying

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A feature of every transition is the president-elect receiving congratulatory phone calls from world leaders. (Sometimes there are even in-person meetings. Back in 2016, for example, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew thousands of miles out of his way so he could meet with Trump in New York City.) That tradition continued this week as Biden fielded calls with a range of allied leaders, including Boris Johnson, Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Moon Jae-in, Scott Morrison, Yoshihide Suga, and Justin Trudeau. In a return to pre-Trump practice, the Biden team released readouts that outline what the leaders discussed on their calls.

Biden summarized the message he conveyed in these conversations:

I'm letting them know that America is back. We're going to be back in the game.…I said when we announced that the next president is going to inherit a divided country and a world in disarray. The reception and welcome we’ve gotten around the world from our allies and our friends has been real. And I have a number of other calls to return, and so I feel confident that we’re going to be able to put America back in the place of respect that it had before.

As is also traditional, other world leaders used these phone calls as an opportunity to get backing for policies important to them. So Japanese Prime Minister Suga said that Biden had confirmed his commitment to Japan’s claim to the disputed Senkaku Islands, which China also claims.

Biden’s Appointments

In his first personnel appointment, Biden named Ronald Klain to be his chief of staff. A graduate of Georgetown University and Harvard Law who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White, Klain has been a close advisor to Biden since 1989.

Attention now shifts to whom Biden will nominate for his cabinet. Biden said he is hoping to announce “at least a couple” cabinet-level nominees before Thanksgiving. The media are in full speculation mode. Politico put together a list of the most likely contenders for every cabinet position. Foreign Policy reviewed the top contenders for secretaries of state and defense, DNI, CIA director, and UN ambassador. The Washington Post is maintaining a handy list of Biden’s picks.

The Biden Agenda

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, sat down with me to discuss the foreign policy challenges that await the president-elect. The list is, in a word, “daunting.”

David Sanger assessed the first steps Biden is expected to take in dealing with policy toward Afghanistan, China, Iran, and Russia.

Elena Moore listed Biden’s promises for his first one hundred days. More than a few of them will go unfulfilled if, as seems likely, Republicans retain control of the Senate.

The Electoral Calendar

Voters rightly think of Election Day as the end of the campaign. But it is also the start of a formalized vote-counting process. The dates on that timeline usually go unnoticed because the losing candidate typically concedes the race within hours of the polls closing. This year is different, so here is a quick refresher on a few of the main mile markers over the next two months.

November 18    Georgia’s deadline for completing its recount.

November 18    Wisconsin’s deadline to request a recount, which must be                                       completed within thirteen days.

December 8      State vote certifications made by this “safe harbor” date are                                 immune to challenge.

December 14    Electoral College electors cast their votes.

January 3          The new Congress is sworn in.

January 6          A joint session of Congress meets to count electoral votes and                              formally declare a winner.

January 20        Inauguration Day.

Inauguration Day is sixty-eight days away.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.

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