A brazen refusal by the president to leave office is surely a nightmare scenario. But even if President Donald Trump were to lose and accept the results on November 3 or soon thereafter, he could nevertheless wreak significant damage during the period between the election and the inauguration of Joe Biden—endangering the incoming administration, at best, and actively sabotaging it, at worst.
Presidential transitions are perilous even in normal times. With each inauguration of a new president every four to eight years, the executive branch undergoes a massive overhaul; more than 4,000 new political appointees flood into federal departments and agencies, including 1,200 senior officials who require Senate confirmation. The minute a new president is sworn in, his administration assumes responsibility for everything from nuclear launch codes to pandemic response, economic policy, and counterterrorism—at the very moment when the government’s capacity is most diminished. At the Defense Department alone, the nation’s largest employer and perhaps the world’s most complex organization, the top 59 senior civilian leaders, from the secretary of defense on down, are political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. A private-sector company would be crazy to emulate this approach, yet the security, the health, and the prosperity of Americans depend on its success.
Facilitating the smoothest possible transition—if one should happen in January 2021—is of paramount national importance, particularly at a time of ongoing upheaval at home and abroad. If elected, Joe Biden would face the extraordinary challenge of seizing the reins of government amid the triple crises of a global pandemic, an economic collapse, and a national reckoning over racial justice, and his effectiveness in managing these would redound to the entire nation’s benefit. Yet there is ample reason to worry that the outgoing Trump administration will disregard the laws and the norms that are supposed to govern the transition period. Without question, a stolen election or a refusal to accept electoral results is the nightmare scenario. But well short of a constitutional crisis, the Trump administration can nevertheless hobble the incoming Biden team and endanger the nation with a scuttled transition process.
Presidential transitions are both remarkable and risky. Unlike nations with parliamentary systems and wholly professionalized bureaucracies, the U.S. federal government undergoes extensive turnover whenever a new president comes into office with thousands of political appointees in tow. This turnover is important, as it injects fresh blood and ideas into a too-often-sclerotic system and ensures that the daily work of the executive branch aligns with the president’s—and, by extension, the electorate’s—will. That the U.S. has experienced 44 peaceful transitions of power, even as the anti-majoritarian Electoral College has overridden the popular vote in two elections so far this century, is a testament to the strength of the American political system and norms that date back to George Washington.
Yet the process is also fraught with danger. Much can get lost in transition: Departing officials take with them crucial knowledge about ongoing policies, budgets, dialogues, and diplomacy—not to mention institutional knowledge about where to find information and how to get things done. Always complex, assuming control of the government grew into an even more Herculean task with the emergence of a enormous national-security bureaucracy after World War II and its further expansion after 9/11. Perhaps the most famous fiasco during this vulnerable moment is the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, which failed in large part because of information lost between the departing Eisenhower administration and the incoming Kennedy administration, but there are many other examples of miscommunications and missteps in the national-security realm, such as when the outgoing Carter team failed to alert Reagan of Israel’s impending strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.
If Biden wins in November, he will likely face the most challenging transition in modern times. 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. 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.
Biden may also face an outgoing administration that hinders his efforts, whether because of incompetence or malign intent. Planning, coordination, and information-sharing across government agencies and functions are vital to a successful transition. 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 reelected, 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.
The risk of information loss is particularly acute for matters of national security—an area where the president’s pique toward the intelligence community and the so-called deep state might make him particularly resistant to cooperation. Ths 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 postelection 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.
Imagining more extreme forms of sabotage is also possible. Even as a lame duck, President Trump will remain the commander in chief until Biden takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021. Already, the Trump team is reportedly working to lock in its foreign-policy priorities by killing the Iran nuclear deal, pushing through troop withdrawals from Germany, and levying new rounds of tariffs and tech restrictions; after the election, the president could undertake more dramatic moves, such as announcing an intent to leave NATO or ordering all combat troops to depart Afghanistan. Though improbable, Trump could defy the norm of consultation with the president-elect and lead the nation into conflict with a foreign adversary such as Iran—or decline to act when faced with an imminent domestic or global threat. Even if Biden immediately reversed or denounced such eleventh-hour maneuvers, the policy whiplash would undermine America’s already-damaged credibility as an ally and an adversary.
Though the scale of his charge may be singular, Biden would not be the first president to assume office amid global and domestic crises. Franklin D. Roosevelt took office at the height of the Great Depression, launching a sweeping “first 100 days” agenda that would become the gold standard for all subsequent new presidents. After FDR’s death, Harry Truman was thrust into the role of commander in chief during the Second World War. Decades later, George H. W. Bush became president in 1989 at a time of tremendous global change, as the Cold War was rapidly and unexpectedly warming. And Biden had a front-row seat as Barack Obama entered the White House in the midst of the 2008–2009 financial crisis, cooperated closely with the outgoing George W. Bush team, and acted quickly to stanch an economic meltdown.
Given the daunting task of transitioning between presidents, planning starts early—usually in late summer, right around the time of both parties’ nominating conventions. Although such preparation used to remain quiet for fear of appearing presumptuous prior to electoral victory, a 2010 law brought it into the open, mandating federal support to major-party candidates before and after the November election. This legislation and the updates that followed were crucial steps toward institutionalizing best practices for presidential transitions, but they are only a framework; effectiveness lies in the commitment of a sitting president to rigorous preparation, genuine information-sharing, and an awkward embrace of cooperation alongside political rivalry.
Recognizing the risk to the nation posed by a faulty handover of power, there is a strong nonpartisan norm of sitting presidents providing aid, even to their prospective replacements. This is especially crucial when it comes to matters of national security. When Mitt Romney challenged Obama in 2012, the Obama administration facilitated regular intelligence briefings beginning immediately after the Republican nominating convention, even as partisan controversy over the Benghazi attacks was mounting. In 2008, the George W. Bush administration’s team was seized by the importance of managing the first post-9/11 transition and engaged in extensive preparations with the incoming Obama team, setting the modern standard for transition planning. Of course, there have also been hijinks. In 2001, when George W. Bush’s team arrived at the White House, they found many of the W keys missing from White House keyboards—one of many goodbye pranks from the outgoing Clinton administration.
Early indications of the Trump administration’s compliance with the legal requirements for transition planning are promising; under the leadership of Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, the administration met its deadline to establish a White House Transition Coordinating Council, among other mechanisms. Nevertheless, the success of any transition effort depends on the substance of the planning, coordination, and information-sharing itself, which is ultimately a function of the president’s priorities.
Presidential transitions are the connective tissue of the American political process. Past presidents and members of Congress have recognized the importance of a smooth transition through legislation and norms established in past handovers. Outgoing President George H. W. Bush underlined this point in his valedictory note to Clinton. Despite having lost to Clinton only months before, Bush wrote: “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.” 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. 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.