In restoring a more conventional version of the presidency, Biden is using his mandate to counter the political forces that led to Trump’s rise and which still delivered more than 73 million votes to the President, albeit in a losing cause.
His Washington restoration is not without risk, and is already coming into conflict with Trump’s blend of nihilistic conservatism that is likely to dictate the Republican Party’s strategy even when he has left the Oval Office.
“Let’s begin the work to heal and unite America and the world,” Biden said.
His recruits, many of them protégés, represent the antithesis of the philosophy, style and comportment of Trump’s authoritarian, “America First” and anti-science White House that is driven by conspiracy theories and a personality cult.
Biden’s domestic, health and economic policy teams, expected to be revealed after Thanksgiving, will likely share the same blend of experience and knowledge after catching the eye of a President-elect who has more years on his Washington clock than any modern predecessor.
“The purpose of our administration is once again uniting. We can’t keep this virulent political dialogue going. It has to end,” Biden said.
His overarching point is this: the American people, after watching chaos, nepotism and anti-intellectualism in government amid a pandemic that killed a quarter million of their fellow citizens and as the US turned its back on its friends abroad, now just want people who know what they are doing and don’t make too much noise doing it. Each of his nominees highlighted on Tuesday from Thomas-Greenfield, who is Black, and Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, who is Hispanic, represent individual departures from Trumpism in personality, background and qualifications.
Multilateralism, diplomacy, quiet competence, scientific rigor, inclusivity, collegiality between top officials, respect for civil servants, the intelligence community and a welcome for immigrants are in.
Bashing allies, populism, nationalism, White House backbiting, despot coddling, ring-kissing Cabinet meetings, political hacks running spy agencies, and downplaying politically inconvenient threats — like killer viruses — are out.
Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu believes that Biden’s nominees reflect the man who chose them.
“The President-elect has been demonstrating and modeling what presidential behavior looks like,” Landrieu told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
“He is just trying to demonstrate to the people of America what it looks like when you have a president that is balanced, that is stable that is thoughtful and experienced,” he said.
The President-elect is likely to adopt that persona again when he delivers a Thanksgiving address to the American people from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday.
A completely different America
The sharp turn that America will take on Inauguration Day on January 20 reflects the stark choice that was before voters on November 3 — which has been only made more clear during Trump’s subsequent attempt to steal the election. It also underscores the elasticity of an American political system that has the ingrained capacity to counter the excesses of its leaders and often produces presidents who are the opposite of their predecessors.
Four years ago, Trump won an election after a campaign in which he vowed to destroy the political and economic establishment in Washington. His presidency tore at the institutions of federal power and the consensus of elites on economic, domestic, immigration and foreign policy.
In many ways, in placing his faith in seasoned Washington hands like Blinken and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, Biden is rebuilding that administrative state. Perhaps only the President-elect himself is a more establishment, experienced and conventional figure than former secretary of state and long-time senator John Kerry, who will serve as presidential climate envoy and is exactly the kind of global citizen that Bannon and his fellow travelers decry.
Biden is not hiding his belief that more government is good. In a statement released on Monday after the Trump administration finally agreed to begin a transition, his team vowed to gain a complete understanding of Trump’s “efforts to hollow government agencies.”
And several of Biden’s national security nominees on Monday made a point of paying tribute to the unseen functionaries of government who keep the country running but were treated like an enemy within during the Trump years.
“My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world. I want to say to you, America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back,” said Thomas-Greenfield. Haines spoke publicly to members of the covert community who were often on Trump’s target list.
“The work you do, oftentimes under the most austere conditions imaginable, is just indispensable,” said Haines. Several nominees offered fealty to the American ideal, Congress, the American public and democracy. While they all praised Biden, there was little of the exaggerated praise and expressions of personal loyalty that Trump requires of his subordinates. Haines told her new boss that she’d tell him bad news that he’d rather not hear, in another implied criticism of the Trump administration.
A different breed of official
The impression of professionalism and competence given by the group was a contrast to the late-term personnel on whom Trump has relied, who in many cases were unqualified for the great roles of state but prospered by prioritizing loyalty to the President.
Not all of Trump’s initial Cabinet picks were in the same mold. Those like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats were experienced and experts in their fields. But their attempts to play the role that Biden expects of his appointees were frustrated when they were constantly undermined by Trump who saw his government as in exclusive service to his personal needs. And these officials, who were dubbed “adults” in the press, frequently spent their time reigning in an erratic President’s worst impulses.
Biden’s approach is designed for the circumstances in which he will take office. With Covid-19 raging out of control he will face a nation badly in need of an organized strategy to roll out the vaccine that could restore normal life. Just not being Trump and signing back up to the Paris climate accord will give him instant wins on the world stage.
But in the longer term, the test of his presidency will be whether his vision of calm, deliberative leadership can pacify a nation whose politics resembles an unruly jungle, where his opponents didn’t wait until he won the election to try to delegitimize him and where there is no longer a common version of truth.
After all, President Barack Obama once tried to engage his opponents with facts and logic within the traditions of the US governing system. It didn’t get him far with Republican opponents whose political existence was directed towards thwarting whatever he proposed.
If things go wrong, Biden will face claims that the return of the administrative state triggered disaster, which will fuel Trump if he runs again in 2024 and the candidates who hope he won’t so they get a shot.
Abroad, Biden must prove whether indulging allies, a methodical policy process and the grunt work of dialogue can constrain a world of rising US rivals who have rocked the fraying global system in which he came of age. Experience and foreign policy expertise in successive administrations never solved some of the thorniest issues — like North Korea’s nuclear quest.
One reason Trump won four years ago is that many Americans believed that the globalized instincts of a generation of Washington elites caused their jobs to go abroad and the wars in which their kids were sent to fight.
“Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” Rubio tweeted. “I support American greatness. And I have no interest in returning to the ‘normal’ that left us dependent on China.”
His tweet, which overlooked the fact that many Trump officials also went to Ivy League schools, encapsulated the duel between Biden’s traditional White House leadership at home and abroad, and the populism harnessed by Trump.
That’s the truth, even though last desperate gasps of the Trump era increasingly bear one striking similarity to its origin: it all seems like a hopeless joke.
When the reality star descended his golden escalator at Trump Tower way back in 2015, his shock brand of race-baiting populism seemed like a futile attempt to make himself relevant and kickstart a flagging media career. The idea that he had a shot at becoming President of the United States seemed laughable.
But, dismissed by the media and ridiculed by fellow Republicans, Trump found a way to hopscotch from conspiracy theory to conspiracy theory all the way to the White House. And then nobody was laughing any more.
Now, it’s Trump remaining in office that seems impossible. Trump was clearly rejected by voters at the polls — nearly 6 million more people chose Biden — and his legal challenges in multiple states have all faltered.
And Rudy Giuliani is still ginning things up. On Thursday afternoon, Giuliani, hair dye dripping down his face, gave a wild press conference where he alleged a massive multi-state conspiracy to steal the election from the President. As evidence, he pointed to votes in Philadelphia, a barely concealed mimic of the Detroit complaint and a clear effort to disenfranchise voters in cities with large Black populations.
“That press conference was the most dangerous 1hr 45 minutes of television in American history. And possibly the craziest. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’re lucky,” said Chris Krebs, the DHS election security official recently fired by Trump, in a tweet.
The multi-pronged conspiracy is not millions more voters choosing Biden. It’s the expanding effort to overturn results in at least three states and undo a solid electoral defeat. It would be sad and funny if it weren’t quite literally about ignoring the voters to keep Trump in power.
And so it’s extremely distressing that Trump is on the phone with Republican officials who now say they want to rescind their certification of votes in Wayne County, which covers Detroit — a step that is normally just a technicality.
Much of Wall Street views the Trump campaign’s efforts to overturn the election results as a desperate sideshow destined to fail. But JPMorgan is telling clients there’s still a chance that this process descends into chaos. It is 2020, after all.
Michael Cembalest, chairman of market and investment strategy at JPMorgan Asset Management, warned in a report Wednesday of the “remote risk of an American horror story” and “constitutional mayhem.”
: Trust the votes
It was not that long ago that Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney was leading the GOP. Now he’s “shunned” by some, as he told David Axelrod in an Axe Files podcast released Thursday.
Mistrust of democracy. But I heard Romney say something else that completely hits the mark:
“Both here and around the world we are seeing a reduction in the confidence people have in voting,” Romney said.
“And if people don’t believe in voting, and don’t have confidence in voting, how can you have democracy, because democracy is fundamentally based on people voting.”
“And if the United State of America doesn’t believe that we have voting that’s reliable, why, how can you expect a country that’s just becoming a democracy to adopt this practice and use it as a basis for determining its future.”
The counterargument to this is that the 2020 election, despite Trump’s silly allegations of rigging, drew a record number of voters. For now, at least, voters are voting. And that’s a good thing. Georgia’s hand recount of its election reaffirmed Biden’s victory over Trump and found no widespread voter fraud — just like we thought it would.
Paralyzed Senate. He also described how the Senate, which is necessary to pass any major legislation, votes on very little major legislation.
“Over the years the Senate has moved and moved to a point where I think there’s a reluctance to vote on things that might be bad votes for members of the majority’s party,” Romney said.
“As a result we don’t vote on much. Not either up or down, things we agree with, but if it’s bad for Senator X, Y or Z, why then we don’t want to take that vote. We vote very rarely on matters of substance. Just as a particular, I think in the two years I’ve been in the Senate, we haven’t had a single vote on a matter related to health care, immigration, tax policy, climate change, the list goes on.”
: Where schools are closed but restaurants are open
As more people around the country deal with new restrictions on schooling and movement, Greg Krieg writes about the special situation in New York City, where schools were shut after school ended Wednesday — so suddenly that kids left their textbooks in class. Some excerpts from Krieg:
Poor delivery. It is a demoralizing setback for a city that slowly re-opened after seeing more than 30,000 pandemic deaths and now faces a deadly winter surge of new Covid-19 infections. The news was delivered to principals by the city’s schools chancellor at around 2 p.m. on Wednesday, after hours of uncertainty, and set off a scramble among parents juggling child care needs and work responsibilities.
Conflicting standards. Part of the public confusion — and private differences — centered on how the city and state measure coronavirus test positivity rates. Some nine months into the pandemic, they are still employing different metrics to settle some of the most pressing issues facing New Yorkers.
Bars and gyms stay open! Frustration over the process and timing of the shutdown bubbled over almost immediately after the mayor, following hours of uncertainty, tweeted out his decision. That anger was compounded by the fact that city restaurants, bars and gyms — the places most experts say the virus is most apt to spread — remain open at limited capacities in accordance with guidelines set by the state.
: Now, reconsider Thanksgiving plans
“The reason that we made the update is that the fact that over the week we’ve seen over a million new cases in the country,” Dr. Erin Sauber-Schatz, the CDC’s lead for Community Intervention and Critical Population Task Force, said during the briefing.
I changed my plans this week and it didn’t make me sad so much as angry. When will this end?
I will admit to complaining about Thanksgiving in recent years. There are hassles. How to cook the turkey. Where to celebrate. Who’s coming. Who isn’t. Traffic. Those frustrations seem silly today, like the complaints you hear from people who don’t like to to celebrate their birthday.
So skip the big meal this year, but definitely celebrate your birthday. You don’t know how many more you’ll get.
The continuing power struggle between two men with diametrically different philosophies on how the US should handle the virus has left the nation rudderless at this critical moment — forced by Trump into a governing crisis as he refuses to let the transition to the Biden presidency proceed and pass on knowledge that could be critical to slowing the spread of the virus next year.
The President is still adhering to the same hands-off approach that led so many voters to reject his leadership on Election Day, inaccurately stating that the increase in cases is the result of increased testing as he tries to focus public attention on his administration’s efforts to speed up a vaccine through Operation Warp Speed.
The President spent most of Saturday golfing and tweeting his baseless and debunked conspiracy theories about how the election was rigged, and driving by a crowd of his supporters who gathered in Washington to protest the election results on the basis of his lies and propaganda.
He barely addressed the virus on Twitter Saturday, tweeting: “Congress must now do a Covid Relief Bill. Needs Democrats support. Make it big and focused. Get it done!”
Amid that leadership vacuum, many doctors and top medical experts are bracing for even greater holiday spikes, noting that Americans have simply let their guards down and given in to the desire to return to normal life. The President unquestionably played a role in those attitudes as the administration abandoned its coronavirus task force briefings months ago and he tried to win reelection by advancing the falsehood that the US was “rounding the corner.”
Given the complexities of rapid vaccine distribution and the potential for catastrophic consequences if doctors, hospitals and first responders don’t have what they need to handle the current rise in Covid-19 cases, Democrats — and even some Republicans from past administrations — are sounding the alarm about the need for more communication between the outgoing and incoming administrations in this grave moment of national crisis.
“We have a president who has gone AWOL,” said Leon Panetta, who served as White House chief of staff under former President Bill Clinton and as CIA director and secretary of defense under former President Barack Obama. “AWOL from the election and its results, AWOL from Covid-19 and the impact it’s having, AWOL from the transition and frankly AWOL from the presidency.”
“That has created a dangerous moment here,” Panetta told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Saturday night on “The Situation Room.”
Lack of communication raises alarm about virus response
“This crisis demands a robust and immediate federal response, which has been woefully lacking. I am the president-elect, but I will not be president until next year,” Biden said, underscoring the limitations of his position. “The crisis does not respect dates on the calendar, it is accelerating right now…. Right now is a moment for shared responsibility and shared action. Together, we have the power to rein in this virus. And I promise you, from the moment I am sworn in on January 20, I will do everything in my power to lead this unified national effort.”
The President-elect’s advisers have been increasingly vocal about their concerns about the lack of information sharing between the current and future administrations.
“This is truly a national security threat,” Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases specialist, epidemiologist and Biden Transition Covid-19 board member, said on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360” Friday evening. “I cannot even imagine another situation — if we were in the midst of a war — that you wouldn’t have handoff of information and plans to a succeeding president.”
“We’re at a point now, even pre-Thanksgiving, where we are surging beyond any level that we have seen over the last eight months,” Murthy, a former surgeon general under President Barack Obama, said on “The Situation Room.” “What we do over these next few weeks is going to have a profound impact on whether this spread increases or whether we ultimately control the spread of this virus.”
Local leaders weigh stronger measures to curb the virus
In the absence of a vigorous federal response, local leaders are once again considering more dramatic action to control the spread, which could create major economic and logistical disruptions.
The 2.4% test positivity rate in New York City is now close enough to the 3% threshold that could lead the city to close schools and transition students to remote learning, a possibility that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo discussed during a call with journalists Saturday where he added that some schools might be able to “test out” of closures if they have a much lower positivity rate than the surrounding area.
The resurgence in Oregon, where cases topped more than 1,000 a day for the third day in a row Saturday, led Gov. Kate Brown to announce a “two week freeze” on Friday that will limit social gatherings to six people and two households, close restaurants and bars and place new limits on the number of people who can gather within faith-based organizations. The freeze will span from November 18 to December 2.
“I know it’s hard and I know everybody is weary but we are trying to stop this ferocious virus from spreading,” Brown said.
In Los Angeles, where cases have surged from about a 1,000 a day three weeks ago to nearly 4,000 on Saturday, according Mayor Eric Garcetti, officials created the largest testing center in America at Dodger Stadium — ushering some 8,000 people through the testing regimen on a single day this past week.
On Saturday, the Navajo Nation ordered a new three-week stay-at-home lockdown, restricting travel and only allowing residents to leave their homes for emergencies or to pick up groceries, medicine and firewood.
“We are inching closer and closer to a major public health crisis in which we could potentially see our hospitals filling up with patients,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement. “Our health care system on the Navajo Nation cannot sustain a long-term surge in Covid-19 cases. The safest place to be is at home.”
CNN’s Elizabeth Joseph, Sheena Jones, Jenn Selva, Konstantin Toropin and Paul Vercammen contributed to this report.
And Trump waited only two days after the election was called for Biden to start exacting retribution on those he sees as enemies inside his administration.
Esper’s firing reflected the President’s capacity to rock key agencies of the government in his remaining weeks in office to make it easier to enforce his will and create disruption in the government that could hobble Biden’s early days in office.
“Frankly, he can do a lot of damage, by destabilizing every major agency, by firing a whole series of senior leaders,” Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday.
Monday’s developments emphasized that while Biden’s margins in states where the result of the election have yet to be finalized make any overturning of results almost impossible, Republicans are seeking to create a shadow over his triumph in order to delegitimize his presidency in the minds of millions of conservative voters. That may end up being Trump’s most destructive legacy.
A transition that is more important than normal
Traditionally, and in accordance with law, an outgoing administration makes available financing, office space and other federal resources to make the business of inheriting an entity as vast as the multi-trillion dollar US government as smooth as possible, on the principle that even political opponents share a desire to preserve the national interest. Typically, this process begins within hours of an election being called.
New administrations swiftly send “landing teams” into federal agencies to get up to speed in operations, to consider staffing needs and to receive briefings on vital programs. In national security and military departments, incoming officials learn of covert activity under way, behind-closed-doors diplomacy and threat information that a new president needs to know. The process also allows officials to get a jump on establishing their national security clearances.
His attitude — hardly surprising after his consistent prioritization of his personal and political goals — and the organizational roadblocks mean the next few months will be as acrimonious and chaotic as the previous three-and-a-half years of his presidency.
“I think this is going to be the most hostile and tumultuous presidential transition in modern history, at least since the 1932 transition in the middle of the Great Depression,” said Rebecca Lissner, a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University and co-author of the new book “An Open World” that lays out a new roadmap for US foreign policy.
“What we need to fear is what can happen when you have an outgoing Trump administration that actively hobbles the incoming Biden team whether by virtue of incompetence or whether by virtue of outright sabotage, something that does become a more distinct possibility in light of the President’s refusal to accept the result of the election,” Lissner said.
Biden team steps up rhetoric
Some national security experts are worried that the President could take steps such as ordering all US troops out of Afghanistan or seek to radically change the US footprint in Asia — moves that might be difficult for Biden to reverse.
And if a President who has consistently chafed at the limits of his power and politicized the Justice Department pursues pardons for his acolytes caught up in criminal cases — or even seeks to create prospective immunity for his family members or himself — he will stoke massive controversy and recriminations.
So far, the Biden team has sought to give the President space to digest his defeat. But with the Trump campaign vowing to pursue long-shot legal challenges, delays in starting the transition become more serious the more time passes.
Trump’s obstruction contrasts with recent handovers of power in which presidents have ordered their staff to do everything to accommodate their successor’s teams. Obama administration officials were surprised and grateful with cooperation from President George W. Bush’s White House during the last economic crisis in 2008-09. President Barack Obama sought to offer the same courtesy to Trump’s nascent administration, but in many cases incoming officials on a mission to gut the federal government turned a blind eye.
It was an almost surreal moment, after months of Trump’s misinformation over the virus, when a figure of authority who is close to assuming the mantle of the presidency pleaded with Americans of all political persuasions to wear masks.
“It’s not a political statement,” Biden said.
One advantage for Biden is that his staff numbers seasoned Washington hands such as Ron Klain — who served as chief of staff to vice presidents Biden and Al Gore — and Jake Sullivan, a former senior national security aide, who are prepped for senior West Wing roles. Despite such experience, however, Democratic operatives have been on the outside for the last four years. So it was significant to see Coons strike a new note of urgency on Monday evening on the need to get the process moving properly as the Biden camp realizes a contested transition is a possibility.
“President Trump needs to accept that he has lost the election. His allies and colleagues here in the Senate need to speak up about this matter and we need to move forward,” Coons said on “The Situation Room.” Those remarks will be interpreted as a calculated escalation of the Biden camp’s rhetoric since Coons is close to Biden and is considered a possible candidate for a Cabinet post, including secretary of state.
The GOP calculation
Only a minority of Republicans, including Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mitt Romney of Utah, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, have publicly accepted that Biden won the election. Others, as they have throughout the Trump administration, have treated the situation with delicacy because they hope to have a political future.
“Let’s not have any lectures. No lectures, about how the President should immediately, cheerfully accept preliminary election results from the same characters who just spent four years refusing to accept the validity of the last election and who insinuated that this one would be illegitimate too, if they lost again,” McConnell said on the Senate floor, referring to Democrats.
Still, there is also a sense that Republicans are going out of their way to give the President time to accept reality — just the latest occasion when his ego has dictated the course of governance over the last four years.
As the days pass, and the Trump campaign fails to produce convincing evidence and arguments to back up the President’s claims of electoral fraud, the inevitability of Biden’s assumption of power will set in.
Many foreign leaders are already looking past Trump. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau released a photograph of himself during a telephone conversation with he President-elect on Monday.
But that doesn’t mean the next two months are going to be an easy ride.
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