Opinion | The Presidential Transition Must Go On

Joe Biden is the next president of the United States, and his predecessor is not handling his election loss well. In what may be the least surprising development of his term in office, President Trump has spent several days now falsely claiming widespread voter fraud and other nefarious behavior. Yes, counting the votes was vital, but now that the results are clear; it is time to move on.

Perhaps the second least surprising development? Many Republican leaders are indulging Mr. Trump’s tantrum.

There is a sycophancy spectrum. Some Republicans are going all in on the president’s conspiratorial rantings, spreading them like fertilizer on a field. Others are trying to have it both ways: not actively parroting his lies yet passively tolerating his disinformation campaign. As the rationalization seems to go: He’s on his way out. What’s the harm in letting him vent for a few days more?

Where to begin?

Even if this display of defiance is largely, or wholly, performative, it is dangerous. While there is little evidence of coordinated violence so far, urging his supporters to view the race as stolen — and, by extension, Joe Biden’s presidency as illegitimate — could all too easily incite someone to seek retribution, resulting in tragedy. It is also corrosive. Cynically undermining Mr. Biden’s future presidency could do lasting harm to an already divided nation.

There is more targeted, more concrete damage being done as well. Mr. Biden will solidly carry the Electoral College. Barring some dramatic, unforeseen development, he will be sworn into office on Jan. 20. It is in the interest of the entire nation — a nation already struggling with a tangle of crises — for that transfer of power to go as smoothly as possible.

A presidential transition is a monumental undertaking. As the advisory board of the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition noted on Sunday, “To build an effective government ready to address the urgent needs of our great country, the new president will have to recruit 4,000 political appointees, including 1,250 who require Senate confirmation; prepare a $4.7 trillion budget; implement a strong policy agenda; and assume leadership of a work force of two million civilian employees and two million active duty and reserve troops.”

“While there will be legal disputes requiring adjudication,” the board observed, “the outcome is sufficiently clear that the transition process must now begin.”

Some of that necessary work is going forward despite Mr. Trump’s foot-dragging. Mr. Biden’s teams are deep into staffing decisions and are firming up plans for his first days in office. Executive orders are being drawn up. A coronavirus advisory team has been assembled. Briefings are being conducted.

When it sees fit, the campaign can begin announcing nominees — a process often done in batches, starting a few weeks after the election — which enables the Senate to start preparing for hearings. “Best practice generally dictates having White House positions filled by Thanksgiving, and the most important Cabinet positions ready to announce between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” according to the transition center’s website.

That said, crucial elements of the transition cannot proceed without official clearance by the General Services Administration, the obscure agency that oversees the basic functioning of federal agencies, including the presidential transition. A green light from the agency frees up the office space and money necessary to kick the transition into high gear. It also triggers certain meetings and procedures and allows incoming officials to access classified information and computer systems.

Typically, such authorization is granted within hours of the presidential race being called. As of this writing, the authorization has yet to occur. As The Times noted on Monday, this is blocking Mr. Biden’s teams “from moving into government offices, including secure facilities where they can discuss classified information. The teams cannot meet with their counterparts in agencies or begin background checks of top cabinet nominees that require top-secret access.”

All of this has serious implications for national security. In the chaotic aftermath of the 2000 election, in which the outcome really was unclear, the transition process was delayed. This “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees,” concluded the 9/11 Commission, which analyzed the circumstances surrounding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In its report, the commission stressed the need going forward to get incoming officials settled quickly to “minimize as much as possible the disruption of national security policymaking.”

The White House has also yet to follow the commission’s recommendation to swiftly provide the president-elect “with a classified, compartmented list that catalogs specific, operational threats to national security; major military or cover operations; and pending decisions on the possible use of force,” according to The Washington Post.

So not only is Mr. Trump trying to monopolize the nation’s attention and keep the spotlight off Mr. Biden and the reasons he was elected, but the current commander in chief’s acting out is creating a worrisome opportunity for America’s foreign adversaries to exploit.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Biden projected an air of unruffled certainty. “The fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge we won at this point, is not of much consequence in our planning and what we’re able to do between now and Jan. 20,” he said.

It is Mr. Biden’s job to steady the nation. That is what elected leaders are supposed to do. But make no mistake: Mr. Trump is once more putting his own interests above the good of the American people. That so many Republican officials continue to enable him is the fitting coda to his presidency.

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