WASHINGTON — President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team has intensified its criticism of President Trump’s refusal to engage in the orderly transfer of power, citing the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as an example of what happens when an incoming administration does not receive full cooperation from the outgoing one.
“It’s important for the transition team to be able to meet with the government officials who are handling the pandemic response as COVID-19 is spiking across our country,” a senior transition official told Yahoo News. “With every day that passes, it is even more vital that the team has all of the information necessary to prepare to govern.”
So far, the Trump administration has offered no formal help on two of Biden’s top coronavirus priorities: distributing a vaccine and making testing “widely available,” as his campaign plan to combat the pandemic put it.
The president-elect also wants the White House and federal agencies to share more information about daily tests performed, hospital beds available and other metrics. So far, he does not have any access to the agencies that gather, or could gather, such data. People close to the transition say informal contacts have taken place, but such communications cannot compensate for the absence of a formal transition process.
With Trump still fighting a desperate battle to overturn the results of the election, the General Services Administration has refused to take the pro forma step of ascertaining the results. Until it does so, the president-elect will remain frozen out of the federal government he is set to command starting Jan. 20.
The silence has been a source of consternation to Biden, who sees Trump as neither willing to address the pandemic himself nor willing to allow him to do so.
The official who spoke to Yahoo News about the stalled transition pointed out that “the 9/11 Commission Report found that the delayed 2000 transition significantly hampered the incoming administration’s ability to fill key appointments, including national security personnel, and left the country less prepared for a crisis.”
In that case, the crisis was a terrorist attack launched by al-Qaida. In this instance, it is a global pandemic that has taken the lives of thousands and the jobs of millions.
Even some allies of the president have urged him to take the urgent steps necessary to prepare for coronavirus-related aspects of the transition. “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade said Wednesday that it is “in the country’s best interest if [Trump] starts coordinating on the virus and starts coordinating on security with the Biden team, and just brief him.” Trump is known to be an avid viewer of the morning program.
The onset of winter, and continued resistance from some elected officials, especially Republican governors in hard-hit Western states, imply that the situation could become especially grave in late January, just when Biden will take office.
The dangers of a delay are obvious to public health experts. Speaking at a New York Times event on Tuesday, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci, a highly trusted member of the president’s coronavirus task force, urged that the transition pick up the pace, citing his own work in the federal government since the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“I’ve been through five transitions,” Fauci said. “I can say that transitions are extremely important to the smooth continuity of whatever you’re doing.”
Last weekend saw a few hints from the president that he knows the election is lost. Those hints, however, are far from the kind of unambiguous concession that would allow the transition to begin in earnest.
The senior Biden transition official, who would speak to Yahoo News only under the condition of anonymity, said that “it is in America’s national security interest for an incoming Administration to have access to intelligence briefings, information about the development of vaccines and distribution plans, threat assessments, and all of the data gathered by civil servants on the threats we face.”
Two vaccines are nearly ready for distribution: one manufactured by Pfizer and the other by Moderna. Trump has been furious that the announcement of the vaccines’ highly successful trials came right after, not before, the presidential election. The grievance reflects his obsession with a (fictitious) “deep state” of bureaucrats, in this instance in league with pharmaceutical companies, intent on undermining his administration and thwarting his reelection.
Trump’s irritation at the timing of the vaccine trial results makes it less likely that he will cooperate with Biden in making sure the new president is able to quickly and successfully distribute a vaccine. Apart from last Friday’s Rose Garden remarks on the forthcoming vaccination effort, Trump has shown little interest in the pandemic in recent months, after a brief period last spring when he attended almost daily briefings of his coronavirus task force. That ended around the time he drew international ridicule for suggesting that bleach or ultraviolet light could act as a coronavirus treatment.
Nothing prevents Biden officials from engaging with private corporations, but those corporations have signed on to distribute the vaccine through Operation Warp Speed, a Trump program. That could limit the scope of such interactions until the transition officially begins.
“We are in regular communication with all relevant stakeholders at the federal and state levels, and from both sides of the aisle, to make sure they are informed on a timely manner of our progress,” said Pfizer spokesperson Sharon J. Castillo. “We are not going to comment on the specifics of any of these private conversations.”
White House spokesperson Brian Morganstern praised the president’s work on the pandemic but refused to say whether any effort had been made to reach out to Biden and brief him on the pandemic. Instead, he pointed to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “playbook” on vaccine distribution and to individual governors’ distribution plans. The implication appeared to be that outside those publicly available documents, Biden could not expect any help from Trump.
Speaking on “Meet the Press” last Sunday, Biden’s designated chief of staff, Ron Klain, said it was imperative for Biden coronavirus task force members to connect with current Health and Human Services Department officials about the forthcoming vaccination efforts, which will require immense logistical expertise.
“Our experts need to talk to those people as soon as possible so nothing drops in this change of power,” said Klain, who headed the Obama administration’s Ebola response.
In 2000, the presidential transition was hindered by the contested Florida vote recount. The case was eventually decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of George W. Bush over Vice President Al Gore.
The report of the 9/11 Commission found that the “dispute over the election and the 36-day delay cut in half the normal transition period. Given that a presidential election in the United States brings wholesale change in personnel, this loss of time hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.”
The coronavirus is now taking a 9/11-like toll roughly every two days, leading some public experts to graphically describe the current situation as a “slaughter.” And, they warn, it could get worse.
Across the federal bureaucracy, many sit and wait. Thomas Skinner, a spokesman for the CDC, could not say whether there had been any communication with members of the Biden coronavirus task force. “I don’t know,” Skinner wrote in an email. “Have not heard one way or the other.” He later clarified that the CDC was “to refer calls about the transition to HHS,” a reference to the Department of Health and Human Services.
For its part, HHS refused to comment.
Federal agencies, including both the CDC and HHS, are waiting on the General Services Administration. Once the head of that agency, Emily Murphy, ascertains the election, current officials will effectively have the green light to begin sharing data with the new administration.
Until then, at least officially, there will be silence. There does appear to be some communication being conducted through informal channels, over private email accounts and encrypted apps. But these do not have the imprimatur of official communications.
An official at the GSA told Yahoo News that Murphy would ascertain the election once Trump’s legal challenges had run their course. Those could continue for weeks to come.
Additional reporting by Brittany Shepherd.
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