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Trump is stonewalling Biden's transition. Here's why it matters.

The clock is ticking and foreign adversaries are watching, experts and past government officials said.
Image: President-Elect Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden answer questions from the press at the Queen in Wilmington, DE on Nov. 10, 2020.Demetrius Freeman / Washington Post via Getty Images

In stonewalling President-elect Joe Biden's transition, President Donald Trump isn't just breaking with tradition, he's endangering national security, numerous former government officials and experts said.

Presidential transitions have always operated under a time crunch. In less than three months, the outgoing administration and career government officials try to convey years of intelligence, know-how, planning and work to the incoming administration, which is simultaneously in the process of identifying and hiring thousands of staffers.

“The transition is fundamentally about trying to make sure whoever the president is, they’re ready to go on day one,” Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, which houses the Center for Presidential Transition, said.

The Trump administration's delay — which has extended for a week while Trump makes baseless allegations of widespread fraud and insists litigation will secure him the presidency — is already keeping Biden from receiving high-level intelligence briefings and complicating his team's plans to move swiftly on the coronavirus. It could also hamper Biden administration staffing and security clearance processes while making it harder for the new administration to take the reins of government agencies.

Biden’s team said the transition is progressing despite the Trump administration’s continued refusal to recognize a new president-elect, but it acknowledged that the longer the delay goes on, the worse its effects will be.

Here's what usually happens after the winner of a presidential election is declared, and what's at stake in the process.

How does a presidential transition normally work?

Stier said there are four key parts of a presidential transition: Agency review, personnel and staffing, policy planning and how the president-elect and vice president-elect spend their time

Agency review involves sending teams into every agency to meet with current political appointees and career staff to try to understand everything happening in each agency.

William Cohen, the secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton who helped George W. Bush's incoming Republican administration get settled, described the process in an interview on MSNBC on Wednesday.

“The first thing I did was call his designated secretary of defense, Don Rumsfeld. And I said, 'Don, here are the 10 things I think you really have to look at when you come into this office. I'll sit down and go over it.' I made a list and it came out to 59. And I sat down with him for two days going over the 59 items that they really had to be concerned about,” he said. “And that's traditional. That's what a democracy is supposed to be about, that you want your successor to be in a position to protect and defend the interests of the American people.”

The next challenge is staffing. Stier said there are 4,000 political appointee positions in government for which candidates need to be identified, vetted, interviewed and hired. FBI field investigations are required for some security clearances,while outside financial interests must be disclosed to the Office of Government Ethics. Approximately 1,200 of those appointees, Stier said, require Senate confirmation. The staffing process is protracted for every new administration, and political insiders fear a delayed transition will mean critical positions will sit vacant for even longer than necessary.

“It takes a while to get security clearances,” Andy Card, former chief of staff for President George W. Bush, said in an interview. “Literally everybody who works at the White House has to have a background check done.”

Jeh Johnson, who served as homeland security secretary under President Barack Obama, told NBC News that the usual agency review process also allows an incoming administration to identify experienced personnel who want to continue to serve in government, even if the incoming president is a member of a different political party.

“The most senior example of that was of course Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense. But there were more junior examples. One Bush political appointee in the [Department of Defense] General Counsel’s office made a personal appeal to me to stay on — ‘Let me prove myself to you,’” Johnson said in an email. “He was with me my whole four years at the Pentagon. Another Bush holdover ultimately became my chief of staff at DHS. Far too often, merit matters more than politics.”

The final two components of transition planning involve translating policy proposals into legislation and planning for how the president-elect and vice president-elect spend their time.

For Obama, who took office in January 2009 amid the Great Recession, this included beginning to negotiate and craft a stimulus bill that would be introduced in Congress six days after his inauguration and signed into law by February 2009.

The president-elect also traditionally uses the transition time to begin building diplomatic relations, taking calls with foreign heads of state with help from career diplomatsand facilitated by the State Department.

But before any of this can happen, the head of the General Services Administration has to recognize the incoming Biden administration by signing a letter of "ascertainment" — a process that has been mostly noncontroversial since the passage of the Presidential Transition Act of 1963.

The paperwork triggers the release of millions of dollars in transition funding and allows an incoming administration access to current government officials. Two days after Trump’s election, for example, the Obama administration issued a detailed fact sheet about how they were proceeding with Trump’s transition.

Johnson recalled briefing then-President-elect Trump during the transition and participating in the Presidential Daily Brief, the daily intelligence briefing the Trump administration has so far refused to allow Biden to receive.

“I personally visited President-elect Trump at Trump Tower to tell him some things I thought he needed to hear from me,” Johnson said. “I know he appreciated it.”

What’s happening now

Biden’s team has forged ahead with the traditional hallmarks of a transition: launching a task force to tackle the coronavirus, an immediate issue his administration will face, while beginning to name key staff.

However, top aides have said the longer the Trump administration waits to ascertain Biden’s victory, the more it will hurt their ability to hit the ground running on Jan. 20, the day Biden is inaugurated.

“Each passing day, lack of access to current classified operations or back channel conversations that are happening really put the American people's interest as it relates to their national security at risk,” Biden transition official Yohannes Abraham said.

The Biden team has announced agency review teams, but those teams cannot yet meet with current government employees. A source close to the transition told NBC News the Biden campaign is starting with people they can talk to, like outside experts, nongovernmental organizations and union leaders.

"Normally what you would probably do is go talk to the agency people first and then talk to the outside stakeholders," the source said. The Biden transition team is "just basically reversing the process and doing the other ones first."

The source said the delays are "manageable right now. If those go on for a longer period of time, it does become problematic."

Biden has a head start on other presidents-elect when it comes to the process of forging diplomatic relationships thanks to his eight years as Obama’s vice president.

Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, said Thursday on MSNBC that Biden has been taking calls with foreign leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Pope, who both already had his personal phone number.

However, concerns have been raised about security as Biden’s team is operating without the support traditionally provided by the State Department.

National security at stake

The slow-walking of Biden’s transition has raised red flags among past government officials. Many have pointed to the delayed transition after the 2000 election, which the 9/11 Commission said made it harder for the Bush administration to staff people fast enough.

“The new administration did not have its deputy cabinet officers in place until the spring of 2001, and the critical subcabinet officials were not confirmed until the summer—if then. In other words, the new administration—like others before it—did not have its team on the job until at least six months after it took office,”the 9/11 Commission Report noted, recommending an accelerated process for national security appointments.

Both Johnson and Card said foreign affairs and national security were key concerns.

“The world is very dangerous,” Card said, pointing particularly to an increasingly bellicose China.

“Our adversaries look for weak spots and moments to take advantage and exploit. If they perceive us as distracted or in disarray, that could be one of those moments,” Johnson told NBC News.

Johnson, along with other former Homeland Security chiefs, penned a letterarguing that "we do not have a single day to spare to begin the transition."

Biden’s foreign policy chops may lessen his learning curve when it comes to early diplomacy, but Card argued that it’s not just the former vice president who needs to get up to speed.

“His learning curve will not be very steep — that is an advantage. But it’s not just what the president knows, it’s what kinds of people advise the president. They are the oneswho should be climbing that learning curve with him,” Card said, adding that the president needs a team of smart advisers to challenge and guide him.

Card said the presidency is a hard job, without adding the kind of surprises or unintended consequences that a shortened transition could bring on.

"Almost no decision a president makes should be an easy decision,” he said.