The special peril of this transition

Even in the best of times, presidential transitions are perilous for American democracy. The losers are distracted, scrambling for “what next,” while the winners are awed by the prospect of governing. The bully pulpit slides toward the president-elect, while meanwhile, friends and foes abroad are searching for clues — and opportunities. Suffice to say: These are hardly the best of times. The next months are very dangerous ones, both at home and abroad.

My first transition was that between Ford and Carter. After the Inauguration — the day before I turned 30 — I arrived at my office in the West Wing basement off the Situation Room to find my secretary vacuuming the carpet. In those days of paper, the file cabinets were completely empty. To boot, we new arrivals were suspicious of the permanent staffers we inherited — after all, they had worked for the previous administration… and one secretary in the front office of my boss, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, still had a “Ford” sticker on her car.

We quickly realized, though, that without them no piece of paper was going to go anywhere. And after a few days, we realized they worked for the country, not for any administration. They were loyal Americans. Now, they are a reminder to me that there are enough wise hands — and wise heads — in both the Biden team and the permanent government to make this transition a success no matter what shenanigans the outgoing administration throws up.

Over the years, happily, transition processes have become more structured — building on the basis laid by the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 — with the new team allocated funding, office space and access. My second transition was that between Bush, the senior, and Clinton. It was much smoother — no empty file cabinets that time around, a tribute to the grace and patriotism of George H.W. Bush. While I was no longer with the administration, the transition from Clinton to Bush, the junior, unfortunately was not as smooth. It is hard for me to conceive that Trump would even be able to imagine that anyone would leave a note to his successor like the one George H.W. Bush left for Clinton: “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” 

Alas, this time around, Trump, on his way out, roots only for himself. It seems likely he will obstruct the transition at every turn. The Biden transition team is yet to receive the funds, space and — above all — access to information that has become the transition practice and that the Transition Act mandates. 

At least, in those long-ago days of the Carter transition, we could count on using the Ford administration’s processes to begin governing. At one point in the transition, we thought we’d retain the existing structure of National Security Council committees, but of course as a new administration we’d have to rename them. With the weight of governing not yet upon us, we joked about names: the “Forty Committee,” which authorized covert actions, would become the “If They Can Do It, So Can We” committee; the “Washington Special Action Group” for crises we dubbed the “When the Shit Hits the Fan” committee.

No such luck this time: The Trump White House has been an utter shambles, with little discernible “process” beyond presidential phone calls and tweets. And even if there were any processes, the revolving door of senior officials means there are few left to know or explain them. 

At home, the abrupt firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, stands as a testimony to the risks in the months ahead. If the president uses his last days in office to settle scores with his enemies — real and imagined — and to reward his friends, the damage to America’s democracy — and to its image abroad — will only grow. 

Already, the reaction abroad to Biden’s victory has been eerily ominous: The globe’s democrats rushed to congratulate the president-elect — well, let’s say “ambled” in the case of Israel’s Netanyahu — while the autocrats from Russia to China to Brazil have lagged behind or remained silent. Some, especially Netanyahu, may have feared Trump’s wrath and retaliation if they were too fulsome about Biden.

China and Russia no doubt simply are enjoying the continuing spectacle of America as banana republic. They didn’t have to intervene in our elections to discredit America’s democracy while boosting the image of their own autocracies. After elections that were smoother than most of us expected, we are again doing it ourselves.

Gregory F. Treverton chaired the U.S. National Intelligence Council from 2014 to January 2017. He is now professor of the Practice of International Relations and Spatial Sciences at the University of Southern California and chair of the Global TechnoPolitics Forum. He is the author of numerous books including “Dividing Divided States” (2014), “National Intelligence and Science: Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy” (2015) and “Intelligence for an Age of Terror” (2011).

Tags Bill Clinton contested election Donald Trump George H. W. Bush George W. Bush Gerald Ford Government Jimmy Carter Mark Esper political uncertainty Presidency of Donald Trump President's Daily Brief smooth transition United States presidential transition

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