Transitions? I’ve seen a few.
Since 2000, I have participated in three prior presidential transitions from the vantage points of both the departing and the incoming administration. This year, although I serve on the Biden-Harris transition advisory board, I am not a member of the transition team and, as always, these views are my own.
Each transition I experienced was different, but what they shared was a recognition that our country’s national security is best served when both sides endeavor to have a responsible handoff of power. Conversely, it is undermined when either side refuses to engage the other seriously.
In the week since Joe Biden’s victory became clear, President Trump and his administration have taken no steps toward starting the process of transition. The risks to our national security are mounting.
My first transition began in December 2000, soon after the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the winner of the disputed election. As the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, I was the first bureau chief to meet with the incoming secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell.
President-elect Bush and his senior national security team had begun receiving the president’s daily intelligence briefing and had access to critical information. But the normal process that follows “ascertainment” — in which the incoming administration sends teams to each department to receive detailed information on policy, budget, personnel and other matters — had awaited the Supreme Court’s Dec. 12 Bush v. Gore decision.
I was struck immediately by Secretary-designate Powell’s unique style. He came alone to the State Department — cool, confident, casually dressed and without staff members, bag-carriers or pretense of any sort. He asked to meet with me and the Africa bureau first, presumably to send the message that he would treat this sometimes-under-appreciated region of the world with the seriousness it deserves.
Mr. Powell asked thoughtful, probing questions and brought his signature dignity and professionalism to every encounter with the departing administration. Despite the abbreviated transition timetable and the controversy surrounding the election, we on the exiting Clinton team did our utmost to provide Mr. Powell with everything that he might want in terms of information and support.
In 2008, I was a co-leader of President-elect Barack Obama’s national security transition team and was named United Nations ambassador-designate. I had started working with the General Services Administration before the election to ensure that the office space allotted to the president-elect’s team would be suitable for all of our needs, including the handling of classified information.
Swiftly granted a top-secret security clearance, I received access to the president’s intelligence briefing in order to help facilitate the smooth transfer of sensitive security information from one team to the next. Later, I was provided full support by my predecessor at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and his team, as I sought to prepare for confirmation and quickly get up to speed.
Mr. Obama often speaks of how much he valued the stellar efforts of Mr. Bush and his administration to conduct a thorough and seamless transition. At each agency and in almost every respect, the 2008 transition was a model for its thoroughness, collegiality and efficacy.
Finally, I was national security adviser in 2016 during the handoff from Mr. Obama to President-elect Trump. Under strict instructions from Mr. Obama to provide his successor, whoever it may be, with a quality start that matched or exceeded that which he had received from Mr. Bush, the National Security Council staff worked for months in advance of the election to prepare more than 100 briefing papers.
I personally reviewed every memo on subjects that ranged from staffing, budget and the most complicated policy issues, to numerous potentially dire national security contingencies that might arise early in a new administration, along with recommended steps for how to deal with them.
Shortly after my successor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, was named, I called to congratulate him and pledged to give him as much of my time until the Trump inauguration as he wanted. It took a couple weeks for General Flynn to take me up on my repeated offers to meet but, ultimately, we met on four separate occasions, spending more than 12 hours together.
I answered all of his questions on how to approach the job of national security adviser and laid out in depth the numerous challenges he would confront immediately — from the campaign to defeat the Islamic State to threats posed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. I also stressed the need to be prepared for less obvious threats, like the potentially catastrophic collapse of the Mosul Dam in Iraq and pandemic disease.
At the conclusion of our last meeting, I wished General Flynn well and offered to be of assistance, if needed, after he took office. Following our goodbyes, but before he left my office, General Flynn surprised me by asking for a hug. It was a collegial and respectful, if slightly awkward, request, and I obliged.
As it turns out, my hours with General Flynn and those of other White House officials with their incoming counterparts, plus President Obama’s two-hour meeting with President-elect Trump, proved to be the sum total of the 2016 national security transition at the highest levels. That’s because the incoming Trump cabinet was apparently told not to meet with their Obama counterparts in their respective departments and most did not do so. The exception was one three-hour tabletop exercise in January, which is mandated by law, during which cabinet officials on both teams sat together to review mock threat scenarios relating to terrorism, cybersecurity and pandemic disease.
It was far from the optimal transition that Mr. Obama had wanted.
In 2020, as the days tick by and Mr. Trump shows no signs of starting a transition, the risks increase.
Mr. Biden and his top national security team have not been provided the daily intelligence briefings to which they are entitled. Mr. Biden’s team is not receiving classified information. The Biden-Harris agency review teams are constituted but have been denied access to every element of the executive branch. Vital exchanges of information and expertise that would help combat Covid-19 and jump-start the economy remain stalled.
While we are extremely fortunate that Mr. Biden may be the most experienced president-elect ever to take office and brings with him a deep bench of highly qualified, knowledgeable experts, the Trump administration’s continued refusal to execute a responsible transition puts our national security at risk. Without access to critical threat information, no incoming team can counter what it can’t see coming.
If, today, the Trump administration is tracking potential or actual threats — for instance, Russian bounties on American soldiers, a planned terrorist attack on an embassy, a dangerously mutated coronavirus, or Iranian and North Korean provocations — but fails to share this information in a timely fashion with the Biden-Harris team, it could cost us dearly in terms of American lives.
Indeed, the 9/11 Commission, which investigated the 2001 Qaeda terrorist attacks on U.S. soil that killed some 3,000 Americans, found that the truncated 2000 transition slowed the installation of key national security officials and stressed the importance of complete and thorough presidential transitions to U.S. national security.
Instead of acting in the national interest to orchestrate a responsible, democratic transition, Mr. Trump and many Republicans are spending time sowing false doubts about the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s election.
Tragically, but not surprisingly, Mr. Trump appears determined to take a final wrecking ball to our democracy and U.S. national security on his inevitable way out the door.
Susan E. Rice (@AmbassadorRice), the national security adviser from 2013 to 2017 and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a contributing opinion writer. She is the author of the memoir “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For.”
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