Biden’s presidential transition started with a walk four years ago today

Questions remain whether Trump will cooperate this time around

Heath Brown
Published in
4 min readApr 22, 2024


Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash

Exactly four years ago, Joe Biden took the first bold step to get ready to be President. Martha Kumar, an expert in presidential transitions, recently revealed that on April 22, 2020 — just two weeks after Senator Bernie Sanders had suspended his campaign — Biden took a walk with his longtime friend and aide Ted Kaufman to discuss what had to happen in the event he won the November election.

Their walk near Biden’s home in Delaware wasn’t followed by a press conference or social media blitz; it was largely kept a secret. Soon after, though, they made a big choice: agreeing Jeff Zients would organize the transition.

Zients — who is now the White House chief of staff — had taken on the most difficult assignments during the Obama years, including fixing the Obamacare website and the response to the Ebola outbreak, and that meant he was the right one to prepare to govern during a national emergency. This turned out to be a wise decision as the 2020 transition went off without a hitch, all despite the pandemic continuing to ravage the country, a violent attack on the Capitol, and an outgoing President stubbornly refusing to cooperate.

A week later, Biden’s advisers filed the paperwork in Delaware to formalize the start of the transition. On May 1, they formed the non-profit, PT Fund Inc, with the mission to “facilitate the orderly transition of the executive branch of the federal government to the Biden-Harris administration.” The first vote in the general election wouldn’t be cast for six more months, but the infrastructure for the transfer of power was already in place.

This was an early start, but not even the earliest a recent presidential candidate had made such a move to get ready to govern. That record goes to George W. Bush who’d tapped his closest adviser, Clay Johnson, with the task a year before the 2000 election.

Nevertheless, the stakes were different in 2020.

Unlikely twenty years earlier, Joe Biden faced a president who was himself running for re-election. Trump also had proven willing to pounce on any chance to paint his opponent as a rule-breaker.

At this juncture in 2020, Biden wasn’t doing anything of the sort, nor was Trump. That May, Trump’s White House complied with the federal law by creating transition task forces and naming agency transition liaisons, despite the fact he was in the race. And, as the law requires, Biden’s newly formed transition team soon began to meet with the federal transition apparatus overseen by the General Services Administration.

As the campaign moved ahead, transition planning did too. Biden added staff and chose additional leaders, like Yohannes Abraham to run day-to-day operations and Avril Haines to oversee foreign affairs and national security planning. After the Democratic convention, the Trump government again adhered to pre-election transition rules and even signed a memorandum-of-understanding with the Biden transition team on access to federal support.

Ted Kaufman was delighted and exceedingly surprised at this. He had every reason to think that, even if they won the election, Trump would do anything other than follow the rules. And, in the end, he was right. Though many parts of the federal government did all that was required to help Biden’s team get ready, Trump and some Trump appointees resisted. The early indicators of compliance before the election may have been the result of Trump paying little attention to the transition. Once he did, the signals were clear: the Biden-Harris team wasn’t legitimate.

People I spoke with about the transition for a new book on this period said as much. In meetings arranged after the election, Trump officials routinely denied the Biden team access to information and refused to help. Though this obstruction wasn’t universal, in key areas the process was far from cooperative.

On the four year anniversary of the start of Biden’s transition, what will transpire this time remains unclear. The same deadlines for cooperation Trump’s White House complied with in 2020 are now faced by Biden’s. All signs suggest Biden’s team will do the same again this time and abide by the requirements of sitting presidents, even those running for re-election. Six months ago they did just that: following the law’s mandate that it establish a transition website and post updated information about what will transpire this year.

A pressing question is whether Trump’s team will cooperate, too.



Heath Brown

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits