President Donald Trump has cast doubt on whether he will commit to a peaceful transfer of power should Democrat Joe Biden win the election, but the secretive process to prepare a would-be Biden administration has been underway for months with help from top Trump officials.
The legally mandated transition happens every four years and ensures that, should a transfer of power be needed, the incoming president is able to use the less than three months to stand up a government and hit the ground running on Inauguration Day. But experts on transitions tell CNN that a possible transition from Trump to Biden – because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the differences between the two candidates and the economic downturn gripping the nation – could be among the most consequential in modern history.
And Trump has not made the consequences of that possible transfer any less tense, regularly dodging questions about a peaceful transition of power to Biden and baselessly questioning whether the election will be fairly decided. But his administration, led by chief of staff Mark Meadows and deputy chief of staff for policy coordination Chris Liddell, has been working with Biden’s team to prepare for the possible handover.
Even with the White House’s current cooperation, however, the Biden team is making preparations for potential roadblocks from Trump and his administration, multiple sources familiar with the work of the transition team have told CNN.
Given the slew of legal ramifications, much of these preparations has fallen under senior adviser and former White House Counsel Bob Bauer. CNN has previously reported that the Biden team has assembled an expansive legal team, led by Bauer and the Biden campaign’s general counsel Dana Remus, to focus on potential voting and election issues.
A diverse team
Biden’s transition team, which began its work over the summer, is a robust operation with two of the multiple co-chairs, Jeff Zients and Ted Kaufman, taking the primary lead in overseeing these ongoing efforts. Kaufman, a close Biden ally who has advised the former vice president for decades, is also an expert on presidential transitions: During the short time he served as a senator from Delaware after Biden became vice president, he passed a bill aimed at streamlining the transition process.
Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign and former White House communications director, is another one of the co-chairs, along with New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, and Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond.
Biden’s effort has been growing for months and, according to a source, is up to at least 150 people. Another source familiar with transition staffing plans tells CNN that the effort could get as large as 300 people by the inauguration, should the transition be needed. Biden’s transition team is technically housed at the Department of Commerce’s headquarters in Washington, but, like most of America during the pandemic, they have been working virtually. This will likely continue after the election, said a transition official.
Similar to past transitions, the Biden transition team is currently doing everything from preparing for personnel changes to generating lists of potential appointments to reviewing potential policy implementation to researching executive orders that a President Biden could issue in the earliest days of his presidency.
Biden, when asked about a possible cabinet, has said he wants a cabinet that “looks like the country,” meaning a body that is racially diverse, comprised of a number of top women, and ideologically and geographically varied. And discussions about senior administration roles, including Cabinet appointments, have taken into account the importance of that diversity.
Biden’s transition advisory board includes a number of people considered frontrunners for top administration posts, like former national security adviser Susan Rice, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former deputy attorney general Sally Yates.
Satisfying the ideological factions of the Democratic Party will be another challenge for Biden’s team. Progressives will be keeping close track of both his appointees and those who help choose them. The presence of Jared Bernstein, who was once Biden’s top economic adviser and recently took part in the Biden-Sanders “unity task force” on the economy will give progressives some comfort. The same goes for Cecilia Martinez, the executive director at the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, and a respected voice on climate and environmental justice.
Multiple people have told CNN that while Biden has been kept abreast – in a broad sense – of the work that the transition team is doing, he is superstitious and not inclined to make any major decisions before he knows that he has won the election.
Transition teams have been fully built out before the election only to have their plans be quickly scrapped in the days after a defeat, including Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 and Mitt Romney’s in 2012.
Under the radar
At the White House, planning for a potential transition began months ago, even as Trump ramped up his attacks on Biden and refused to say whether he would welcome a peaceful transition should he lose.
Liddell, the deputy chief of staff for policy coordination and a close ally to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, has worked from the West Wing to prepare transition reports for Congress and to coordinate with federal agencies on making their own preparations for a potential influx of new political appointees in January.
That has included ensuring the Justice Department and the FBI are prepared to process security clearances for key Biden advisers who would need access to classified briefings during the transition period, officials familiar with the matter said.
Liddell had previously served on the opposite side of a transition effort: He was the executive director of Mitt Romney’s presidential transition planning team in the lead-up to Romney’s loss in the 2012 election.
So far, his efforts have gone mostly under the radar in the White House, which last month was gripped by a coronavirus outbreak and lately has been entirely focused on Trump’s reelection, according to officials familiar with the matter said.
Meadows, who has accompanied the President on much of his campaign travel and has recently caught internal flack for his handling of the recent Covid outbreak, is officially the top White House official on the transition team. But it is Liddell who is overseeing most of the day-to-day work. Other West Wing officials are also involved, including White House counsel Pat Cipollone and the budget chief Russell Vought. They are partnering with career government officials to ensure they meet legal requirements ahead of November 3.
A consequential transition
Dave Marchick, the Director of Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service, said the law guiding transitions – the 1963 Presidential Transition Act – “does contemplate the possibility that there is a delay” in a transition and ensures that the “whole suite of services that the government provides the candidates remain available to the candidates post-election in the event of delay.”
But, he said, there are only 78 days in a transition, so every day matters. Marchick said this transition, because of the health, economic, social justice and political crises, mean this “could be the most consequential transition since 1932,” when President Herbert Hoover and President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt struggled to cooperate in the midst of the Great Depression.
Biden himself is clearly keenly aware of those stakes. Biden recently revealed he was re-reading Jonathan Alter’s “FDR’S Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope,” as he has sought to draw parallels between the state of the country today and that which Roosevelt dealt with during his time in office.
The relatively smooth pre-election transition planning doesn’t necessarily presage a smooth handover in the event of a Biden win or an uncertain result. The longer a final result is unknown, the less time an incoming team would have access to federal dollars and resources to stand up an administration.
And if Trump himself does not accept the results, it’s an open question whether his appointees at federal agencies would welcome Biden’s team for meetings or handover planning.
That is why, according to Rebecca Lissner, an assistant professor at the U.S. Naval War College who recently wrote how Trump could easily damage a possible Biden presidency during the transition, believes that a transition between Trump and Biden would make what is “always the most perilous moment of American politics” even more perilous.
“The reason why we should be so worried because even in the midst of normal transitions, when you don’t have a president who is hostile to the incoming administration … even then often times things go dramatically wrong,” said Lissner, who pointed to dramatic changes in policy during the lame duck period, miscommunications in intelligence sharing and most hostile actions like the Trump administration denying transition teams access to federal agencies as possible actions the President would take to slow the incoming Biden administration.
“Even in the best case scenario,” said Lissner, “there is still a lot that can go wrong.”
CNN’s Gregory Krieg contributed to this report.