Experts say it's too late for a seamless transfer of power from Trump to Biden

Crystal Hill
·Reporter
·7-min read

It has been a transfer of power unlike any other in modern history.

The process of moving from one administration to another is always tricky. But the ongoing transition from President Trump to President-elect Joe Biden — which has been stymied by false allegations of election theft and a deadly riot at the Capitol, among other things — has been anything but smooth.

“Nothing about this transition has been normal or by-the-book or ordinary,” Daniel Weiner, a deputy director in the Brennan Center’s democracy program, told Yahoo News. “And that’s remarkable, given, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor [during the Electoral College count last Wednesday], the election result wasn’t even particularly close. Not necessarily a landslide, but also certainly not a nail-biter.”

Congress has certified that Biden won the November election, and the transfer of power will culminate with his inauguration on Jan. 20. But due to the events that have transpired in recent weeks, experts familiar with the process have abandoned hope that the transition will get any less rocky.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and President-elect Joe Biden. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and President-elect Joe Biden. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Unfortunately, I think we may be past the point of a seamless transition,” Jordan Strauss, a former Department of Justice and White House official under President Barack Obama, told Yahoo News.

The process first got off track when the General Services Administration, an agency that facilitates the turning over of one administration to the next, dragged its feet in ascertaining Biden’s win. The GSA did not permit Biden’s team to formally begin the transition until Nov. 23, nearly three weeks after he won the election.

Amid the delay, more than 100 former national security officials sent a Nov. 12 letter to the GSA expressing concerns that any hiccups in the transition process could “pose a serious risk to national security.”

The letter cited the 9/11 Commission’s determination that the delay in certifying a winner after the 2000 election hampered the incoming Bush administration’s ability to staff up the government’s national security apparatus. The holdup left the country “more vulnerable to foreign adversaries,” according to the letter.

“The bigger issues here are, No. 1, a lot of the leadership positions in a lot of the departments and agencies have been vacant for a long time,” Strauss, who is now the managing director at the risk consulting firm Kroll, told Yahoo News. “No. 2, there was clearly a delay getting security clearances and other items started. And part of that is the ascertainment delay. And that’s the sort of thing that really isn’t supposed to happen.”

President Trump speaks at the "Save America March" in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
President Trump speaks at the "Save America March" in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Regarding the nuts and bolts of transitioning old agency staff to new ones, experts who spoke to Yahoo News had no doubt that conversations are happening between outgoing and incoming staff. Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, also said he doesn’t think the recent departures of several Cabinet members — such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who both resigned in the aftermath of the Capitol riot — will hamper that process.

“It’s going to vary from agency to agency,” Baker said. “But the fact that the top people are gone, that the boss is gone, that Chao is gone, I don’t think matters very much. I think the people who do the day-to-day transition work are lower-level people. If the agency was cooperating with the transition before, chances are they’ll still be cooperating. And if they weren’t, like the Pentagon, I think the problems will persist.”

Ideally during this time — the period between the congressional certification and Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, when he’ll take the oath of office — the Senate would begin the process of confirming Cabinet nominees of the incoming president, according to Weiner.

“The norm in previous transitions has been that everyone puts aside the divisions and works together to make sure that the next administration can hit the ground running,” Weiner said. “And that includes holding hearings on nominees. Obviously they can't be confirmed, usually, until the next president takes office, because the president has to submit the nomination. But you can get ready so that you can confirm them on day one.”

Weiner noted, for example, that former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s Senate confirmation hearing for ambassador to the United Nations began on Jan. 18, 2017 — two days before Trump took the oath of office. Hearings for the confirmation of Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee for energy secretary, were held the next day.

Nikki Haley testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing for ambassador to the United Nations on Jan. 18, 2017. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Nikki Haley testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during her confirmation hearing for ambassador to the United Nations on Jan. 18, 2017. (Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

During a speech on Friday, Biden said it’s his hope that the Senate will work to confirm his Cabinet nominees “as close to Jan. 20 as possible.” But Baker said he expects the hearings to take place after Biden’s inauguration.

“The Senate has to organize itself,” Baker said. “Particularly McConnell, the outgoing majority leader, and Chuck Schumer, the incoming majority leader, are going to do some negotiating on things like the ratios of Democrats and Republicans on the committees,” he said, referring to the Jan. 5. Georgia runoffs that gave Democrats control of the Senate.

Biden isn’t the only one hoping the Senate moves quickly. In a letter released Saturday, 19 former U.S. national security officials — including former Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright — urged the Senate to confirm national security Cabinet nominees “on day one,” according to the letter, which was provided by the Biden transition team.

However, Strauss said that if Congress moves to impeach Trump over what happened at the Capitol, a process Strauss believes is unlikely to conclude before Jan. 20, it will place more strain on the Senate. House members have said they plan to get the ball rolling on impeachment as early as Monday.

“There’s a requirement in impeachment that any senator who wishes to vote on impeachment must attend all of the impeachment hearings. If you’re attending, in person, an impeachment hearing, by definition it’s going to be harder to conduct confirmation hearings, because there’s a limited number of hours in the day. It’s a logistics challenge,” Strauss said.

Weiner concurred. “It might [be] more difficult for there to be confirmation hearings in the Senate because the Senate is going to be taking up other waiting business, including, potentially, impeachment. I think that [the Trump administration] getting the Biden team all the information they need and, belatedly, acting like a normal outgoing administration would help. But this process, normally, is one that lasts over several months.”

Trump supporters near the U.S. Capitol following a rally on Jan. 6. (Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Trump supporters near the U.S. Capitol following a rally on Jan. 6. (Selcuk Acar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Trump, for his part, said in a video posted to his since-deleted Twitter feed Thursday that he will focus on ensuring a “smooth, orderly and seamless transition of power,” echoing what White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters earlier that day during a terse press briefing.

But Trump also said Friday that he won’t be attending Biden’s inauguration. The outgoing president is typically present, in some form, when the new president is sworn in. But Trump’s possible absence raises the question of whether Vice President Mike Pence will take on an outsized role in Biden’s move to the White House.

“The peaceful transfer of power is at the very core of the American soul,” Strauss said, “and all of the symbols associated with that are really important — even if they’re not required. I would expect Vice President Pence to fill some of those roles. It’s quite clear [that] he really rose to the needs of the moment when he reconvened the Senate after the insurrection on Wednesday. It’s clear it’s within his ability to do that. And it’s clear it’s within his character to do that as well.”

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