Joe Biden's Transition Could Be Trickiest since the Civil War

President Donald Trump's refusal to accept the projected election result, added to a cocktail of political, economic and security crises, is shaping what could be the most problematic presidential transition for 160 years.

One week after Americans had gone to the polls, twice as many foreign leaders (eight) had called to congratulate Biden for becoming President-elect than Republican senators who publicly did so (four).

It is beyond America's borders where this Republican reluctance and GOP gripes without evidence over fraud claims, could most significantly play out.

In a letter to the General Services Administration (GSA) this week, more than 150 former national security officials warned that the government's delay in recognizing Biden as president-elect poses a "serious risk to national security."

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theater in Wilmington, Delaware on November 10 2020. Biden was asked there about the transition and how a Biden Administration would work with Republicans. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The letter noted how the 9/11 Commission Report concluded the prolonged transfer between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in 2000 halved the normal transition period, contributing to intelligence failures ahead of the Twin Tower attacks.

National security transitions are complicated and the first year of a presidency is when foreign adversaries often test the new White House occupant. The Bay of Pigs in 1961 and Black Hawk Down in 1993 are among foreign policy crises occurring in presidential first years.

"That was why President Obama went out of his way to welcome Donald Trump and brief his team. These things really do have deep meaning," said William Antholis, director of the non-partisan Miller Center which is advising the incoming government on presidential transitions.

"You want people to get up to speed on the latest set of operations and plans as well as contingency plans for threats that might come your way. That is the most important part of the transition," Antholis told Newsweek.

Biden has downplayed the need to get presidential classified briefings for now, relying on his own intelligence updates, according to The Hill. However, by the time he takes office, the Pentagon will have gone through weeks of turbulence following a personnel shake-up, and Trump's firing this week of Defense Secretary Mark Esper adds to a combustible mix.

The White House
The White House on November 9, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Donald Trump has yet to concede the 2020 presidential election making it difficult for President-elect Joe Biden's transition team. Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Antholis believes security concerns, the economic turmoil posed by the coronavirus, tensions over racial justice and the political impasse, all make for the toughest transition for more than a century and a half.

Seven years before the start of World War Two, the animus between the outgoing Herbert Hoover and incoming Franklin D Roosevelt complicated the transfer of power.

Some 160 years ago, Abraham Lincoln won the election but the Southern Democrats could not accept the legitimacy of the outcome. Seven states seceded from the Union between Election Day and Inauguration Day, triggering the Civil War.

"This year has the markings of 1932 with the economic crisis, although the fundamentals of the economy today seem stronger, but they are complicated by the coronavirus pandemic. On top of that, there is the racial justice crisis.

"It is easy to say that this is moving past 1932 and towards 1860 as the most difficult transition ever," he said, adding, "we have three crises, with a political crisis on top of it."

Biden has named Ron Klain his chief of staff and the Democrats insist the transition is continuing apace, even without the honeymoon period the GOP's full acknowledgement of victory might have given.

Biden also has the benefit of his transition team being led by former senator Ted Kaufman, his longtime chief of staff in the Senate, who wrote the laws on presidential transfer. The hope is his team's vast government experience can offset some of the difficulties posed by a so far intransigent outgoing administration.

President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump pictured on November 11, 2020 at Arlington National Cemetery. He has not conceded the election which has been projected for President-elect Joe Biden. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Agency review teams typically examine the outgoing administration's policies to help them develop the plan for the incoming president's first 100 days. However, because the GSA has not certified Biden as the winner, his team is navigating a transition without the federal dollars and access to the key agencies of state that would normally be granted.

They will have access restricted to rooms and key figures inside agencies such as the Defense Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department.

"They would normally meet with agency heads to talk about where certain policies are in terms of implementation so that when he takes the oath of office, he has all his agency review plans in place," said Moe Vela, a former senior advisor to Biden.

"It is much more complex than people realize, there is a lot of groundwork and communication," he told Newsweek.

"Agency review teams will not be able to begin their work because of these unprecedented circumstances. This is a very serious test of our democracy and frankly it is disheartening but it's also disgusting," Vela added.

The Washington Post reported that Biden transition team members are enlisting the help of recently departed government officials and experts. They are also calling on a team led by an ex-State Department official to communicate with foreign leaders although this is without a secure government line or interpretation services from the State Department, according to the Post.

But every day during the 10 weeks before inauguration counts. "We can go for another month with the Biden team organizing itself, putting together a White House staff, assembling key cabinet officials," Antholis said.

"As we get closer to Christmas, all of those officials need to start getting current on the deeper policy dimensions within the administration as well as the policy actions being considered."

The graphic below provided by Statista shows some of history's tightest presidential elections.

U.S. presidential races since 1896
STATISTA