intelligencer chats

How Worried Is Team Biden About Trump’s Transition Obstruction?

A little help here? Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Nobody expected President Trump to be gracious in defeat, and he has played exactly to expectations. But the accelerating pandemic has made his petulance scarily consequential. I spoke with national political correspondent Gabriel Debenedetti about the effects of Trump’s stonewalling, and how Republican behavior around his win might influence Joe Biden’s governing principles.

Ben: Predictably but concerningly, President Trump continues to claim he won the election he actually lost two weeks ago, spinning ever-more baroque theories out of nothing. Perhaps more concerning, almost every elected Republican is standing by him, or at least keeping silent, as he rants and raves about nonexistent fraud and conspiracy. To date, many more foreign leaders than Republican senators have congratulated Joe Biden on his victory. Does the Biden team view what’s going on as a major problem?

Gabriel: A lot of the people on the Biden team are, of course, concerned about our democracy in the same way that plenty of others are: It’s dangerous when an outgoing president is threatening to hold onto power, period. If millions of people believe Trump’s rants about a stolen election, that’s going to be a big challenge for Biden for years to come.

In terms of the mechanics of the transition itself, though, while they’re worried, it’s a guarded worry right now. They know Joe Biden will be inaugurated in January. The concern is more about how they can’t properly get ready for the challenges that will face him. There are national security concerns — after 9/11, a new set of protocols were put in place so that incoming administrations could have more access to classified information to be able to prepare to deal with threats — and even physical security ones, in terms of Secret Service protection levels. But the issue I hear about most, for good reason, is the pandemic. If there’s no communication between the outgoing and incoming administration on vaccine distribution, for example, there’s likely to be a steep learning curve for an administration that would much rather hit the ground running on a recovery next year.

Ben: Even if the Trump team isn’t talking to Biden, aren’t there vaccine and vaccine-distribution experts who would be helpful here? It’s not like the Trump administration is known for its efficiency or streamlined processes, so how big a deal is it that they’re not bestowing their expertise?

Gabriel: Biden has been very public about his preparations on the virus management and vaccine front: He has an advisory committee, he’s constantly briefed on it all, etc. And it’s true that he and those around him know how government works intimately. But if there’s no coordination on something like vaccine distribution, presumably they’re going to have to learn a lot about what the Trump administration, local governments, pharmaceutical companies, etc., are planning in an extremely tight window — ideally, they wouldn’t have to worry about something like this, because they could be looped in. It’s a logistics problem, but it’s especially infuriating because it’s purely based on intransigence. And people are dying!

Ben: Is there a sense that maybe there will be some coordination as it becomes clearer and clearer (after court battles and certification of results) that Trump has no chance of retaining office? Or is pure spite going to rule the day here? I fear I know the answer to this one.

Gabriel: Well, some members of the Biden team have publicly suggested that when votes are certified, or the GSA takes its overdue next step in formally releasing transition funds, etc., there will be some more coordination. But not with the White House directly, I suspect. Based on, uh, everything we know about everything. The coordination that will happen — and that is happening, at a lower level — is likely to remain at the Cabinet level, and within the agencies, between bureaucrats. It won’t be public, and it won’t be political. This, by the way, is a big part of why Joe Biden himself has been more sanguine than one might expect about this question. He is trying to push calmness and steady leadership, etc., but he also knows that a lot of the gritty work can still be done even if Trump himself refuses to cooperate.

Ben: Much has been made of the intransigence you mentioned at the General Services Administration: Emily Murphy, a previously little-known functionary there, is refusing to “ascertain” that Biden won, thus freeing up funds for the transition. (Trump has, naturally, cheered her on.) How much of a problem will this be if she continues to stonewall?

Gabriel: Well, this is what I was referring to above. This, I think, gives the Biden folks a lot of heartburn. Not because they think this One Weird Bureaucratic Trick will deny them access to the White House next year, but just because it makes the process of transitioning harder. Some Biden supporters have talked about the prospect of suing to force the ascertainment, but I honestly am not sure how realistic that is.

Ben: Throughout his presidential campaign, Biden has continued to talk up the prospect of real bipartisanship, even as so many claim it is mostly impossible given the extreme state of today’s Republican Party. Do you think Republicans’ refusal to even admit that Biden won will affect his view of the opposition party?

Gabriel: Yes, and obviously Mitch McConnell’s role in all this is inescapable and a huge roadblock for Biden. But it started before that. Biden has increasingly peeled back on his hopes for bipartisan comity in recent months. As recently as a few weeks ago, some people in his orbit were talking up Mitt Romney for a Cabinet post, but that chatter died out the second Romney stood up for Amy Coney Barrett — never mind his congratulations to Biden for winning the election.

How Worried Is Biden About Trump’s Transition Obstruction?