Trump has yet to concede the 2020 election and quite likely will never acknowledge his loss. It’s not in his character to admit defeat. Instead, he remains diligently at work constructing a “stolen election” myth that will allow him to retain his pride while also building the rationale for a 2024 bid to return to the White House. But no concession is necessary so long as the administrative machinery of transition runs smoothly.
At the beginning of the week, Trump took a crucial step by assenting to the General Services Administration’s decision to start the transition. As The Washington Post reports, “Trump authorized the federal government to initiate the Biden transition late Monday, setting in motion a peaceful transfer of power by paving the way for the president-elect and his administration-in-waiting to tap public funds, receive security briefings and gain access to federal agencies.”
But a transition is more than a merely bureaucratic affair. It requires some cooperation between the outgoing administration and its successor. In this endeavor, Trump is following the same path as his comical coup and time-wasting lawsuits, with a spiteful attempt to sabotage the Biden administration.
On Monday, Bloomberg reported, “Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will put $455 billion in unspent Cares Act funding into an account that his presumed successor, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, will need authorization from Congress to use.” The money will be put into the Treasury’s General Fund, which means it can be accessed only with congressional approval. In effect, Mnuchin is tying Yellen’s hand and depriving her of funds she could use to stimulate the economy with low-interest loans.
Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman described Mnuchin’s move as “sabotage, pure and simple.” It’s unclear whether the move is even legal, since the Cares Act stipulated that that any unspent money be transferred into the General Fund “on January 1, 2026.” By specifying “on” rather than “by” or “no later than,” the actual act seems to rule out Mnuchin’s actions. Certainly, the Biden administration will be in a position to raise an administrative challenge. But rather than wait for that, they would be well-advised to protest publicly now so there will be no delay in accessing the funds.
Secretary State Mike Pompeo seems to be engaged in his own version of sabotage in a continent-spanning international tour. Bloomberg described the trip as one where Pompeo “angered Turkey’s leaders, infuriated the Palestinians and befuddled the French.” Jacob Silverman, writing in The New Republic, made a similar point: “America’s top diplomat recently concluded a 10-day, seven-country overseas trip that seemed designed to cause as much damage as possible (and perhaps firm up his own dubious reputation with an eye toward a possible 2024 presidential run).” Silverman goes on to note that “Pompeo’s most important stop on his recent diplomatic tour was in Israel and the occupied West Bank, where he drank wine made in a settlement, offered succor to Israel’s right wing, and issued proclamations muddling the definitions of anti-Zionism and antisemitism.” All of this will make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for Biden to restore negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians to their pre-Trump condition.
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Equally worrisome are Pompeo’s meetings with Arab leaders, who might be working with him on last-minute plans to bomb Iran. Again, the intent would be to hamper any effort by the Biden administration to move away from Trump’s aggressive policy. As Silverman notes, “At this late date, an all-out bombing campaign against Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely, but even a limited strike could lead to great loss of life and regional conflict, including an attack by Iran or its proxies against American forces in Iraq.”
In an interview with Fox News on Monday, Pompeo attacked Biden’s incoming foreign policy team. “I know some of these folks, they took a very different view, they lived in a bit of a fantasy world,” Pompeo said. “They led from behind, they appeased. I hope they will choose a different course.”
The staffing of the transition also suggests an active sabotage effort. As CNN reports, “Kash Patel, a Trump loyalist who was connected to efforts to spread conspiracy theories about Joe Biden, has been put in charge of the Pentagon transition effort and will oversee coordination with the incoming Biden-Harris administration.” In the impeachment hearings, it was documented that Patel was part of a network connecting Representative Devin Nunes and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani that played an instrumental role in spreading conspiracy theories about Biden’s handling of Ukraine policy.
Patel was only recently placed in his current position as part of a what CNN describes as “a flurry of personnel changes at the Pentagon that have fueled concerns Trump is dislodging officials across the government and burrowing loyalists into agencies in a way that could make them difficult for Biden to remove next year.”
On Sunday, The Washington Post reported, “The United States has formally withdrawn from the Treaty on Open Skies, a decades-old pact meant to reduce the chances of an accidental war by allowing mutual reconnaissance flights by parties to the 34-nation agreement.” Significantly, Trump ordered not just withdrawal from the treaty but also the disposal of the airplanes that are used to maintain the current mutual surveillance regime. This move will make it much more difficult for Biden to rejoin the treaty.
The Trump administration is clearly engaged in a wide-ranging sabotage effort. These are only the reported stories, but there are likely to be many more buried inside Washington’s bureaucracy.
It’s unclear whether the Biden transition team has any plans to publicly respond to this sabotage—or even to push back privately. Biden’s preferred mode since the election has been to ignore Trump’s antics and simply work on staffing. The assumption is that Trump is a distraction who will soon be gone. Biden’s position is not without merit.
But the danger is that by ignoring Trump and not speaking out, you also embolden him. The Trump administration’s actions are far outside American norms, at least since the Civil War. The Biden transition team would do well to make the public aware of what is going on. If they don’t want to pick an explicit fight, they can certainly find allies in the media and Congress who can raise a stink. Trump is planting land mines inside the government. When these mines go off, Biden will want to be in a position for the public to understand where the real blame lies.