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Trump refuses to concede and work with Biden. He needs haunting by ghosts of transitions past.

It's instructive to examine how we established our remarkable transfer process — even after bitter campaigns and amid unclear election results.
Image: Five Presidents, The Oval Office
Former President George H.W. Bush, President-elect Barack Obama, President George W. Bush and former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter In the Oval Office on Jan. 7, 2009.David Hume Kennerly / Getty Images file

Presidential transitions haven't always been pretty, but every recent president has steadfastly committed to the peaceful transfer of power — until Donald Trump.

Long ago, the transitions between administrations were makeshift affairs, staffed by small numbers of advisers, all rushing to get ready for Inauguration Day.

When he came into office, Trump shook up the delicate balance between order and politics, and his refusal to acknowledge the election results and let a transition begin comes as no surprise. Perhaps what's more of a surprise, in fact, is that in a country whose history is replete with hard-fought presidential contests and polarized politics, the universally embraced practice of making a transition from one administration to the next has become an uncontroversial nonevent.

The danger that Trump poses here, as he has so often throughout his tenure, isn't so much that he'll disregard legal requirements explicitly laid out in statutes — or wrestle with the Secret Service agents who will escort him out of the White House on Jan. 20 — but that he'll so strenuously trample the implicit norms that undergird the peaceful transfer of power that they are consigned to the history bin. In doing so, he places the country in jeopardy now and in the future.

The history bin is also instructive in understanding how we came to establish our remarkable transfer process. Long ago, the transitions between administrations were makeshift affairs, staffed by small numbers of advisers, all rushing to get ready for Inauguration Day.

Though he'd ascended to the presidency more than three years earlier, Harry Truman enjoyed the aftermath of his 1948 presidential election victory in Key West, Florida, while his skeleton team worked away back in Washington to prepare for his inauguration. The frantic pace of the Ford transition in 1974 — planned secretly in the weeks after the Watergate hearings — featured the last-minute arrival of Donald Rumsfeld to lead the transition, fresh off of a beach in St. Tropez.

As national security concerns mounted throughout the 20th century, incoming administrations have been more and more organized to minimize risks during the precarious transfer period. There have, of course, been awkward exchanges, such as in 1981, when Rosalynn Carter sat mutely in the back of the limo with Nancy Reagan en route to Ronald Reagan's inauguration, and comic ones, as when outgoing Bill Clinton staffers removed the W keys from computers before George W. Bush's arrival in 2001.

Yet alongside this prank, executed during the last transfer of power in which things weren't resolved on the evening of the election, Clinton still conceded that transition planning had to begin. Weeks before the Supreme Court ended the Florida recount in Bush v. Gore, both Bush and Al Gore were given access to transition resources and security briefings, which meant Bush was ready to govern when the vote went his way.

Indeed, the presidential transition period — both before and after elections — has become highly professional, formalized in federal law and overseen by hundreds of staffers bound by strict codes of ethics. This has made the country safer.

It has also made the transfer of power peaceful and largely civil, even after bitter campaigns. While Lyndon Johnson told aides that Richard Nixon had "blood on his hands" for undermining a peace agreement in Vietnam during the 1968 campaign, he didn't publicly disclose those criticisms of the newly elected president and fully cooperated with Nixon's transition team.

Yet the process itself has over time been politicized. The Brookings Institution used to be the only shop in town helping major candidates plan for the difficult work of preparing to govern; much of the nonpartisan advice it started giving during the 1960 campaign focused on the nuts and bolts of taking over a large federal bureaucracy. Later, Brookings was pushed aside by the increasingly ideological think tanks and interest groups that arose in the 1970s, and the transition became the first chance to enjoy the spoils of a White House victory.

For example, in 1981, the upstart Heritage Foundation authored its own ambitious transition plan long before Reagan's win, assembling a book of advice, "Mandate for Leadership," that the White House distributed to the new Cabinet. Heritage wasn't simply interested in helping the new administration figure out how to get started; it provided a road map for a conservative revolution in Washington. By 2008, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, was integral to the Obama-Biden transition, lending the transition team a co-chair, a general counsel and a director of operations.

Trump didn't polarize Washington; that happened long ago. What Trump has done is foment chaos that is truly dangerous in our hyperpolarized environment. Bush recognized this dilemma when he ordered his outgoing staff to coordinate with the incoming Obama administration without reservation despite wide disagreements over public policy. The Bush White House also reassured the Obama transition team that the names of anyone under review wouldn't be leaked to the media to score political points.

Such cooperation is especially important in the area of national security, facilitating the sharing of classified intelligence information and a seamless and secure transition of power. In fact, federal law permits officials on the transition team to receive interim security clearances before elections.

But if Trump didn't create the polarization, he did create the chaos that allows partisanship to become toxic — for both politics and people. In 2016, Trump's transition was as chaotic as any in the last 50 years. Rather than the calm of the Bush-to-Obama handoff, Trump opted for disorder, firing his pre-election transition coordinator, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, immediately after Election Day and disregarding the months of preparation Christie had overseen.

This chaotic start cleared the way for a smash-and-grab transition, led by a dozen industry lobbyists eager to fleece federal agencies behind the shibboleth of deregulation, unbound by the ethics rules of past transitions. And they didn't stop there: Trump's governing philosophy has been rooted in disarray and self-interest, with hundreds of former lobbyists appointed over the last four years, effectively dismantling scores of federal rules governing environmental, transportation and workplace safety.

Failing to follow precedent for a peaceful transition of power, a tenet of our democracy, may not be surprising for this White House, but it is incredibly risky. When the president blocked his administration from cooperating with the Biden-Harris transition team and refused to provide security briefings about sensitive national problems, he made us all less safe. During a pandemic, in an economic recession and with international adversaries watching, this is irresponsible and harmful to the nation and the world.