A National Security Risk: Why a peaceful transition of power is more than just norm-busting
Deep in the 9/11 Commission’s report is a dire warning. An ineffective transition of power weakens the United States.
There are two concurrent crisis occurring. Firstly, the obstructionist behaviour of the outgoing Trump administration and its consequent failure to work towards a peaceful, effective transition of power. Secondly, the inability of all sane-minded peoples to convey just how dangerous this is.
Trump’s years have been characterised by ally-bashing, dictator-worshiping, and almost weekly warnings from long-serving national security personnel about the risks this President poses. This message has simply not resonated. Over seventy-million people voted again for this man, many of whom I suspect are exhausted — exhausted of being reduced to racists and xenophobes, allegations they simply fail to recognise, and exhausted of hearing “prophets of doom” warn that Trump has weakened, not strengthened, the United States. No matter how authoritative, loud, or serious those voices are, they have not been listened to.
Some may argue that the concerns have come too late and that the Trump administration is already a national security threat. The death of a quarter of a million people from COVID-19 is the equivalent to over eighty three 9/11s. But this lethal force is defeated with science, not bombs, so it has failed to evoke the macho interest of so-called national security hawks.
The truth is, though, when an administration is operational, the United States government is one of the most stable in the world, while still having some weak spots that President elect Biden will seek to redress. Now it is at its most vulnerable — a moment where power is in flux— with the character weaknesses of Donald Trump being rawly exposed, only this time with the added ingredient of a humiliating electoral defeat to influence his erratic behaviour.
Constitutionally, the transition of power begins when the General Services Administration (GSA) ascertains the winner of the election (as per 1963 Presidential Transition Act). Robert MacKichan, who was general counsel to the GSA during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations admits the law is vague and much of what occurs is inspired by precedent.
Thankfully, we have precedent of transitioning from a Republican administration to a Democratic one. Only this time, according to Chris Lu who was Barack Obama’s transition director in 2008, there “was not an issue at all in 2008. The election was called at about 11 p.m. on election night, and within about two hours, I received a letter from the GSA administrator ascertaining that Sen. Obama was the president-elect”.
This isn’t just a transition between parties, though, it is the rejection of a one term President, who, now wounded, will not make sure “America must always come first”, as George H. W. Bush did in 1992. Democrat Jimmy Carter was similarly gracious in defeat and forthcoming in his support for Reagan’s administration. Even candidates who did not like each other, as was the case in 1932, understand that the eyes of both allies and foes are more fixed on America now than they are at virtually any other point of a President’s term.
And there’s reason why this is perhaps the only issue that hitherto hasn’t turned into a partisan fight, indeed, earlier this year the Republican controlled Senate committed unanimously to a peaceful transition of power. Because a peaceful transition of power isn’t a culture war or a Washington infight. It’s a national security issue.
“When the 9/11 Commission did their autopsy on what went wrong, one of the things they pointed to was the slow pace of the Bush administration getting their national security team in place” — David Marchick, Director of the Center for Presidential Transition
The 9/11 Commission Report highlights that because the Clinton/Bush transition was “cut in half… this loss of time hampered the new administration identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key [national security] appointments” (p.199).
The Report includes the need to improve the transition between administrations as one its formal recommendations, citing “since a catastrophic attack can occur with limited or no notice…the [transition] process should be improved significantly” (p.421). While the transition was short, it was largely done with good will, something that is evidently not present now. Despite that good will, the days lost to political and legal dispute contributed to the weakening of the United States’ national security.
I doubt very much this will change minds. Those who do not support the outgoing President already accept the threat he poses and are praying the damage he does on his way out is limited and reversible. Those who do support him are probably tired of being told what to think. All of that can be forgiven in time, but dare I say, actively working to undermine the security of the country to which you are still Commander In Chief because your ego has been hurt, probably can’t be.