Election 2020

A Perilous Presidential Handoff

The transition of power between presidents has long been a weakness of the U.S. political system. But never more so than now.

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NicolÁs Ortega illustration for Foreign Policy

The presidential transition is among the least studied moments of potential mayhem in the U.S. political system. For as long as the United States has been a world power, other countries have watched one president pass the baton to another with anxiety and optimism. Americans experienced the world’s first democratic transition of power more than 220 years ago. If current trends hold, they may experience one of the very worst of such transitions this November; when asked by a reporter this week whether he would commit to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose, incumbent President Donald Trump avoided the question. Trump, who thinks only of the consequences of events for himself, may not care about any of this. But the rest of the world does—and Americans should, as well.

When the United States, as the first democracy in the era of Westphalian nation-states, introduced the concept of transferring power from one living head of state to another, it also created the idea of a political transition—the interval between the election of a new leader and the actual assumption of power. Monarchies had had regencies, usually when the sovereign was still a child and a relative or court official governed in the child’s place. There were to be no regencies in the American republic: A president voted out of office or retiring didn’t administer the White House in the name of his successor but retained full powers until the latter’s inauguration. But the country’s founders, who were better at crafting rules for government than elections, created the potential for an awkward twilight zone between presidencies. When the second U.S. president, John Adams, succeeded George Washington in 1797, there was a long delay built into the political system between Adams’s election by the Electoral College in early December 1796 and his inauguration the following March. This interval certainly reflected the slow pace of 18th-century transportation and communications. But it was also a product of the fact that Americans do not select their presidents directly. Voters only select presidential electors, who must then gather to vote for the new head of state.

It was not until the Great Depression that the United States cut the presidential transition period by six weeks. Four months of a lame-duck presidency was an eternity during a national crisis. The 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1933, moved Inauguration Day to Jan. 20.

Unfortunately, it has been more common during the superpower era for transitions to hit snags.

Following World War II, as the United States became a world power with vast alliances, widespread military and covert activities, and hair-trigger nuclear guarantees, even an 11-week transition often seemed too long, offering the quadrennial potential for not just harmful miscues but disaster. While Americans were capable, during the early phase of the Cold War, of amending the Constitution to limit presidents to two terms, they didn’t perceive the need to accelerate the transition between them even further. The likely reason was the fast-growing size of the federal government, which required an incoming administration to fill ever more top-level jobs.

With respect to foreign policy, some transitions have been excellent, where the handoff of power and responsibility was neat, crisp, and professional—consistent with the principle that the United States has only one president at a time. The transitions between Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter and between George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for example, were superb. The latter not only took place during a rapidly worsening global economic disaster but also involved transferring responsibility for three wars—Afghanistan, Iraq, and the worldwide pursuit of Islamist terrorists.

Unfortunately, it has been more common during the superpower era for transitions to hit snags. There have been three main reasons for this, which to varying degrees underline why the length of the transition invites trouble for the United States and the world. First, it is not unusual for presidents to still be in the business of building their legacies in the final months of their term. This reflex, which usually has a foreign-policy dimension, has caused multiple problems for their successors. Second, if there are sharp differences in philosophy or style between the outgoing and incoming administrations, the ball can be dropped on ongoing, normally nonpartisan national security engagements. And finally, on rare occasions, a future president actively makes trouble while the incumbent still governs.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower brings President-elect John F. Kennedy up to speed on national security matters during a pre-inauguration meeting in Washington on Jan. 19, 1961.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower brings President-elect John F. Kennedy up to speed on national security matters during a pre-inauguration meeting in Washington on Jan. 19, 1961. Bettmann Archives/Getty Images

The transition between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the newly elected John F. Kennedy was a textbook case of last-minute legacy-building with disastrous and nearly disastrous consequences. During his final 10 months in office, Eisenhower authorized covert programs for regime change in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the Dominican Republic, and, most famously, against Fidel Castro’s Cuba. None of these programs were completed by the time Kennedy took the oath of office. Indeed, despite the defeat of Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, in the 1960 election, the outgoing administration didn’t suspend or scale down these activities to give Kennedy’s team a chance to reassess. Instead, it ramped them up, even though it was understood that none of the operations could be completed before Eisenhower left office. A week before Kennedy’s inauguration, for example, the Eisenhower White House authorized giving weapons to a group of dissidents who had told the CIA that they intended to assassinate the Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. What Kennedy inherited in the Dominican Republic would be a headache; what he inherited with respect to Cuba—including the need to deal quickly with a growing group of Cuban exiles no longer welcome in Guatemala, where the CIA was training them to overthrow Castro—would contribute to the Bay of Pigs disaster.

In its final days, the Eisenhower administration also decided to ramp up U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia. Unsettled by a Soviet airlift of military supplies to communist insurgents in Laos that had started only weeks before and was steadily expanding, the outgoing administration rushed jets and pilots to its Laotian allies in mid-January 1961. Eisenhower’s mistake wasn’t his decision to react to what he perceived as a test by Moscow during the transition; his mistake was the mission he gave the Laotian government. The administration actively encouraged the Laotians to use the jets to interdict Soviet aircraft, despite the risk of killing Soviet airmen—and of dropping a superpower crisis into Kennedy’s lap during his very first days in office.

Although the Eisenhower administration arguably set the standard for the most dangerous foreign-policy decisions by an outgoing administration, there have been other examples of outgoing presidents making post-election decisions that created significant unfinished business for their successors. George H.W. Bush, after his defeat by Bill Clinton, authorized U.S. military intervention in Somalia to protect food convoys—a humanitarian mission with no particular endpoint. The disastrous expansion of this intervention under Clinton, a textbook case of mission creep, was not foreordained by what Bush left behind, but it is generally not a good idea to begin a new, open-ended military campaign just as you are starting to empty your national security files. And in 2016, even if one can hardly dispute the need for a U.S. reaction to Russian interference in the election campaign, the timing of Obama’s retaliation certainly complicated the transition to the Trump era.

The second form of trouble can come from the soon-to-be-powerful people on the receiving end of a transition. Even when the outgoing administration’s final sprint for achievement doesn’t create new problems, there are always ongoing programs, policies, and missions with the potential for harmful disruption—especially if the runner receiving the baton bobbles or simply rejects it. During the Cold War, for example, six administrations had to hand off an ongoing responsibility for containing Soviet power. More recently, confronting terrorism would span multiple administrations.

In 1988, the incoming Bush administration was skeptical of Ronald Reagan’s trust of his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev—despite the fact that both U.S. administrations involved many of the same people. In the end, this skepticism did not complicate the winding down of the Cold War; the Bush team would not only change its mind but become a perfect partner to Gorbachev. Nevertheless, the Reagan-Bush handoff was not as smooth as one would have expected given that Bush had been Reagan’s vice president.

More consequential was the dropping of the baton by Bush’s son George W. Bush. Clinton tried to impress on the president-elect the threat posed by Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, the Bush team took nine long months to focus on the problem of al Qaeda and the decision of whether to build armed drones with the capability of shooting bin Laden on sight—a decision that eventually produced the Predator drone. Although the bipartisan 9/11 Commission didn’t determine there had been any missed opportunities to thwart the 2001 attacks during the first months of the Bush administration, the pause in the White House’s focus on al Qaeda did affect the general effectiveness of U.S. counterterrorism.

President George W. Bush meets with President-elect Barack Obama during Obama’s first visit to the Oval Office at the White House on Nov. 10, 2008.

President George W. Bush meets with President-elect Barack Obama during Obama’s first visit to the Oval Office at the White House on Nov. 10, 2008. Eric Draper/The White House via Getty Images

As we confront the possibility of a transition out of the Trump era—and Trump’s potential refusal to let it progress peacefully—it is worth considering the third source of disruption and how the current administration not only bobbled the baton on its way in but actively made trouble for Obama. The Trump team didn’t even wait for Inauguration Day to begin undermining the U.S. government’s efforts to sanction the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin for intervening in the 2016 election campaign. Trump’s designated national security advisor, Michael Flynn, made trouble for the country (and for himself) by signaling to the Russians in December 2016 that the incoming administration would have a more benevolent view of Moscow’s activities. To see similar mischief in foreign policy, one has to go back to the 1968 presidential campaign, when Nixon undermined the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s sincere efforts to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War—though Nixon had the good sense to stop once he was elected.

Trump’s personality and the patterns of his presidency suggest that should he lose in November, we will see a fraught transition.

Trump’s personality and the patterns of his presidency suggest that should he lose in November, we will see a fraught transition with elements of the first two traditional kinds of trouble. A defeated Trump would likely attempt some poisonous legacy-building before leaving office. As his decision in July to pull thousands of troops out of Germany and his embrace of anti-China rhetoric in the pandemic indicate, Trump could use his remaining days in power to further undermine NATO and worsen relations with Beijing. Fortunately, most of the likely late-stage initiatives—such as haphazard troop withdrawals or a barrage of tariffs on Chinese goods—would be reversible, even if they complicate the long process of rebuilding international trust. On the other hand, Trump’s isolationist instincts suggest that he, unlike Eisenhower, would not start any new programs for regime change abroad that could complicate Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s first hundred days, should he become president. The one possible exception is a last-minute move against Tehran, given both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s hatred of the Iranian regime and the Trump family’s closeness to the governments of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

If Biden wins, the world is likely to witness a hostile—but peaceful—takeover in Washington. It will be the first test of a law, supported by both parties and signed by Obama in 2016, to improve transitions by mandating closer cooperation by the outgoing administration. Especially if the margin of victory is close, however, there will likely be weeks of noise from Trump about alleged electoral fraud, coupled with a churlish unwillingness to assist the Biden transition team in any way. No matter the circumstances, a Trump-Biden transition would almost certainly be a minefield for the next administration.

Historically, all incoming administrations have faced the temptation—especially in a crisis or after a bitter campaign—of accelerating the start of the new era. Foreign leaders, especially those of traditional U.S. allies, would be encouraging the Biden team to overturn the worst of Trump’s “America First” policies as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Trump would likely be on the lookout for any signs that Biden and his transition team are undermining the White House—a projection of Trump’s own behavior in 2016. Biden’s people should expect to be targeted by social media efforts and by leaks from Trump’s few allies in the national security world suggesting an ongoing conspiracy against the outgoing president.

Even without the added drama of the current presidency, the prospect of a U.S. presidential transition in November raises international anxiety and concern.

Biden’s challenge during the transition would be to signal impending U.S. reengagement with the world without seeming to violate the country’s tradition of having only one president at a time. An even greater source of temptation for an incoming Biden team would be the urgency of de-Trumpification at home. In terms of proven and alleged political crimes, the Nixon administration is the closest analogy to Trump’s. After the justice system prosecuted Nixon’s most nefarious associates, the Ford and Carter administrations worked with the U.S. Congress to eliminate many of the institutional sources of Nixon-era abuses. For a Biden White House, however, identifying and rooting out Trump administration abuses would be more of a challenge than it was for Nixon’s successors in the 1970s, who could rely on Nixon administration officials who had remained more committed to the Constitution than their president; many of these men and women formed the core of the Ford administration and helped cleanse the U.S. government of the Nixon taint. There is no reason to believe that, at most, more than a handful of people with senior responsibility in the current White House would provide similar assistance to the Biden team or Congress. Indeed, it is very easy to imagine a transition where Trump appointees attempt to hide evidence of their misdeeds while Trump issues last-minute pardons.

De-Trumpification will not be a purely domestic issue. For the first time in modern U.S. history, the cleanup after a failed administration will likely involve unraveling political and financial abuses in foreign policy. (The events related to Ukraine for which Trump was impeached are but one example.) During a transition, it would be up to federal civil servants, public interest groups, and the media to make full use of existing laws, and whatever public pressure they can bring to bear, to keep Trump administration records as intact as possible.

Even without the added drama of the current presidency, the prospect of a U.S. presidential transition in November raises international anxiety and concern. The long duration of the transition, coupled with the large-scale replacement of the U.S. policymaking elite, has traditionally been a source of disruption in U.S. foreign policy. Out of spite, greed, and ignorance, Trump has already tested each and every U.S. political tradition. Should he lose in November, there is every reason to assume that he will once again, as he did four years ago, do all he can to subvert the already flawed institution of the presidential transition. A silver lining, perhaps, is that misbehavior by a defeated Trump might inspire Americans to take a harder look at fixing their presidential twilight zone.

This story appears in the Fall 2020 print issue.

Timothy Naftali is a CNN presidential historian. His most recent book is Impeachment: An American History.  Twitter: @TimNaftali