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But more consequential than his multi-pronged legal strategy to overturn results in multiple states could be the effort by members of his administration to forestall Biden’s effort to get his team up to speed to take over running the US government on January 20 – which is when Trump’s term officially ends. (Here’s the legal timeline.)
This is an issue that can have real consequences. When the contested 2000 election delayed George W. Bush’s transition, it delayed his national security team and was a contributing factor to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, according to a finding in the official 9/11 Commission Report.
CNN talked to Max Stier, who is director of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that oversees the Center for Presidential Transition, which advocates for policy to smooth out this process. It’s got an online guide for how presidential transitions should happen. What you’re seeing right now is not it.
The conversation, lightly edited for flow, follows:
The most complex organization on the planet
WHAT MATTERS: People have been thinking about this and putting elements of law in place with regard to presidential transition since the 1960s. So it’s not a brand-new issue, figuring out how to navigate the the peaceful transfer of power. What sort of legislation exists and how is it supposed to work? This bipartisan code is supposed to make it so that the two sides work together, right?
STIER: The federal government is the most complex organization on our planet in terms of mechanics. You’re talking about a $5 trillion-plus budget, 4 million people if you include the military and reservists. That’s 2 million career civil servants in hundreds of operating units. And traditionally the president appoints their own 4,000 political people.
So it’s a massive, massive operation that requires a lot of work and preferably a lot of time. One piece of legislation that we were able to help with – and actually Ted Kaufman, who is the chair of the Biden transition, was the chairman of this – was legislation that moved the point of support for transition planning from Election Day, which had been the historical approach, to right after the conventions. The goal was to encourage and provide support for campaigns to address transition planning earlier in the election with the recognition that is impossible to be ready on Inauguration Day – January 20 – if you start only on the Election Day. The amount of things you have to do, the complexity, is such that you can’t do it.
And indeed, the Biden team has been preparing actively since the springtime on the transition planning. And they have been working with General Services Administration as the legislation provides, before the actual convention. So the legislation was really important in providing political cover and support for something that is good for everybody.
A delayed transition contributed to 9/11
WHAT MATTERS: What happens if transitions aren’t handled well?
STIER: You can argue who should be president. But we all have a real interest in whoever is president being ready on Day One. The stakes are very high.
You look back to 9/11 and the 9/11 Commission. It was very clear, looking back, that some of the delays that then-President George W. Bush experienced during the transition resulted in his delaying getting his national security team in place. And that hurt us. That’s a finding from the 9/11 Commission report.
What’s at stake, really, is our security, our safety. And with the world we’re in today, with economic challenges that are incredibly severe, we have a lot that we should be worried about.
Having a president that right away has a team in place, that is able to own the problems well, is really important in terms of transition planning.
What is actually being delayed?
WHAT MATTERS: What are the specifics of delay? What are the specific things that are getting gummed up? Are we talking the idea of transition people not being paid with federal funds? Are we talking Senate appointments? If things don’t get started right on time, how does it impact the transition going forward?
STIER: There are three buckets that are at play in the failure of GSA to ascertain Biden and enable him to get these resources.
The first bucket is access to the agencies themselves. I mentioned earlier there are over 100 operating in the government – big agencies, subagencies – and the Biden team needs to understand what’s happening inside them.
Each and every one of them have different urgent issues that they’re addressing, and problems and decisions that would have to be made right away following the inauguration. So understanding the state of play, what’s happening inside these agencies, is critical. And getting access to them is something that they have to wait on this decision by GSA.
The second major bucket is in the processing of their personnel. I talked about the 4,000 political appointments, 1,200 of them being Senate-confirmable positions. Those will need security clearances and financial agreements with the Office of Government Ethics to make sure there are no conflicts. Access to those personnel processing resources is also constrained without the GSA decision.
In my view, this is easily the most important area of attention because having your team on the field, real time, is really fundamental. I referenced the 9/11 Commission report as an example. It’s hard going in the ordinary world. It’s even harder going in a world where you have to do all this virtually. Now add even more complexity and difficulty because GSA has shortened the time frame because it hasn’t made the resources available.
And the third and final bucket is the money itself. And that’s necessary for paying the staffers to do the work. The Biden team will be raising private money in addition to the public money they will be receiving. But it makes it harder.
You can add to that the President’s Daily Brief, which is typically given to the president-elect. There’s a lot of information sharing that should be taking place that can wind up being withheld.
What does the obstruction actually look like?
WHAT MATTERS: Is what we’re seeing right now from a single, intransigent person who has a strange amount of power for a relatively low-level government official in the GSA administrator, or is this a more widespread obstruction of transition in your mind?
STIER: I mentioned earlier that GSA has been a really active partner in helping this transition process, up until this point. And they do get kudos for that. And the head of GSA, Emily Murphy, is a serious person. I think the circumstances of a President that appears to be resisting the transition moving forward is a real challenge, but I think the right decision for our country, for the American people, is to unlock these resources for transition planning.
I think it’s really critical for people of all political sides to recognize the President can pursue whatever litigation he wants to try to overturn the election results. And there is no conflict with the Biden team getting the resources that it needs to be ready to go on Day One.
They need to be prepared to run our country, and if President Trump somehow manages to change that election outcome then there’s no harm there. But there is real harm if they don’t get these resources. The logic is very straightforward. The Biden team should get these resources, the President can then pursue whatever litigation he wants and then we have the maximum opportunity for our country to be well-set on January 20.
It’s not clear how long this transition blockade could last
WHAT MATTERS: How long can this running out the clock last? Could we go until January 20 without a transition? Or is there another mechanism in place?
STIER: I don’t know. The Biden team is going to do everything it can to be ready without access to these resources. But it causes real harm. It’s a short time to begin with and every day matters.
This is unique, in my view. Up until now, they haven’t let these resources go. So it’s unclear how long this can last. Clearly it can’t last past January 20 because the Constitution says there will be a president on January 20.
But the transition cooperation really ought to be seen as nonpartisan, and baseball apple pie good proof of the American people. One hopes they’ll move on this fast because it matters.
There is continuity of government between administrations. But leadership is key.
WHAT MATTERS: In addition to the 4,000 political appointees who really give the federal government direction there are, as you said, millions of people who are going to keep their jobs, and they’ll be there on January 19 and they’ll be there on January 21. I mean, the government will not essentially cease to function. So is this just a matter of how easy it is for the Biden team to take over?
STIER: It is a good way to look at it. The career workforce, the professional career workforce, is the engine of our government. And obviously the poster child of that career workforce is Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The leadership of our government, however, is largely political. In my view there are too many political appointees, and no other country has anywhere close to the 4,000 that we have. No other democracy has.
But in our system, those leaders really matter. And so the career workforce, they’re going to serve whoever is in charge. And having those people in place quickly and having them up to speed is really important.
So you’re right. The American people should feel comfort in the fact that the career workforce will be there January 19, 20 and 21. But we also want to make sure they are well-led. And that means having fewer political appointees – that’s for a later day – but the Biden team as the presumed President-elect in place and ready to go.
It’s not just the Biden team that is responsible for Senate-confirmable positions. Obviously the Senate moving with great dispatch on whoever Biden appoints is also critical.
Trump is trying to change the government on his way out the door
WHAT MATTERS: The President has also tried to reclassify a large portion of the federal workforce. Do you think that that will continue to be a storyline, or is that going to go away now that he’s lost?
STIER: I’m glad that you asked that. It’s not going away. And I think people should be worried because, to your point, the professionalized career workforce is really the heart of our government and that executive order strikes a blow at the core principle that we should have professionals in charge of government and working in our government. It doesn’t go away unless a President Biden overturns that executive order.
Meanwhile I think the American public should be vigilant that that executive order is not used for political purposes, meaning getting rid of important career civil servants on the basis of cronyism and replacing them with political cronies as opposed to the most qualified civil servants that we have today.
The notion of burrowing, picking political appointees and putting them in career positions or hiring people who are effectively political and not chosen on the basis of merit – at this stage of the game having hypervigilance around that is really important.
How seriously should Americans take this? Very seriously.
WHAT MATTERS: One last thing, just to quantify for people, because I kind of struggle to decide how worried Americans should be about this. Is this more of an inside-the-Beltway kind of a story or is this something that could have bearing on everybody’s life? Is this a five-alarm fire?
STIER: This is a five-alarm fire. I used to be a a volunteer fireman, so I’m not sure how many alarms you’re actually allowed to claim. But this is way up there.
The reason why is that our government is essential to our health and safety. Everyone who walks on an airplane wants to expect it has been inspected by someone who is a real professional and not chosen on the basis of the political stripes. Everyone who is being audited by the IRS should want to be assured that decision to audit them was on the basis of facts and evidence as opposed to a political vendetta.
Everyone should want safe vaccines approval not because there was someone with political power to push it through.
All these decisions affect Americans and then some. And the validity of those decisions are based on career professionals making them. So this is not an inside-the-Beltway issue. This is real-life concern for Americans.