Four years ago, the chaos in President-elect Donald Trump’s transition foretold his early weeks in the White House. Now, his administration is doing its best to ensure his successor encounters similar problems.
The good news, for the country and Joe Biden’s incoming administration, is that the main factor in a successful transition is usually the extent to which the new team prepares itself efficiently to assume power.
Minimal cooperation from Herbert Hoover didn’t keep Franklin Roosevelt from a fast start in 1933, and good work by the elder George Bush’s team didn’t prevent Bill Clinton’s stumbling start in 1993.
Fortunately, all signs are that Biden’s transition is well organized. It’s led by long-time adviser Ted Kaufman, who helped write the law governing transitions, and it includes many experienced officials. The evidence things are proceeding methodically is the prompt naming of a COVID-19 advisory task force and a series of well-qualified top White House aides.
Unfortunately, that does not mean the outgoing Trump administration isn’t causing potential long-term damage by delaying the bureaucratic go-ahead needed to give Biden’s team access to available funds, facilities and current officials.
The most significant consequences will likely be in two areas that are among the most important for Biden to address from the outset: national security, in general, and the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular.
In recent days, a growing number of Republicans have called for Biden and his advisers to start getting the daily top-secret national security updates that the government’s intelligence agencies prepare for the president.
Trump has repeatedly disdained such information and, according to his schedule, rarely receives what normally had been a daily briefing. But that’s no excuse for denying it to Biden, even before the official certification of the victory that few outside Trump’s sycophantic inner circle deny.
Underscoring the point, past officials from both parties say that the late start in the 2001 transition from President Bill Clinton to President George W. Bush had an impact on the latter’s readiness for the 9/11 terrorist attacks the following September.
“This loss of time hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,” concluded the bipartisan panel that studied the federal government’s response to the 9/11 attacks.
John Podesta, who was Clinton’s chief of staff during that transition, said in a recent interview with the “Transition Lab” podcast that one result was that “we were unable, I think, to put the focus of their security team really on the threat of (Osama) bin Laden.”
In any case, the current circumstance is totally different from that one. The 2000 election was in real doubt for a month because it hung on the result in Florida, where the margin was razor thin and depended on which ballots were accepted in which counties.
By contrast, it’s clear that Biden has enough electoral votes so that he will still be the winner, even in the extreme unlikelihood that recounts switch one or two states. Election security officials of Trump’s own administration said there are no signs of significant fraud or other potentially disqualifying issues.
The more immediate problem, even beyond the security briefings, is the pandemic, since all signs are that it will still be raging on Jan. 20 and, in many parts of the country, will likely be worse.
The exciting progress on at least two of the proposed vaccines that hold the key to halting the scourge makes it even more important to start cooperation between the outgoing and incoming administrations, especially on the proposed distribution systems.
“Of course, it would be better if we could start working with them,” the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
On Monday, Biden himself was more direct about the risks. “More people may die if we don’t coordinate,” he told reporters in response to a question about the potential impact of a delay.
Even then, the president-elect seemed eager to avoid any direct confrontation at this point by calling the situation “more embarrassing for the country than debilitating for my ability to get started.”
Still, the fact is the two administrations can’t start cooperating until the Trump appointee running the General Services Administration gives the official go-ahead for the transition to proceed. Without it, Biden will inevitably face delays in taking charge of the issue on Jan. 20.
Meanwhile, the president-elect’s advisers have reportedly been in contact with many governors, who will play a key role in the vaccine distribution process. Even there, however, Trump continues to play politics, as he did in last Friday’s gratuitous attack on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his threat to withhold vaccines from the nation’s fourth most populous state.
The bottom line here is the need to ensure that as many Americans as possible have access to the vaccines as quickly as possible. Providing for the general welfare is, of course, one of government’s main purposes, something Trump seems to have often forgotten in his persistent focus on himself.