WASHINGTON — President Trump’s refusal to concede the election to Joe Biden has delayed the start of the formal presidential transition process, a crucial coordination phase that would help the incoming administration prepare to tackle the worsening pandemic.
Despite many bitterly fought races over the years, the presidential transition generally goes smoothly, with the outgoing administration allowing the incoming team access to a mountain of information as well as office space and millions of dollars to gird for inauguration day, when thousands of White House employees stream out the doors and need to be replaced.
That commitment to an orderly transition has helped peacefully transfer the massive machinery of federal power after every previous election.
But — as with much in 2020 — this election appears to be shaping up differently.
With Trump continuing to baselessly declare the election results a fraud, the political appointee in charge of the low-profile government agency that kicks off the transition, Emily Murphy at the General Services Administration, has so far declined to declare that Biden won the election.'
That decision is locking Biden’s team out of key information-sharing with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration while they put together their plan to battle the surging coronavirus.
“The future health of our country depends on an immediate and timely transition,” said Howard Koh, who served as assistant secretary for health in the Obama administration. “It needs to happen today and be built upon going forward. Not achieving this puts lives at risk.”
Daily case counts have rocketed to more than 100,000 as the country enters what Biden has warned will be a “dark winter” due to the pandemic. Biden’s administration will also likely be in charge of coordinating the production and delivery of millions of doses of vaccines.
“When you think about the pandemic as being the largest crisis this country has faced since WWII, imagine one general taking over from another general without an understanding of what’s ongoing — that’s what would be happening if there isn’t information sharing,” explained Rebecca Lissner, a professor at the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the Naval War College who has written about decision-making during presidential transitions.
On Monday, Biden announced a COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board staffed with doctors and public health experts and gave a brief speech vowing he was already preparing to take over the reins of the presidency. “Today that work begins,” he said.
The Biden team began coordinating about a potential transition with the White House through Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows before the election, as is usual. But more than $9 million — and the ability to fully cooperate with agencies — is in limbo until the Trump administration decides to recognize Biden’s victory.
“The Biden team is very much at work and has a degree of resources and ability to begin to do their work, but full integration into agencies to conduct briefings and conduct unfettered conversations … is awaiting that determination,” said Kate Shaw, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and an expert for the National Task Force on Election Crises.
Even as it shatters norms, Trump is likely within his legal rights not to hand over the resources to Biden’s transition team yet, experts say.
So far, Trump is not facing much pressure from Republicans to accept the results, even as it appears unclear what his legal argument is for overturning Biden’s lead in several battleground states. Just four Senate Republicans, including Susan Collins of Maine, have publicly referred to Biden as the president-elect.
Trump campaign official Jason Miller said the campaign is not even thinking about a potential concession.
“That word is not even in our vocabulary right now,” he said in an interview on Fox Business.
That could change as states officially certify their results, which begins on Tuesday in many states, or as Trump’s legal challenges fizzle, which even his own lawyer has suggested is likely. A Trump administration official hinted in a call with employees obtained by the Washington Free Beacon that only the Electoral College vote, on Dec. 14, would initiate a transition.
"The Electoral College has not voted yet, so we are still here, business as usual, working for the president, and making sure that everything that we’re doing is to serve the president of the United States,” White House liaison Catharine O’Neill said on the call.
In 2000, the presidential transition was delayed until December after the election came down to one tipping point state, Florida, where Al Gore, a Democrat, pursued recounts that were ultimately halted by the Supreme Court.
It’s unclear how long Trump will direct the federal government to hold out on acknowledging his loss. But any delay will likely hamper Biden’s ability to rapidly respond to COVID-19.
“The problem is the virus is not going to slow up because Donald Trump has slowed down the process of the transition,” said Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican National Committee. Steele endorsed Biden for president. “It could put the Biden commission in a little bit of a pickle in terms of getting its hands on the relevant information so they can develop the kind of strategy that they want.”
COVID-19 isn’t the only potential issue lurking in the 10-week transition period. Transitions can be ripe for abuse, ranging from the outgoing president denying his successor access to the daily intelligence briefing to attempting to destroy documents or launching politically motivated prosecutions into the president-elect, experts say.
On Monday, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, making it clear he does not plan to lie low during the transition as many past presidents have done.
“Presidential transitions are the most perilous moment in American politics —and that applies even when you don’t have a norm-busting president in the White House,” said Lissner. “It’s a really gargantuan task to take over the federal government and have the executive branch effectively decapitated with 4,000 employees flowing out.”
But Biden, having spent nearly 50 years in Washington, is perhaps uniquely suited to weather the unusual circumstance of being locked out of the White House until the final hour — if it comes to that.
“If there is a silver lining, it is a former vice president will be assuming office —not someone from outside the Washington Beltway,” John Burke, a professor of political science at the University of Vermont, wrote in an e-mail. “Modern vice presidents have staffs that replicate that of the White House staff, they have participated in a past transition, and they understand how the system works.”