Biden’s transition team may find moving into the White House tougher than the election
Joe Biden was tonight planning for one of the most turbulent and uncertain transitions into the White House in modern US presidential history as he mapped his path to inauguration day on January 20. With the Democratic presidential nominee expressing certainty he had won the election even as the result was not called, staff members on a transition team set up months ago were preparing next steps. The road ahead, if he does indeed win, is daunting. For one, Mr Biden is facing a sitting US president who has vowed to fight through the courts to remain in the Oval Office and given no indication he could concede. Second, clarity on which party holds the Senate will have to wait until January as the two races in Georgia whose outcomes will decide are being rerun. If the Republicans retain a majority they can block Mr Biden’s cabinet nominees and legislation. And third, there is a deadly virus spreading uncontrollably across America, with new daily Covid-19 cases up 35 per cent in the last fortnight, and a US economy recovering from the biggest unemployment jump since the 1930s. Mr Biden, who during the campaign pledged swift action to tackle the coronavirus pandemic which has claimed more than 240,000 lives, will announce details of his 12-strong Covid task force on Sunday. It will be headed by former surgeon general Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler and Yale University’s Dr Marcella Nunez-Smith. Unlike in Britain, the victor of a US presidential election does not sweep into office once the outcome is known. Instead, any incoming candidate must wait more than two months until an official hand-over in mid-January. In the recent past that has almost always happened without rancour. Presidents have met their successors in the White House even if they are from the other party – as Barack Obama did with Donald Trump in 2016 – and offered support. Teams from the incoming president are sent to US government departments in what are dubbed “landing parties”, sent in to survey the scene. They are briefed about the status quo, ready to get going on day one. The president-elect’s transition team also swiftly takes up rooms in an official government building and is provided support as they plan for inauguration day. The process has been formalised and has some legal protections. This time, uncertainty abounds. Mr Trump could order his government employees – by tweet, perhaps – to refuse to engage with Mr Biden’s advisers given his public stance that he won the election and it is being “stolen” from him. Even if Mr Biden’s win margins in key battleground states are sizeable and the likelihood of a court decision affecting that is slim, the Trump campaign’s legal challenges could take weeks to progress through the system, giving the president cover. Perhaps foreseeing the difficult weeks which would follow any victory, Mr Biden has placed one of his closest advisers and friends in charge of his transition team. Ted Kaufman, who was Mr Biden’s chief of staff in the Senate for more than a decade, was asked to take up the role in April after his former boss effectively secured the Democratic presidential nomination. The pair are such firm friends that Mr Kaufman took over Mr Biden’s Delaware seat in the Senate when the latter became vice president. “He is the closest person to Joe whose last name isn’t Biden”, Paul Begala, a US political consultant, said yesterday. Traditionally meeting potential cabinet members is one of the top priorities. Mr Trump held weeks of meetings in Trump Tower as a parade of political and business leaders came to be interviewed for jobs after the 2016 election. Mr Biden has a headache Mr Trump did not. This time, two different parties may well end up holding the White House and the Senate, which must confirm cabinet appointments with a vote after hearings. Already there are briefings in Washington DC suggesting that Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader known to be a ruthless wielder of political power, could block Biden appointments if his party holds the Senate. Specifically, the Republicans could look to keep the Biden cabinet centrist even as the incoming president seeks to placate both wings of his party by appointing prominent left-wingers to key positions. Would the Republicans put their thumbs up if Mr Biden appoints Elizabeth Warren, the senator who favours a wealth tax, to the Treasury or Susan Rice, in government when the 2012 Benghazi embassy attack struck, for the State Department? One figure advising the Biden campaign on foreign policy said those political realities could force Mr Biden to “rethink individual appointments that are more controversial”. Even if Mr McConnell plays ball on the cabinet he may not do so on legislation. Mr Biden’s proposals to create a government-funded health care option for all Americans or bring in a bold but expensive climate change tackling law may hit a brick wall. Lines of communication to world leaders are also being readied. Avril Haines, a former deputy national security adviser under Barack Obama, is understood to be heading up the transition team’s foreign policy brief. One European official told this newspaper there was already a scramble to make sure their leaders talked to Mr Biden first. “Everyone is going to want early phone calls”, the source said. There are also political benefits to pushing ahead publicly with the transition process even as the result of an election is contested through the courts. It projects certainty at victory. During the contested 2000 presidential election George W Bush announced cabinet selections in the weeks after the election despite its result very much being in dispute. Clay Johnson, the executive director of the Bush 2000 transition team, yesterday recalled how then Republican vice presidential nominee Dick Cheney told him: “We have to assume we are going to be president-elect.” They made plans accordingly, Mr Johnson explained on CNN, including getting started on their own informal background checks on potential cabinet members which were run by a former senior White House lawyer. In that contest, when the Supreme Court eventually ruled in favour of Mr Bush more than a month after the election, the defeated candidate, Al Gore, conceded and the sitting president, Bill Clinton, smoothed the transition. Neither is a given this time round.