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Blocked by Trump, Biden forced to use transition workarounds

President-elect Joe Biden speaks virtually with the National

President-elect Joe Biden speaks virtually with the National Governors Association's executive committee during a meeting in Wilmington, Del., on Thursday. Credit: AFP / Jim Watson via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — With President Donald Trump showing no signs of conceding to President-Elect Joe Biden, the warnings from public health officials, intelligence experts and bipartisan lawmakers about the consequences of delaying the presidential transition have intensified over the past week.

"The bottom line is our adversaries look at a transition period as a moment of potential weakness, which they will exploit if possible," said former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who served under President George W. Bush, a Republican, during a virtual briefing held with reporters on Monday.

More than two weeks after losing to Biden, the Trump administration continues to stonewall the incoming Democratic administration, denying Biden’s team access to information, federal funding and office space afforded to all incoming presidents under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963.

The Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration, the agency responsible for facilitating the presidential transition, has refused to authorize a formal transition, citing Trump’s election challenges. More than two-dozen of the Trump campaign’s lawsuits filed since Nov. 3 in key battleground states have been dismissed, most for lack of evidence to support his claims of fraud or impropriety, according to an analysis by NPR. Legal analysts have widely affirmed that there is no court victory that will overturn the outcome of the election, which has Biden leading by more than 5.5 million votes and with 36 more electoral votes than needed to clinch the presidency.

Blocked by the Trump administration from accessing classified national security briefings, coronavirus vaccine distribution plans and troves of other information, Biden has turned to workaround options to project an administration that is in motion with or without Trump’s cooperation.

Without the ability to communicate formally with top federal health officials, Biden has set up his own team of coronavirus advisers who he meets with regularly.

Denied access to the Presidential Daily Briefing reports that detail classified national security concerns, Biden recently held a briefing with a panel of former military and intelligence officials to discuss the threats that await him as commander-in-chief.

Excluded from discussions about the future distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, Biden has leaned on those who have been involved in talks with the White House, inviting a bipartisan panel of governors, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, to a virtual coronavirus briefing on Thursday.

"If we have to wait until Jan. 20 to start that planning, it puts us behind," Biden said when asked about his concerns with the delayed transition. "More people may die if we don’t coordinate."

A bipartisan coalition of former Bush and Obama-era national security officials, speaking at a recent online press briefing organized by good-government groups, including the National Center on Election Integrity , cited the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks as evidence that a delayed transition can have dire consequences.

"I was at the Department of Justice on 9/11, and we were short-handed in terms of senior people," Chertoff said at the briefing. "The clear sense we got, and it was reaffirmed by the 9/11 Commission, is that it is a security risk not to have the process go right away, because there are so many threats out there."

The 2000 Florida recount and subsequent legal battle between Bush and Democrat Al Gore ultimately delayed the formal transition by 37 days, and led to the delayed Senate confirmation of key national security personnel.

A June 2004 review by the bipartisan 9/11 Commission found that the delayed transition "hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees" for national security posts.

Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a Republican who chaired the 9/11 Commission, said it is critical for Biden to begin to receive intelligence briefings "so that we don’t have a period of vulnerability."

Kean said the country’s "enemies" are "looking and figuring, ‘is this the time to do something?’"

"This is national security. Nothing to do with Republicans, or Democrats, or anything else. It's all of us moving together as one and getting this job done the way it should be," Kean said.

Retired Navy Adm. Bill Owens, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said a smooth transition "is extremely important to the perception" abroad that America serves "as this beacon of democracy."

"Our strength is in the fact that we do represent this great democracy, and we all have agreed to accept the final outcome [of the election] and move forward," Owens said. "That stability is the source of our strength and the continuity of our democracy. Disrupting the continuity of that U.S. government transition is stunning, I think for our troops. It's also stunning for leaders around the world and the perception of our country, and I wonder if we don't get on with this, how we will get it back? How do we recover it? It's precious. We need to protect it every way we can."

Business leaders also have ramped up their calls for Trump to work with Biden to coordinate an orderly transfer of power.

The National Association of Manufacturers in a letter to Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration, wrote: "We call on the Trump administration to work cooperatively with President-elect Biden and his team."

"It’s imperative that our nation has a President and advisors who are fully prepared to lead our nation on Inauguration Day given the magnitude of the challenges ahead and the threats to our economic and national security, and most importantly, to the public health," the association’s leaders wrote.

Congressional Republicans have largely backed Trump’s delay, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell telling reporters that Trump is "100% within his rights" to pursue election lawsuits. But a growing number of GOP lawmakers have acknowledged Biden will be the next president, including the second ranking Senate Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

"I have every confidence that come January the 20th, we're going to inaugurate a new president. And I think it will probably be Joe Biden," Cornyn told reporters last week.

The delay in a formal transition comes as Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris must move to quickly fill 4,000 political appointments, including 1,200 posts requiring Senate confirmation, while also inheriting a federal workforce of 2 million civilian employees and 2 million troops, according to the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition.

Meena Bose, director of Hofstra University’s Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency, said presidential transitions became more structured and formalized with the passage of the Presidential Transition Act, and any delay in the short 11-week transition period between Election Day and the Jan. 20 inauguration "really abbreviates the ability of the incoming administration to plan and prepare for taking office."

"It limits the ability to be prepared to address the kind of immediate problems, concerns and challenges on day one of governance," Bose said.

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