Sometime in early to mid-November, if October polling holds and the infrastructure of our democracy basically functions, Joe Biden is likely to be declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election. At that point, he will have just more than two months to prepare to take over the leadership of a country still in the grips of a once-in-a-century pandemic, with more than 12 million Americans unemployed, tens of millions of children out of school, and COVID-19 deaths barreling toward 300,000.
Transitions can be challenging even under the best circumstances. And President Donald Trump, to say the least, may not be psychologically or temperamentally predisposed to a thoughtful, well-planned transition. Even back when he was the incoming president, his on-ramp to the presidency was extraordinarily haphazard, disorganized, and incomplete. Add in his petulance and expected fury at the outcome, and there is surely reason to fear the havoc the president and his team could wreak on their way to the exits.
How worried should Americans be that the outgoing administration might attempt to disrupt or cripple its successor by sabotaging the transition? Well, somewhat, undeniably. There is certainly no reason to expect President Trump to approach a President-elect Biden in anything like the spirit of cooperation and goodwill that has generally characterized presidential departures in the modern era. (Consider the letter that outgoing President George H. W. Bush left in the Oval Office for incoming President Bill Clinton, who had just defeated him at the ballot box: “I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”) Nor should anyone expect Trump to adhere to the bipartisan conventions of presidential stewardship of modern transitions. Further, by litigating the election outcome and delaying his concession, the president might postpone the point at which Biden is acknowledged the victor, thus delaying funding and many transition-related activities, as happened in 2000.