The Virtual Transition
Biden’s landing teams are steering clear of an administration that has often served as a COVID-19 superspreader event.
The Trump administration has finally extended an invitation to President-elect Joe Biden’s transition teams to set up shop in offices across scores of U.S. federal agencies. But Biden’s people are declining the offer.
From the U.S. Agency for International Development to the Defense Department, the incoming administration’s transition offices are stocked with coffee machines, computers, and office supplies that are largely going unused, as Biden’s teams prefer to interact through Google Hangouts, Zoom, and encrypted video conferences. Biden team members fear that meeting Trump officials in person during a pandemic in which the president and his aides have repeatedly flouted safety guidelines could be hazardous to their health, while providing little benefit.
“They don’t get anything out of value from the White House,” a former senior Trump official working with the Biden transition team told Foreign Policy. “You go into the White House and nobody wears masks and it’s just obvious that they’re trying to make some kind of political point.”
The former senior Trump official working with the Biden transition team said the incoming administration had insisted on digital-only briefings with White House staffers, amid fear that masking protocols were being ignored by those closest to the president. Those concerns were reinforced on Sunday, when President Donald Trump tweeted that his personal attorney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had tested positive for COVID-19, joining over 40 members of the U.S. administration or Trump’s inner circle—including the president himself—who have contracted the coronavirus, according to a tally compiled by the New York Times. And another top Trump lawyer, Jenna Ellis, reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus after attending a White House Christmas party last week without a mask.
“The president, his senior officials, engage in the stupidest behavior imaginable, which all public health experts say is irresponsible and dangerous,” said one former U.S. official who has been in touch with the transition team. “If I was in the transition I would be very concerned. I certainly wouldn’t be going to State Department Christmas parties, which I might have done in a previous transition.”
The virtual transition reflects Biden’s more judicious approach to the pandemic than the Trump administration’s. Trump has repeatedly downplayed the threat posed by the virus, which has killed more than 284,000 Americans to date and infected more than 14 million others. But it also reflects a palpable anxiety in the Biden camp about interacting directly with representatives of a president who has hosted events in the White House and massive campaign rallies that turned into superspreader events.
With the coronavirus continuing to spread uncontrolled throughout the country despite U.S. regulators pushing to clear an experimental vaccine, experts said the Biden team is already looking to do damage control instead of expecting a smooth handoff from the outgoing Trump administration.
“This isn’t a normal transition,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on the United Nations at the International Crisis Group. “It’s more like firefighters going into a burned-out house after a blaze to see what remains structurally sound. And on issues like Iran, the current administration is still trying to start a few more small fires.”
The infection concerns are not limited to interactions with the White House.
The Biden team conducted 21 interviews with top Pentagon military and civilian leaders as of last week, according to a senior defense official, including with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley and the vice chairman, Gen. John Hyten, and have nearly 50 more meetings this week, including with Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist. While the Biden team has been provided with workspaces at the Pentagon, they are using the offices “to a minimal amount” and requesting as many as 90 percent of their meetings to be virtual, the senior official said.
Most of the briefings have been on the COVID-19 response, and personnel and readiness, expected to be major focal points for Biden. The Defense Department has also provided 1,500 pages of briefing materials on Microsoft tablets, including transition books, organizational charts, and contingency plans. The Biden transition team is also getting classified updates from Milley, the top U.S. military officer, and the secret budgets for intelligence agencies. Many meetings are taking place via secured teleconferences on classified systems, senior defense officials said.
Senior defense officials said that the Pentagon has been working with the Biden transition team, known as the agency review team, since the General Services Administration allowed the transition to go forward last month, beginning dialogue that night via email and starting virtual meetings the next morning. “The [agency review team] has asked for a preference for video teleconference meetings versus in-person,” one official said. “They have requested virtual meetings for nearly all interviews they’ve conducted to date.”
At the State Department, meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is moving forward with plans to host indoor diplomatic holiday parties with hundreds of guests, running against Washington, D.C., health guidelines and raising alarm bells among medical experts.
Last week, Biden’s landing team met remotely with the leadership of USAID, including the agency’s acting administrator, John Barsa, a political appointee who recently tested positive for COVID-19, and who is quarantining at home. Barsa also reportedly had a reputation for eschewing masks, according to the Washington Post. “There is no expectation of in-person briefings,” said one U.S. official.
The transition to the Biden presidency has already been strained by unprecedented challenges, including Trump’s refusal to accept his electoral defeat. For weeks after Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 elections, routine transition work was delayed as Trump’s General Services Administration refused to greenlight the formal transition process until the election results were made clearer. (On Nov. 23, Trump authorized the agency to finally begin the transition process).
Now, despite media reports that the Trump administration blocked the Biden transition team from meeting with Pentagon intelligence officials, senior defense say the president-elect’s landing teams are getting proper briefings.
“The DoD and its transition leadership are fully cooperating with the Biden transition team, placing national security and the protection of the American people at the forefront of any and all discussions,” acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said in a statement on Saturday.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch