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What the rocky presidential transition means for national security, pandemic response

December 9, 2020
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Weeks after a long and suspenseful election week, disinformation about voter fraud and a stolen election is still spreading.

On Dec. 2, President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani testified before the state Senate on the election process in Michigan, despite the Michigan State Board of Canvassers’ certification of the election results a week prior. 

Disputes like these in the election process delay the transition of information from one administration to the next, creating lasting effects on U.S. pandemic response and national security.

The effect on pandemic response

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and  hospitals are reaching and exceeding intensive care unit capacity across the nation, many Americans wonder how this rough transition will impact the pandemic response, and how the Biden team will be ready to implement efforts for spread mitigation and vaccine distribution.

"This is without a doubt the most unusual transition in modern history," former Director of Communication for U.S. National Intelligence Shawn Turner said. "Not only the nature of the previous administration, but because we are in the midst of a global pandemic that, at least as it seems today, is only getting worse. The lack of immediate transition from the Trump administration to the Biden administration with regard to COVID-19 will without a doubt result in a delay in making sure that we begin to do the things that we need to do in order to slow the spread of the virus."

Turner, a Professor of Strategic Communication at Michigan State University, acknowledged the promising news of a vaccine on the horizon, but said the Biden administration is still facing the need to make up for almost three weeks of having no access to data or expert advice in order to assemble their coronavirus response plan. 

Ultimately, that translates to a late response if they're unable to do the necessary catch-up work in time for Jan. 20, 2021, and that could cost lives.

As the Deputy White House Press Secretary for National Security under President Barack Obama, Turner has experienced national security and intelligence work during health crises like the Ebola epidemic and situations like the National Security Agency leak by Edward Snowden. He sees the roots of the division that has occurred in the United States during the coronavirus pandemic as having been planted in the Ebola crisis.

The negative connotation that comes with attributing these illnesses to a country sowed seeds of division in the U.S. and Turner believes that invites foreign adversaries to weaponize the issues and divisions that are occurring within America's borders.

"What I see there is, is not only that we see that happening in the United States but other countries see that happening," Turner said. "... Our adversaries recognize that if there is something from outside of our borders that seeps in ... there are going to be people on one side of the issue and people on the other side of the issues and it's a great way to divide us. ... Now other countries will weaponize that."

When the Biden presidency is officially underway, and the "front page isn't all Trump all the time," Turner said he sees the ability for us to have important conversations about our national security concerns and intelligence issues as they happen.

What about national security?

As the nation transitions to a new presidency while combating a public health crisis, there is increased vulnerability, especially given the nearly three-week delay in the General Services Administration, or GSA, initiating the procedures, Turner said.

"When we think about the most important aspects of a transition in governments, I put national security right at the top of the list for a couple reasons," Turner said, "One, when we think about our adversaries around the world, what they're looking for more than anything is they are looking for moments of weakness in order to lash out against the United States."

While there are reasonable concerns of foreign threats, there is also a need for ensuring there aren't any domestic security risks that could be the distraction an adversary would find convenient.

"When we're transitioning governments, there is an understanding around the world among our adversaries that you have people who have knowledge of intelligence, knowledge of threats to the United States who are leaving government, and you have people who are just getting up to speed, who are not fully read in on all the threats to our government, who are just coming in," Turner said. "So, that presents this moment of weakness."

Turner also said that while President Donald Trump is making efforts to overturn election results with lawsuits and recounts and stalling the transition, the Joe Biden transition team is making strides to be as prepared as possible.

Trump has been making unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud,requesting recounts and suing to challenge vote tallies.

As of Nov. 30, over 40 lawsuits have been filed as part of the Trump campaign's efforts to undermine the results of the election. Over 30 of them have failed.

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A delay in the transmission of information or an attempt to withhold it for an indefinite period of time by the Trump administration could lead to national security risks being overlooked.

"I come from the intelligence community, and I've gone through transitions before," Turner said. "And what I know for a fact is that when it comes to national security issues in particular, you have to have current national security officials who are looking at intelligence, who are looking at threats from around the world. They have to sit down across the table from those incoming officials, and they have to be able to talk about what those threats are because that handoff is so critical in our ability to make absolutely sure that we don't miss any real threats to the United States."

Turner said the most important part of ensuring a smooth transition is making sure transition officials have access to necessary intelligence and agency information in order to prepare to respond to any issues or threats the new administration might be inheriting.

"The problem that we had when the Trump administration was holding up the process of a transition of power in government is that you have several areas of governance wherein the criticality of a smooth transition is so significant," Turner said. "... There is a need to try to hit the ground running in a situation where you really don't have the information that you need to be able to put new policies in place, to be able to put new processes in place."

On Nov. 23, Emily Murphy, administrator of the GSA, sent a letter to Biden informing him that the agency had decided to move forward with the transition.

In the letter, Murphy said she had come to the decision to begin the distribution of funds and resources to the Biden transition without any influence from other officials, including in the executive branch, and that the timing of her decision was also free of external influence.

Section 3 of the Presidential Act of 1963 allows for a fund that is used by the incoming administration to purchase the necessary furniture and office equipment, and can also go toward paying the president-elect and vice president-elect's staff, services and expertise from consultants, travel expenses and communications services, among other expenses incurred over the course of the transition.

In the letter, Murphy informed Biden that his team is eligible to receive $6.3 million to secure the equipment, furniture and services his administration will need to begin working after the inauguration, along with $1 million for the purpose of staff training and the assembly of a transition directory.

Trump announced in a Tweet that he's in support of the GSA's decision to allow Biden to begin "initial protocols," although he plans to continue his legal challenges. Trump also said he instructed White House staff to assist the new appointees during the process.

Turner said the initiation by the GSA is a good start, but what the Trump administration allows to be handed over to the Biden staff and how cooperative his team is remains to be seen.

"There is some space for the president's team to be obstructionist with regard to the way that they work with the incoming Biden administration," Turner said. "... The best case scenario is that while the president continues his battle outside of the government that the ... incoming and outgoing administrations will work together to facilitate a peaceful transition."

Because the GSA has now given the transition the invitation to request the resources available through the agency, the Trump administration has lost a lot of leverage to thwart the democratic process.

According to Turner, any kind of concession or congratulatory message from the current president is only a formality. Now that transition resources are up for grabs, there's little the Trump administration can do to obstruct the Biden team and the transition of power.

However, Trump will likely continue challenging the election results in a coordinated disinformation campaign.

Turner said that as citizens and the media continue focusing on the president's behavior regarding the election, less attention is being given to national security threats.

" We're not focused on those issues because of all of the other noise in the information space," Turner said.

What happens now?

Turner said the president-elect, vice president-elect and their staff will have their work cut out for them.

The team will have a lot of catching up to do because of the lack of attention to pertinent security information over the last four years, but Turner said it's important work to make it through the term without a major tragedy.

"This first couple of years is just going to be a lot of information that the current administration refused to pay attention to, and during that time they're going to have to mine that information and really look through it to find out what should be a priority in terms of resources and addressing threats," Turner said. "If they're successful, we will get through the Biden administration without any major threats and any major catastrophes in this country related to foreign adversaries. But it is going to be a challenge. It has been made more challenging as a result of this previous administration's behavior." 

This article is part of our Women in the Workplace print issue. Read the full issue here.


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