Election 2020

Here’s How a Transition Is Supposed to Work

And why this year’s dumpster fire is so dangerous.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Former President Barack Obama and Republican President-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on November 10, 2016 in Washington,DC. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Former President Barack Obama and Republican President-elect Donald Trump shake hands during a transition planning meeting in the Oval Office at the White House on November 10, 2016 in Washington,DC. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

For only the second time in history, the head of the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) has refused to formally kick-start the presidential transition. What’s needed is a letter of ascertainment, a hitherto little-known piece of Washington bureaucracy that officially gets the transition process underway. 

But four days after Democratic nominee Joe Biden was projected president-elect, after winning the key state of Pennsylvania, Emily Murphy, a Trump political appointee who heads the GSA, has refused to issue the letter. That’s due to the blizzard of baseless legal challenges by the Trump campaign alleging voter fraud and corruption. Still, the delay has consequences—$10 million in federal funds to support the transition are kept from the Biden team’s hands, as is access to all the government agencies it will soon have to staff and run.

The way power is handed over from one administration to the next has been refined through a process of trial and error over decades and is intended to ensure that the new administration can hit the ground running. Since that whole process is off the rails this year, here’s a quick reminder of how things are supposed to work—and what happens if they don’t.

Did they just sort of wing it before?

In a word, yes. The first modern-day effort to formalize the handover of power between administrations was spearheaded by Harry Truman, who, having taken office in 1945 after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death, found himself to be underprepared for the demands of the job. Famously, it was not until he was sworn in that Truman, who had served as vice president, was told that the United States had developed the atomic bombs that he would later drop on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

But the process wasn’t formalized until the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which allocated funds and office space for the incoming administration. Over the years, more legislation was added to address challenges that arose in the handover process, said Martha Joynt Kumar, the director of the nonprofit White House Transition Project. 

This did happen once before, right?

President Donald Trump’s legal challenges to the election results have drawn comparisons to the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case in 2000, which delayed formal announcement of the winner of the election until Dec. 12, eating into an already short transition period. It was the only other time in history when the GSA has significantly delayed the release of a letter of ascertainment. 

It wasn’t cost-free. The 9/11 Commission, which investigated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, concluded that the delayed transition “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees” and recommended that since “a catastrophic attack could occur with little or no notice, we should minimize as much as possible the disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administration.”

The experience left George W. Bush determined to have as smooth a transition as possible at the end of his second term in 2008. “He told Josh Bolten, who was his chief of staff, that he wanted to have the best transition because they had two wars [and] to make sure that they had a smooth handover of power,” said Kumar, the author of the 2015 book Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power.

But both sides already started planning months ago, didn’t they?

Traditionally, and by law, transition planning begins well before a winner is declared. Handing over the levers of power of the U.S. government is no small task. “The numbers themselves are extraordinary. … You’re looking at north of $5 trillion, 4 million people and 4,000 political appointees, and hundreds of operations units, so it’s a really phenomenally difficult takeover,” said Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington-based nonprofit whose Center for Presidential Transition has issued best practice guidelines for transitions. “A smart campaign invests not just in election time but well before then in order to be ready.”

Presidential campaigns tend to begin planning for the transition in the spring of election year, by naming a transition chair and assembling a team to oversee the process. The number of transition staff is typically around a few dozen before the election, quickly expanding to thousands if a candidate clinches the presidency. For its part, the (potentially) outgoing administration is bound by law to begin planning for the transition six months ahead of the election. 

And after the election has been called—then what?

Ordinarily, the GSA would issue a letter of ascertainment shortly after a winner is projected, and then it’s off to the races as the clock counts down to Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. The delay this year affects four broad groups of transition planning, Stier said. 

The first is identifying and rigorously vetting candidates to fill 4,000 positions, some 1,250 of which require Senate confirmation. But until the transition process is formally initiated, the Biden team can’t begin processing applicants’ conflict of interest and financial disclosure forms with the Office of Government Ethics. 

The second task is to get to grips what is currently going on in the government. Despite the standoff, on Tuesday the Biden campaign announced its agency review teams, the hundreds of people who will go into the federal agencies, such as the State Department, Education Department, and the CIA, to get the lay of the land from the people currently serving there and begin preparations for a handover. The Washington Post reported that political appointees at many agencies have told their staff not to respond to any outreach from the Biden teams until the GSA administrator gives the green light to proceed with the transition. 

The third area of focus is policy and translating campaign pledges into action for the first 100 and 200 days in office. Biden will take office with an unusually full plate and has said tackling the pandemic will be one of his top priorities. The Biden team unveiled its COVID-19 task force on Monday, but the delay in initiating the transition has left it frozen out from federal agencies and government information that could be critical in informing its strategy—just as COVID-19 cases are spiking across the United States. 

The final area of consideration is how to use the president-elect’s time. Biden has already had phone calls with world leaders offering their congratulations, but another consequence of the delay to the formal transition is that the State Department has not facilitated the calls or assisted with translation and talking points, as it usually does. Such coordination is intended to ensure that the current and incoming administrations don’t give mixed signals on matters of foreign policy and national security. 

Additionally, under a normal transition, Biden would begin receiving access to the President’s Daily Brief, a high-level intelligence briefing, to prepare him for the kinds of challenges that he will face once he takes office and clue him in on any covert operations currently underway. That hasn’t happened yet, according to NPR. While the results of the 2000 election were still undecided, President Bill Clinton decided to allow Bush to receive the briefings. As vice president, Al Gore was already receiving them. 

What’s Biden doing in the meantime?

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Biden described Trump’s refusal to concede as an “embarrassment” and, despite the delays, struck an optimistic tone about the transition. “We’ve already begun,” he said. The Biden team is pressing ahead with identifying candidates for top White House jobs and hopes to name its picks for several cabinet positions by Thanksgiving. Although they can’t go into government agencies, there is nothing stopping them from reaching out to recently departed career officials to get their inside scoop. Until the GSA formally kicks off the transition, the Biden team will be frozen out from some $10 million in federal funds intended to support the handover. But the New York Times reported that the Biden campaign began fundraising for the transition back in May and is thought to have raised at least $7 million. 

What other impacts could the delay have?

A peaceful and orderly transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a democracy. A delayed or disorderly transition could have significant implications for U.S. national security, but it could also undermine American credibility the next time the State Department calls out a foreign leader looking to cling to power in the wake of a democratic election. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday spoke of the transition—but called it a transition to a “second Trump administration,” angering U.S. diplomats and bewildering U.S. allies overseas.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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