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November 12, 2020 – “The United States is almost alone among major democracies in taking so long to install a new head of state,” write Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay. “In France, the president takes office within ten days of the election. In the United Kingdom, the moving trucks arrive at 10 Downing Street the morning after the incumbent loses. The United States’ two and a half months looks good only in comparison to Mexico, where the transition lasts an arduous five months.”
“Even under ideal circumstances, presidential transitions constitute an uneasy interregnum in U.S. politics,” note the authors. “This time around, however, President Donald Trump has refused to accept the election outcome, and his team is not cooperating with the president-elect. As a result, the transition period will be more perilous than ever. Trump’s recalcitrance not only threatens American democracy but endangers national security. That experience should motivate U.S. policymakers to take an entirely fresh look at the country’s approach to presidential transitions.”
While President-elect Joe Biden and his team must avoid behavior suggesting an attempt to undermine the current administration, “acknowledging and respecting the powers of the presidency . . . doesn’t mean standing idly by,” Daalder and Lindsay argue. “Biden is unlikely to hold much sway with Trump, but by introducing his new team and issuing a steady stream of policy pronouncements and briefings, Biden can signal to the American public and to the world how his administration will look and what it will do.”
Trump, however, has thrown the transition process itself into doubt. “Before the transition can legally begin, the head of the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, must certify that the election has been decided. Murphy, a Trump appointee, has so far refused to do so, leaving the transition in limbo,” they write. “Senior administration officials may delay, if not outright refuse, to meet with the agency review teams. If Trump officials do agree to meet, they might not be forthcoming about what they know. They could refuse to give transition teams access to the documents they request or even destroy records.”
“The next ten weeks will be turbulent, and Trump’s intransigence will be to blame,” the authors conclude. “The drama and chaos of the current transition may well make this the right moment to consider shortening the time frame, perhaps by moving elections closer to the constitutionally mandated inauguration day. At ten weeks, presidential transitions are too long to be reassuring, too short to be thorough, but just the right length to cause trouble.”
Ivo H. Daalder is President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
James M. Lindsay is Senior Vice President and Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
They are the co-authors of The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership. For more on the challenges facing President-elect Joe Biden, listen to the first episode of a special Transition 2021 series from James Lindsay’s The President’s Inbox podcast, featuring Council on Foreign Relations President Richard N. Haass.