Even if President Donald Trump loses the election, and even if he willingly leaves the White House by Jan. 20, he and his staffers can undermine and impede Joe Biden’s incoming administration.
The executive branch undergoes an overhaul each time a new president is elected, with more than 4,000 new political appointees entering government and hundreds more that require Senate confirmation, and outgoing administrations typically work to make that transition process as smooth as possible for their successors, according to Rebecca Friedman Lissner in The Atlantic.
“A Biden administration will confront a singularly taxing agenda, with the threefold crises of the moment layered upon the hefty portfolio any president normally inherits, including securing the nation’s nuclear weapons and managing ongoing military operations overseas,” wrote Lissner, an assistant professor in the Strategic and Operational Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. “In grappling with this daunting docket, Biden will be hampered by a federal bureaucracy damaged by four years of institutional decay and, potentially, a hostile, Republican-held Senate antagonistic toward his new personnel appointments.”
Making matters worse, she wrote, Trump appointees might actively undercut Biden’s incoming team through incompetence or malice.
“Planning, coordination, and information-sharing across government agencies and functions are vital to a successful transition,” Lissner wrote. “With an administration that remains dramatically understaffed, senior Trump officials may simply lack the bandwidth to reach into their bureaucracies to collect data on personnel and policy, collate it in neat binders, and brief its contents to successors. If the president is not re-elected, and especially if he behaves as a sore loser, some of his appointees may begin shirking their responsibilities as they start searching for new opportunities and lose interest in fighting for a lame-duck agenda.”
That can pose tremendous risk to national security, especially since the president already mistrusts the intelligence community and some areas of law enforcement.
“This is a concern prior to the election, when major-party candidates usually begin to receive horizon-scanning classified briefings on global events after their nominating conventions — and all the more so if Biden wins, as post-election briefings typically delve into sensitive national secrets such as planned military operations or covert actions, particular threats, and diplomatic secrets. Unlike the formal transition planning process, the content of intelligence briefings to presidential candidates and presidents-elect is discretionary, not legislatively mandated, creating considerable latitude for dangerous omissions.”
So far, Lissner wrote, the Trump administration seems to be complying with legal requirements to begin preparations for a possible transition as the election nears, but the success of those efforts ultimately depend on how much work they put into those efforts.
“The American people and lawmakers are right to panic at the suggestion that Trump may postpone the election, exploit inconclusive or compromised results, or resist leaving office even if he loses,” Lissner wrote. “But, as with much presidential gaslighting, hints of a nightmare scenario should not obscure subtler but nevertheless pernicious steps the departing administration could take to hobble its successor.”
“Leaders of both parties must remain on guard against dangerous obstructionism, if not outright sabotage, recognizing that the American people’s safety, security, prosperity, and health are too important to be lost in the transition,” she added.