Donald Trump's late policy flurry complicates Joe Biden's transition into power

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Ben Riley-Smith
·3 min read
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Donald Trump's administration has made a slew of policy announcements since his defeat at the November 3 election -  BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images
Donald Trump's administration has made a slew of policy announcements since his defeat at the November 3 election - BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The in-tray waiting for Joe Biden on the Oval Office’s Resolute desk when he takes over the US presidency on January 20 is already unenviably high.

There is tackling the most devastating pandemic in a century, mending an economy with unemployment levels rivalling the Great Depression and trying to right vast structural problems like racial tensions in America and climate change.

Yet in recent weeks another challenge has been added: unpicking policy changes that Donald Trump’s administration has been forcing through before the door shuts on his presidency.

The latest example is changes to the asylum rules. The move, significantly tightening the definition of “persecution” that asylum seekers must prove to be granted refuge in America, matches the hardline stance the president has held for years.

There have been other late policy changes. Mr Trump, largely avoiding the cameras as he smarts from election defeat and refuses to concede the race, has announced a draw-down of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He has pardoned an ally. He has reportedly discussed new punishments for Iran over its nuclear program. His administration has also scheduled more federal executions.

Mr Trump appears to be reaching for ‘wins’ that he can tout to supporters. Many fall into policy priorities he has long named: Ending “forever” foreign wars; tackling Iran over its nuclear ambitions; being tough on crime.

It has not gone unnoticed that the president appears unready to give up his political career after leaving office. There is persistent speculation, not countered by Mr Trump, that he will run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

Even if he does not do that Mr Trump reportedly is setting up a 'political action committee' and some of the more than $200 million raised after the election for Republican attempts to contest the result will help fund his next venture.

A flurry of late policy achievements on the way out which can be held aloft to supporters has political benefits for Mr Trump whichever path he takes next.

But it also, like so much of Mr Trump’s approach to the presidency, breaks precedent. 

Defeated US presidents normally go out of their way to make sure policies in the “lame duck” period between the November election and January handover of power do not clash with their successor's plans. 

Barack Obama recounts in his new memoir how George W Bush, his presidential predecessor, ran moves he wanted to take to counter the 2008 financial crash during the transition past the Obama team, seeking their approval. 

Mr Trump is doing the opposite. He is taking controversial policy moves - such as on asylum - that almost certainly Mr Biden would not adopt if he was in office.

The approach puts Mr Biden in a bind. Many of the moves are theoretically reversible - Mr Trump is not making the changes through Congress but with powers held by his administration, ones Mr Biden will also wield.

But they are headaches of time and politics. Mr Biden has said he will focus his energies in the first 100 days on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and rolling out vaccines. Putting out new fires takes attention he may not have spare.

Each reversal of a Trump policy will also include political calculations. Loosening these new asylum rules opens Mr Biden up to accusations of being weak on the border - a common Republican attack line.

Attempts to untangle America from its trade war with China, another area Mr Trump is reportedly considering escalating before leaving office, will also be politically perilous, given hardening sentiments in Washington towards Beijing.

The late flurry of policy moves by Mr Trump is just another sign he feels no imperative to smooth his successor's path into office.