Vindictive Donald Trump is trying to undermine Joe Biden’s presidency
By Dan Balz
It has been almost three weeks since President Donald Trump stepped to a lectern in the White House in the early hours of November 4 to declare that the election was being stolen from him. It was a fabrication designed to turn President-elect Joe Biden into an illegitimate president and has continued apace ever since. It will not stop with Biden's swearing-in on January 20.
Any thoughts Trump might have had of overturning the election were a failed enterprise from the start. On Friday those hopes were dealt twin blows when Georgia's secretary of state certified Biden as the winner there and Republican legislative leaders from Michigan, after meeting with the president, signaled they would do nothing to try to undermine the results. Biden has an electoral college majority, and the certification process continues to gather steam.
Through these weeks, the president and his legal team have failed to produce credible evidence of systematic or widespread fraud. Now they are resorting to wild allegations of a grand conspiracy on the part of Biden and the Democrats - charges repeatedly debunked. This effort is being led by Rudy Giuliani, who was once a reputable mayor of New York. These claims of fraud are in themselves a fraudulent and cynical enterprise.
Judging by his actions, Trump appears to have a motive other than overturning the election. He is determined to cripple Biden's presidency even before it becomes official. No defeated president has ever undertaken such an audacious and anti-democratic act. There are short-term and longer-term consequences that could deeply affect Biden's ability to govern.
Trump has thrown up immediate obstacles to the Biden transition. Without an official ascertainment from Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, Biden and his team have been denied necessary transition funding and access to the government departments and agencies they will soon inherit.
This is a mean-spirited effort on the part of the president to gum up what should be an orderly, nonpartisan process. Even absent the GSA stamp of approval, Biden is proceeding ahead with what experts say are the most important priorities of the transition period: building a new government and sketching out legislative priorities in order to have a quick start in office.
Biden has already designated many of the most senior members of his White House staff, a critically important set of decisions that assures he will have a team in place and already operating when he is sworn in. He also has begun to settle on his Cabinet: Last week Biden said he has picked his treasury secretary and will unveil that person - and perhaps other Cabinet appointees - just before or after Thanksgiving.
Access to the agencies, while necessary, is not that crucial at this point, according to several people who have gone through past transitions. They say that the scores of people on Biden's agency transition teams have considerable knowledge of the federal bureaucracy and even their own networks within agencies to tap, absent an official start to the transition.
Biden also hasn't yet been able to get classified intelligence briefings, and even a number of Republicans say it's time he did. But it is not as though Biden doesn't know the world, its hot spots and many of its leaders. Decades of experience give him a foundation that someone without that background - say Donald Trump four years ago - would not have. Not having these briefings isn't ideal but, for the time, not a major setback.
There are two things currently blocked to the Biden team that could however cause problems in the early days of his presidency. One is the lack of access to the information about plans for distributing hundreds of millions of doses of a covid 19 vaccine. Getting the vaccine to as many Americans as possible - and persuading as many Americans as possible to take it - will fall on Biden's shoulders. The earlier his team is on top of this, the better it will be for everyone.
A second problem is the lack of access to the FBI to begin the background checks required for senior positions, including Cabinet nominees. The longer those are delayed, the more likely Biden will begin his term with many Cabinet nominees awaiting confirmation, adding to the burdens of the new White House staff to run the government.
That's the situation now. After the inauguration will come other problems for Biden as he begins to move his agenda. At this moment, he does not know whether he will have a Senate in Democratic hands or still under the control of the Republicans and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. The answer to that awaits the two Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia, both of which Democrats must win to gain control.
The difference between having a 50-50 split, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris there to break any ties, and a Republican majority is enormous. One former Obama administration official called it "the difference between having a transformational presidency versus having to negotiate everything with a Republican Senate." Biden must prepare for either outcome.
There's little doubt that Biden's first priority will be the coronavirus pandemic - setting policies to contain the spread of the virus, ramping up production of personal protective equipment, establishing a more reliable system for testing and assuring swift and efficient distribution of a vaccine. The other part of the pandemic agenda will be to provide economic relief to the many millions of Americans who are suffering as well as to state and local governments whose budgets have been battered by their efforts to stem the disease.
Beyond that Biden will have to set the priority list from among his various campaign promises: health care, climate, immigration, and policing and racial justice. There are constituencies inside the Democratic Party for each of them.
Two questions arise: Will Trump seek to use his influence as the titular head of the GOP to push Republican lawmakers to scuttle Biden's priorities? Will Biden be forced to trim his sails - at the risk of an intraparty battle with the left - to seek even modest bipartisan support?
How the Trump presidency ends will affect how the Biden presidency begins.
Nathaniel Persily, an elections expert and a professor at Stanford University Law School, said Republicans won't easily dial back the hostility engendered by their implicit embrace of Trump's claims of a stolen election. "You can't systematically for several months claim the president engaged in fraud and have a civil relationship in matters of public policy," he said.
Still, some analysts see the greatest threat to Biden's presidency as the likelihood of a four-year effort to undermine the new administration, led by a vindictive Trump. He has always looked for scapegoats when things don't go his way, and in this, the greatest setback of his life, he has manufactured the perfect excuse: He was robbed.
"I'm afraid that as ex-president, Trump is going to keep up a steady drumbeat . . . to try to drive home one point: that the election was stolen from him, that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president and that this can only be resolved by Biden's removal from office through an election and his replacement by Donald J. Trump," said William Galston of the Brookings Institution.
This assault on the system, the government, the integrity of elections, the institutions of democracy, and on the truth, means Biden will take the oath of office with perhaps a third or more of the electorate viewing him as illegitimate. No amount of wooing will bring them around, however genuine Biden is in his outreach.
Biden has been careful so far, as he was during the campaign, not to get into a mud slinging match with the president. He has maintained his call for unity and expressed his determination to be a president who helps to heal the country. He may have no other choice, even at the expense of progress on some of his agenda.
A few Republicans have said, "Enough." The strongest rebuke of the president has come from Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who made his view of Trump clear by voting to convict the president of an impeachable offense during the Senate trial last winter. Most Republicans continue in silence or indirect assent. Until that changes, until, say, McConnell emphatically says enough, Trump will be free to pursue his destructive campaign to undermine a duly elected new president.
Before the election, Trump repeatedly declined to say he would assure a peaceful transition of power and now it's clear that he never intended to accept defeat. Persily equated the unfolding events with "the kind of thing you see in struggling democracies around the world, where large factions are unwilling to put down their arms from the campaign." This is the America Biden will inherit in just over eight weeks, with an ex-president in exile plotting a possible return.