As Trump refuses to concede, his agencies awkwardly prepare what they can for a Biden transition
Posted November 13, 2020 8:11 p.m. EST
CNN — Bulky briefing books and budgets are unopened. Office spaces dedicated to the transition sit vacant. And planning conversations between incoming and outgoing administrations have been silenced for now.
The federal agencies were required by law to prepare for a transition before the 2020 election, but the flurry of activity that would normally be taking place during a presidential transition sits on hold thanks to President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the election results.
Agency officials in the Trump administration put in charge of the transition are in the awkward place of effectively twiddling their thumbs until the General Services Administration, an agency led by a Trump appointee, signs off on the election results -- a process that is normally not an issue.
Cabinet leaders, meanwhile, have suggested there will be a second Trump term, playing into Trump's fantasies that he hasn't lost to President-elect Joe Biden.
But that doesn't mean the agencies aren't making some preparations for the inevitable.
One Department of Energy division is starting to quietly prepare for the incoming Biden administration even though no official connection has been made, according to one staffer in the department.
"We had a call yesterday and talked quite a bit about this, and the direction we received was to expect a transition, start planning for it, think about the things that the Biden team would likely want to see and start brushing up on those documents and start thinking about how do we frame our programs, and our work in a way that is attractive to the Biden administration," the staffer told CNN.
The staffer clarified that this guidance was not from Trump appointees but from professional staff, and that it was purposefully delivered in the form of phone call and not a memo, so as not to have a paper trail.
"This is not direction from the current political appointees from the Trump administration, it's from basically the staff below the political level," the staffer said.
State Department officials are growing anxious and frustrated as they are prevented from interacting with Biden's transition team. "It is frustrating on one hand, but on another it is also damaging to the morale at the department," said one current official familiar with the pause that has been put in place.
The preparations, which career diplomats carry out, as required by law, are already done. The office spaces for the transition teams --- both the State Department career officials assigned to the job by the department and the Biden State Department team -- are sitting vacant.
"They have done everything they can do. Now they just wait," said a source familiar with the process.
While department officials realize they have no other option but to remain patient, recognizing that they will eventually get to work with the incoming team, they also believe the department needs a tremendous amount of attention and would like the Biden team to get in as soon as possible.
"I am worried they are going to open up the hood, and it is going to be a lot worse than they expected," said a second State Department official.
A Treasury staffer said the Treasury Department has been "running through a standard transition process," which began a month out from the election. That process is ongoing, the source said, though there has been no communication regarding landing teams from the Biden transition yet.
Inside the Department of Homeland Security, Mark Koumans, a longtime DHS official who is leading the transition effort for the department, recently reminded staff that until there is a declaration certifying the election, personnel should refrain from speaking directly with members of the Biden team and continue to go through the department's transition office, a department official told CNN.
Democratic congressional aides who regularly deal with agencies say their contacts have gone silent since the election, with one suspecting concerns about losing their jobs or being the target of a hunt for leaks -- particularly after the administration's personnel chief spread word throughout the administration on Monday that if he heard of anyone looking for another job they would be fired, according to a senior official.
"The silence is still deafening," a DHS official said when asked about outreach from leadership on the transition. The department seems to be in a "wait and see" mode, the official added, saying that any transactions with the Biden team prior to official certification appear "unlikely at this point."
Falsely suggesting a second Trump term
Since the race was called by news organizations last Saturday, Trump has refused to accept the outcome, spreading false claims of widespread voter fraud while his campaign has filed a flurry of lawsuits that aren't going to overturn the results of the election.
While congressional Republicans are coming around to the fact that Biden won, some of Trump's Cabinet officials have stayed loyal to his false claims, suggesting there will be a second Trump term.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed, "There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration." And in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar answered a question about coronavirus response by suggesting the transition was still a hypothetical.
"Obviously, if there's a transition here, we're going to ensure it's a professional, cooperative one," Azar said.
The White House budget office is even directing agencies to prepare a budget for the next year as if nothing is changing, according to a person familiar with the plans. Another person said that while there hasn't been a formal memo spelling this out, the message to agencies is to proceed as normal.
The formal transition is likely to remain on hold until the election is certified by the General Services Administration in a process known as ascertainment. That decision is made by GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee.
Congressional Democrats wrote to Murphy earlier this week requesting a briefing and saying that she was "undermining the urgent need for a prompt and effective transition of power in the midst of a global pandemic that must be focused on the safety and well-being of our citizens."
Some Republicans have rallied to her defense. Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia, the top Republican on the House Government Operations Subcommittee, wrote Murphy a letter Friday claiming it was premature to make a determination that Biden is the President-elect.
Transitioning without a formal transition
Regardless, Biden's team is moving forward with its transition, naming a lengthy team for all of the agencies that is beginning the work of selecting Cabinet leaders and staffing up, even though it is currently shut out from funding -- and the agencies themselves. Biden's team is downplaying the significance the delayed transition will have on the incoming administration.
"We're not interested in having a food fight with the GSA administrator or anyone. We just want to get access to intelligence information, to threat assessments, to the ongoing work on Covid, so that we can prepare to govern," Biden transition spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday.
But there are tangible effects to the delay.
Normally, a President-elect would immediately begin receiving the same classified briefings as the President. But so far those briefings have not happened for Biden, as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has not engaged with the Biden team.
A stack of messages from foreign leaders to Biden are sitting at the State Department because the Trump administration is preventing him from accessing them. While Biden's coronavirus team has been reaching out to states and the medical community to hit the ground running once Biden is inaugurated, the transition team does not have access to the administration's Covid-19 data and virus distribution plans.
"Not only are they not getting access to classified information or already appropriated funds, they aren't getting their review teams into the agencies, and getting ahold of the real budget picture in the agencies and the real personnel picture," said Denis McDonough, who was President Barack Obama's chief of staff.
'The next best thing'
Michael Chertoff, who served as the secretary of Homeland Security under President George W. Bush and helped the department transition to the Obama administration, said the department had run a simulation of what to do if a pandemic happened, "so they could really get a feel for how things work in the levers of government."
"Much of the story of this last administration and the next couple of months is a disdain for the workings of government," Chertoff said. "It's almost as if it's a determination that they want to wreck government and make it as hard as possible for government to do its job. The problem is that leaves a lot of people dead, as we've seen with the virus."
Since Defense Secretary Mark Esper's firing by Trump on Monday, Biden's transition team is reaching out to former Pentagon officials who worked for former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as they seek to gather information for an incoming Biden team, according to two former officials who have been contacted by the transition team.
The conversations are a result of the inability to engage with current Pentagon officials at this time, the sources told CNN. They come as an effort to build the transition team's understanding about what has happened in the department over the last four years. Politico first reported the communications.
The Biden team is also aware that even when they are able to speak with current defense officials after the General Services Administration signs off on Biden's victory, those officials may not be eager to engage or be as forthcoming as the ones who have already departed.
Reaching out to former officials, one of the ex-officials explained, is "the next best thing."