Last week, US President Donald Trump became the first president since George HW Bush, in 1992, to lose re-election and be voted out of office.
Now, while Trump tries to fight the outcome and so far refuses to concede to former vice-president Joe Biden, former officials warn that the Trump administration is taking unprecedented moves to block the start of the crucial transition period to the next administration, which they say may leave Biden and his team less prepared to deal with China and other challenges when they take office on January 20.
“We’re in terra incognita right now,” said Christopher Hill, a former ambassador under two Republican and two Democrat presidents. “President Trump won’t permit any kind of cooperation. That’s unprecedented.”
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In previous administrations, as required by law, a federal agency known as the General Services Administration (GSA) – which oversees the government’s budgets, office space, and travel – would formally approve the start of the transition period.
With that approval comes US$6.3 million in funding, office space for hundreds of staff and, eventually, security clearances and access to classified intelligence.
Incoming officials are expected to meet their outgoing counterparts to get up to speed on what kinds of challenges the government may be dealing with around the world.
They are also expected to take stock of the massive federal bureaucracy with its millions of workers, so they can begin to plan how they might want to organise and run it.
In a sense, the GSA’s approval is an acknowledgement that a new president will be taking over. The incoming president is also required by law to prepare for the transition too.
But the Trump administration’s head of the GSA, Emily Murphy – a Trump appointee – has so far refused to sign the document to start the transition period.
Yahoo News also reported that five days before the election, Trump sent a new lawyer to take over as the GSA’s general counsel – potentially bracing for a lawsuit from Biden’s team over access to the transition resources and information.
Various other agencies across the government reportedly are also refusing to go along with the transition, saying that they are waiting first for the GSA’s approval.
President-elect Biden said on Tuesday that there is “nothing going to stop” his administration from moving forward to prepare for January 20. He said he is reviewing potential cabinet picks, and said his transition is “well under way”.
But former officials say the Trump administration’s refusal to cooperate so far with the peaceful transition of power is still reckless.
“On the 20th of January at 12.01, all the problems that the US government faces and all the situations – both foreign and domestic – that can become dangerous, are in the hands of the new administration,” said Mickey Kantor, who was Bill Clinton’s campaign chairman when he unseated George HW Bush and then became his US Trade Representative.
“And therefore the new administration has to be fully up to date with what's going on and what the situations are, including having access to classified information, in order to be effective,” Kantor said.
Hill, who served as the State Department’s top East Asia official in the Obama administration, said when the George W Bush administration was transitioning to the Barack Obama administration at the end of 2008, the incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, moved quickly to make sure her team was prepared to take office on January 20.
“Pretty early on, in December, she was tasking memos to understand where we really are on these issues, and where we should go, and what is the best way to make sure that we don’t go without a foreign policy for a matter of time,” Hill said in an interview.
“In this case, I doubt Secretary Pompeo would be prepared until the president concedes to meet a designated successor, or just even a transition team, to begin the briefings on what is going on,” Hill said.
Instead, without formal approval to start the transition period, the former officials say the incoming Biden administration is losing valuable time to get ready for an enormous job.
Sue Mi Terry, a former intelligence official who served on the National Security Council during the Bush-Obama transition, said the top issue for the incoming Biden administration is that they do not yet have access to intelligence briefings.
“They’re now forming strategies on what to do with China, what to do with Iran, what to do with North Korea,” Terry said, referring to Biden and his foreign policy team, which he so far has not formally named.
“If you’re a normal person starting a new job, and if the other person just kind of leaves, and you walk in – it’s better when there’s overlap,” Terry said. “But we cannot expect that with this administration.”
Former deputy secretary of defence Rudy deLeon, who experienced the presidential transitions at the beginning and end of the Clinton administration, said it needs to be “seamless”.
“Particularly for [the State and Defence Departments] and the intelligence community and Treasury, so that financial markets, adversaries around the world – so that everybody knows that the continuity of the US government will be in place,” he said.
The officials added that it does not matter how smart or experienced Biden’s foreign policy advisers may be if they do not have access to the most current information.
“You’re not eligible to get a briefing on North Korean missiles until you’re cleared to get that briefing,” said Hill.
All of the officials who spoke to the Post said the Trump administration’s refusal to start the transition process – or even admit defeat – is unlike anything they have seen before.
Kantor, who saw the transition up close the last time an incumbent president was defeated, described the handoff from George HW Bush to Bill Clinton as “completely cooperative and supportive”.
He said the outgoing Bush team made sure the incoming Clinton team had access to briefing books and department heads so they would be ready to start on day one.
“It could not have gone smoother,” Kantor said.
The Clinton-George W Bush transition was also smooth, added Hill, even when tensions were high after the Supreme Court had controversially intervened to stop a recount in the state of Florida and effectively clinched the election for Bush.
“There was a lot of bitterness about the Florida recount,” Hill said. “But still, no one had problems with getting GSA to cut the checks to allow people to rent office space and things like that.”
DeLeon said in general “once all of the ballots have been counted, there is usually an element of graciousness that is part of the good faith of the transition from one administration to another”.
“As we’ve seen, this is not an incumbent administration known for its graciousness.”
Now, said Hill, with 10 weeks left before Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th US president and already one week passed since Election Day, “I think it’s fair to say we’re already behind.”
“It’s unprecedented and unpatriotic,” added Kantor, referring to Trump. “I couldn’t be clearer than that.”
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