Our long national nightmare, the Trump presidency, is finally nearing an end. But the brutal reality is this: Get ready for another national nightmare now that Joe Biden is the president-elect.
In some ways, that nightmare was heralded by the reckless, inflammatory, irresponsible and unconscionable circus President Donald Trump put on Thursday night from the White House — declaring that his opponents were “trying to steal an election” and “trying to rig an election.” Most networks cut away when Trump started to lie, but the stain still lingers, especially because he has said that he will not concede and accused Biden of “rushing to falsely pose as the winner.”
It appears that Biden’s margin of electoral victory will make those despicable suggestions moot. So America can soon feel a sense of relief that we have a clear outcome, and gratitude to all the election workers and officials who kept the election itself on course with very few glitches and no signs of chicanery.
What then? The next nightmare, the transition.
Loser keeps power for months
America is unique among established democracies in many ways, among them the extraordinary length of time from an election to the actual transfer of power. Parliamentary systems that have a change in administration make the change overnight. We take 2 1/2 months. That period leaves the losing president in charge, with all his powers, while the winning president-elect prepares to take office.
In modern times, this is a complicated process, as the winner creates a large series of “landing teams,” groups of experts and former officials for each agency, department and office that interact with the existing government executives, career and appointed, to discuss policy history, take possession of key documents necessary to understand what the agency has done and why, and plan for a new agenda with a new team.
There are laws on presidential transitions that provide some protection for an incoming administration, including providing office space and support, and access to agencies. But the ability to have a smooth and productive transition depends heavily on norms.
Transitions are not always smooth, even if they occur within a party. Outgoing people are often glum and resentful, and they don’t always feel an incentive to take time from the jobs they are still performing to help their successors succeed in undoing what they have done. The best transition in modern times was the one from Republican George W. Bush to Democrat Barack Obama, because Bush and his chief of staff Josh Bolten, to their credit, went to great lengths to make sure that all the Bush people cooperated fully with the Obama transition teams.
Trump? He has repeatedly refused to commit to a peaceful transition and has complained about his own, referring over and over to the “witch hunt” involving his designated national security adviser Michael Flynn, among others. His antagonism toward Biden and his petulance are not the only problems.
Editor in chief’s Backstory: We cut off President Trump’s remarks about a “rigged” election Thursday night. Here’s why.
First, there are the actions he can take as president that will make life for Biden as president more difficult and tumultuous. Expect a slew of executive orders and executive actions. We have already seen this in the weeks leading up to the election. One is designed to blow up the career civil service; it gives the president the authority to put protected employees into a new category that allows them to be fired at will with no appeals. Another opens up the full Tongass National Forest in Alaska to logging, mining and development. We are likely to get a lot more for drilling, fracking and other actions on public lands and more relaxation of clean air and water rules, just to start.
Of course, executive orders and actions taken by one president can be reversed by the next. But it can be a cumbersome and lengthy process, and sometimes, for instance in the case of logging and mining, damage cannot be undone. In 2017, Trump and his Republican Congress were able to use the Congressional Review Act to wipe out Obama-era regulations just by passing laws negating them, and they did that with abandon. If there is a Republican Senate, Biden will not have that option.
Firing Fauci and intelligence pros
Second, expect a slew of pardons — for Trump himself, for his family and staff, for his Cabinet and other officials facing possible charges of corruption and malfeasance. This alone will empower them to act in a reckless fashion, with no possibility of legal backlash, through Jan.19. This group could include the people at several federal agencies carrying out Trump’s harsh immigration policies. It could also cover people who violate two laws intended to preserve records, the Federal Records Act and the Presidential Records Act. The desire to cover their tracks by deep-sixing incriminating or embarrassing documents will be strong, from the White House to the State Department to Homeland Security, Commerce and Education.
Third, under his likely illegal executive order on the civil service, Trump can fire Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dr. Deborah Birx and many career scientists at the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and other agencies that he sees as being disloyal because they followed facts and science. Trump could also fire intelligence professionals who were loyal first to the United States and not him personally.
Of course, they can be reinstated after Jan. 20, but the disruption in the meantime will be substantial, some will have to take other jobs to pay the bills, and the process of reinstatement may be cumbersome.
Fourth is what Trump can do in the foreign policy arena. Possibilities include ways to make it harder to go back to the Iran nuclear deal, an escalation of tariff wars with China and mischief in the Middle East or the Pacific. Or worse.
Fifth is the likelihood that Trump will spend much of his transition time on the road, doing the rallies that soothe his troubled soul when he is surrounded by enthusiastic acolytes. But of course he will use those rallies to reiterate his list of grievances and to foment more division in the country.
Good news amid litany of horrors
All that is in addition to the problems that can arise in the day-to-day contact between Trump officials in agencies and Biden’s transition team. Some might cooperate fully; others will move into full massive resistance. Beyond that, Trump has a large number of vacancies in positions across all agencies and many acting officials in place. In some instances, there will be literally no one home when the Biden team looks for the political appointee in charge.
With this litany of horrors, is there any good news? The answer is yes. The Presidential Transition Act gives a lot of authority to career officials, so resistance from political appointees can be bypassed in most cases. And the author of the act, former Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, is now heading the transition for Biden. He knows the process better than anybody.
Mastio, Lawrence:Trump-to-Biden transition already unhinged and won’t get better
At least some Trump officials, for patriotic or self-interested reasons, or both, will work to make this process smooth and effective. The number could swell if there is a strong public backlash to Trump’s destructive acts, and we might see prominent Republicans in Congress step in as well.
There is also a push by groups inside and outside Congress to prevent the destruction of records. They are trying to inventory what records exist and ensure that career employees do not find themselves culpable by following illegal orders. They are also setting up a whistleblower hotline to create more protection.
All that can help. But unless Trump shows a dramatic change in personality, we need to brace ourselves. Change is coming, thank God, but along the way, fasten seatbelts for severe turbulence.
Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, will be working with the National Task Force on Election Crises to help protect the transition. He is co-author of “One Nation After Trump” and “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism.” Follow him on Twitter: @normornstein