Former White House Official: 'The Delay in Transition is not Helpful'

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

As the Trump administration continues its flurry of largely evidence-free allegations of widespread voter fraud and rigged voting results, President-elect Joe Biden is left to wait for some of the resources needed for his official transition to the White House.

As the clock ticks, two Duke professors with experience in previous White House administrations discussed the impact the transition delay will have on the nation’s handling of the pandemic, national security and other important issues.

The two political scientists discussed these issues Wednesday on a virtual media briefing with journalists. Watch the briefing on YouTube.

Here are excerpts:

ON DELAY OF THE WHITE HOUSE TRANSITION

Professor Bruce Jentleson, former senior adviser, U.S. State Department

“Transitions have two main purposes. Affirmation and preparation. Affirmation is that handshake that in every other instance has occurred right after the election between the outgoing president and the president-elect. The notion that the constitutional system is working. We fight hard but we play by the rules. A very high-level version of why Duke and UNC basketball players shake hands at the end of the game. We’re not seeing any of that.”

“The fundamental effect of that is extremely negative.”

Professor Peter Feaver, former adviser, George W. Bush administration, Bill Clinton administration

“The delay in transition is not helpful. The good news is the Biden team is the A Team. They have a lot of governing experience among them. If there was going to be an incoming team that could overcome this problem well, I would say that’s the Biden team.”

“I have confidence the Biden team is not sitting around waiting.”

ON FIRINGS, RESIGNATIONS THIS WEEK OF SEVERAL DEFENSE DEPARTMENT LEADERS

Peter Feaver

“This is a legal move by the president. It’s within his prerogatives. It’s not a wise move for him. It’s hurting him, it’s hurting his legacy and it’s hurting his party’s future capacity to hold the Biden administration accountable, doing these kinds of stunts.”

“I do not believe he’s clearing the path to use the military to hold power. You’d need to do a lot more than just replace a couple people at the top.”

“I do think it’s possible that what he’s doing is just settling scores, and doing it just because people are telling him he can’t do it. Many people who work for the president say that’s the one way you can get him to act. If you tell him he’s not able to do X, he’s going to do X.”

“It’s possible he wants to do some policies that are unwise … and he’s trying to clear the decks to do those policies.”

“The final possibility is the president himself is not even paying attention to these personnel moves. He may not know who the person acting as undersecretary of policy is. It may be people lower around him in the White House looking to burnish their resumes.”

ON DELAYS BY THE GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION IN SETTING BIDEN’S TRANSITION IN MOTION

Bruce Jentleson

“There’s much work (the Biden team) can do. It’s a lot of people with a lot of policy experience. But you take an issue like COVID. I would think almost any other outgoing president, given the crisis the country has been in …. would be trying to work with the incoming administration.”

“Sure, you can do some of your homework, do some of your analysis. But there’s only one president at a time. It’s like passing a baton in a relay race. There’s a way to do this the right way. What Trump is doing is making this harder, not only for the Biden team but for the country.”

Peter Feaver

“The really critical thing they’re preventing is the landing teams from connecting up from the receiving teams at each of these departments and agencies, who have been preparing up until now, and start briefing the Biden people.”

“It will increase the likelihood that a ball might be dropped. There’s just no point in making it harder.”

ON THE ROLE OF THE MILITARY IN ELECTION/TRANSITION

Peter Feaver

“The military is prepared to implement every legal order that President Trump gives up until noon on Inauguration Day. President Trump is the commander in chief today, legally and constitutionally empowered.”

“The military does not have a role, a constitutional role in the selection of the commander in chief. The Constitution lays out a process for that and there’s no role for the military in that process. I don’t foresee it coming to that. It’s a political process.”

“There’s legal aspects. … There’s a role for courts; there’s a role for legislatures. There’s not a role for U.S. military.”

ON GOP LEADERS SUGGESTING THE ELECTION RESULT ISN’T VALID YET

Bruce Jentleson

“I think the person most responsible for right now for this is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Part of their strategy, what’s going on right now is positioning for 2024, who might inherit the Trump constituency, and positioning for the two (upcoming) Georgia (U.S. Senate) runoffs.”

“It is politics but there’s a point at which it’s deeply irresponsible for Mitch McConnell to be doing what he’s doing and setting a tone for the other Republican senators.”

ON WHO THE MILITARY TAKES ORDERS FROM

Peter Feaver

“Up until 11:59 a.m. (on Inauguration Day) they will take the order from President Trump and implement it. At 12 p.m. they will take the order from then-President Biden.”

“The military will obey legal orders. They will refuse to carry out illegal orders. The more likely scenario is not a patently illegal order but an unwise order. Let’s say the president says, ‘Bring all the troops home from Afghanistan by Christmas regardless of what happens to our allies, regardless of what happens to the peace process, I want to brag that I brought all the troops home.’ There’s no serious military adviser who thinks it would be wise … so they would advise against it. But that would be a legal order.”

“I believe the U.S. military would carry that out, grudgingly, and the country would pay a price for it.”

“There’s many unwise orders that are legal, and the military carries them out.”

ON MIKE POMPEO COMMENTS ABOUT PREPARING FOR A 2ND TRUMP TERM

Peter Feaver

“I think he was trying for a joke. He smiled right afterwards. I think it’s a joke that fell flat.”

“When you’re secretary of state and the situation is as tense as it is now, that’s probably not the time to go for the joke.”

“I do think that this is complicating our ability to hold other states accountable when they have electoral monkey business.”

ON UNCALLED RACES IN NORTH CAROLINA AND ELSEWHERE

Peter Feaver

“Ever since the call of Florida had to be withdrawn (in 2000), that put a lot of pressure on decision desks to be very, very careful in not making calls prematurely. This is an area where the price of being first and wrong is so very high.”

“Fox News, who went early and probably prematurely in calling Arizona for Biden … they called that quite early and it was sort of a tilting-over-your-skis sort of call.”

“This is a very close election in certain key states. Georgia is a very, very close margin. And it’s an unusual election in that late-arriving ballots or late-counted ballots may matter. It shouldn’t be shocking that news organizations and certifying agencies … are being cautious. That’s not contributing to America’s poor standing in the world. The question, though, is that providing cover for a more partisan reaction to it, and perhaps it is.”

Bruce Jentleson

“At the presidential level there’s huge incentive (for news outlets) to being first and they really have to manage that. Down ballot, the incentive is all on not making a mistake. In North Carolina, Gov. Cooper won but by less than the polls suggested. People are being very cautious about the races. The incentives are getting it right.”

ON HOW A TRANSITION DELAY HURTS FAMILIES

Bruce Jentleson

“One is COVID. We’re in the middle of a surge.”

“By the time President Biden will be able to deal with this Jan. 20, it will be that much more severe and harder to get a handle on.”

“The second is the economy. The inability to put together a second economic financial package for small businesses, for jobs. Everybody’s blaming everybody else.”

“If we had an election result. … Sometimes you get things done in lame-duck sessions you don’t get done otherwise. You could get this economic package done.”

“Third, the way the signals from the White House still leave the door open to serious civil/political violence. The Proud Boys and other groups like that. I worry a lot about that, and that effects the typical American family.”

Peter Feaver

“A lot of what the administration is doing is harmful to the country in the long run. But what’s really harmful to the country in the short run and to the average American family is what the administration’s not doing.”

“Because they’re not focusing on governing in the next two months, working with Congress to try to get a stimulus package of some sort passed. Because they’re not taking the COVID spike seriously, because they’re not doing all those things and instead they’re distracting the president’s attention and the remaining energy of the administration in another direction, (those are) the things hurting the average American family.”

“In the long run it won’t help Americans to lose confidence in their electoral process, to believe voting doesn’t matter. That will hurt the country in the long run.”

ON HOW A DELAY WILL HURT THE COVID RESPONSE

Peter Feaver

“I’m not a public health expert. The public health experts I trust and read say we need to take dramatic action now. Action now will have a meaningful dampening effect on the spread of the virus. We have great news with a vaccine that appears to be effective.”

“There’s a lot that needs to be done and that if it isn’t being done, people will die. When Vice President Biden called for a national mask-wearing mandate … if President Trump were to change his messaging on masks and embrace that, it could have a powerful effect.”

“This was one of the great successes of the Bush administration that people forget. The Bush administration was dealing with a financial crisis at the end of its term and was handing over a financial crisis and economic challenge to (President) Obama. They managed that handover very well; the decisions being made about dealing with the financial crisis were well coordinated across Bush and Obama, so that when Obama came in, yes he faced a serious financial and economic challenge, but it was less serious than it would have been without that responsible action and inter-administration coordination between the two. That’s the kind of thing we should be asking for now.”

ON DAMAGE TO TRADITIONAL NORMS

Bruce Jentleson

“I don’t think anything is ever damaged beyond repair. But the number of falsehoods and lies this president has told throughout his administration, culminating with what we’re seeing now -- if a future president lied 10 percent as much we might consider that an improvement. That’s not good.”

“There’s fault on both sides. Democrats are far from angels. But the damage this administration has done to the electoral process. The voter suppression efforts that have been going on … we all play to win. But there are ways of playing to win that may bend a rule, but don’t break.”

“There are certain norms spouses have with each other, or parents have with children. And we all know when you break those norms it makes relationships that much harder.”

ON TRANSITIONS IN THIS TIME OF CRISIS

Peter Feaver

“In order to deal with the pandemic and the economic crisis … you need to have both branches of government, the executive branch and the legislative branch, working together and making compromises. One of the norms I saw challenged over the last four years that’s troubling is that it’s OK to compromise.”

“Compromise is not an abdication with the enemy. Compromise with the other political party is not evil. That requirement – compromise is built in, that’s what our founding documents required was compromise. In the last four years we’ve seen that become so sharply attacked by both sides but especially by the Trump administration.”

ON WHAT HAPPENS JAN. 20 IF TRUMP DOESN’T CONCEDE

Peter Feaver

“(President Trump) does not have to go to the inauguration. There does not have to be a parade, there does not have to be a ceremony.”

“As of 12 p.m. on Inauguration Day he is no longer president. To stay in the White House, you have to be cleared by the Secret Service to be there. So as of 12:01 he has to be invited by then-President Biden to stay in the White House. If not, he’ll be escorted off the premises by the Secret Service. I’m sure he does not want to see the image of him being frog-marched off the compound.”

“It’s more likely that he will have already decamped to Mar-a-Lago many, many weeks earlier, and he will be tweeting. But he will not be tweeting from the White House proper.”

Meet the experts

Peter Feaver
Peter Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy. He was a special adviser for strategic planning and institutional reform on the National Security Council staff in the George W. Bush administration from 2005-2007, and was director for defense policy and arms control in the Clinton administration from 1993-1994. Feaver directs the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy.

Bruce Jentleson
Bruce Jentleson is a professor of public policy and political science who was a senior adviser at the State Department from 2009-2011. He served on the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama in 2012 and Al Gore in 2000, and worked in the State Department from 1993-94. Jentleson is author of “The Peacemakers: Leadership Lessons from Twentieth-Century Statesmanship.”