Pentagon and Biden Team Disagree Over Who's to Blame for DOD's Transition Pause

The Pentagon and President-elect Joe Biden's team are in disagreement over why the Defense Department decided to reschedule transition meetings set to take place in the coming weeks.

Defense Secretary Chris Miller released a statement Friday after Axios reported that he had personally "ordered a Pentagon-wide halt to cooperation with the transition of President-elect Biden, shocking officials across the Defense Department." Miller, responding to the report, claimed that there had been a "mutually-agreed upon holiday pause"—a claim later rejected by Biden's team.

"At no time has the Department cancelled or declined any interview," Miller said in his statement.

Biden transition executive director Yohannes Abraham told reporters instead that the Biden team was "concerned to learn this week about an abrupt halt" in what he described as the "already limited cooperation" at the Department of Defense.

"Let me be clear: there was no mutually agreed upon holiday break," he said in a virtual briefing with reporters. "In fact, we think it's important that briefings and other engagements continue during this period, as there's no time to spare."

He said the Biden transition team expects the decision to be reversed.

The transition to the Biden administration has faced several hurdles, particularly as President Donald Trump has refused to concede the November 3 election results and lobbed baseless allegations of fraud.

Miller took on his acting role last month and became the Pentagon's fourth leader under Trump after the president fired Secretary of Defense Mark Esper with a tweet. Miller, 55, previously was the director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

"Our key focus in the next two weeks is supporting essential requests for information on OWS and COVID-19 information to guarantee a flawless transition. This is my major focus area," Miller said in his Friday statement. "After the mutually-agreed upon holiday pause, which begins tomorrow, we will continue with the transition and rescheduled meetings from today."

Despite the rocky transition process, the Electoral College met this week to vote on the outcome and solidified Biden's win. Trump's Attorney General at the time of the election, Bill Barr, publicly stated that the Department of Justice found no evidence of any wrongdoing that would have changed the election's outcome. Barr soon after announced his resignation from the position effective December 23.

It took nearly two weeks for the General Services Administration to inform Biden that the Trump administration was ready to begin the formal transition process, despite a concession from Trump. Trump and his allies have lost or dropped dozens of legal challenges in key battleground states, due to lack of evidence of any wrongdoing.

Abraham hinted at some discord in Friday's briefing—particularly among political appointees at the Defense Department.

"Our agency review teams continue making progress on a shortened timeline, and we've benefited from constructive cooperation within many departments and agencies, but we have met isolated resistance in some corners, including from political appointees within the Department of Defense," he said.

In his statement Friday, Miller pinned the need for a break on the Defense Department's role in the distribution of crucial COVID-19 vaccines and the pressures of working within COVID-19 precautions that have limited in-person meetings. But he detailed what he deemed as extensive efforts the Defense Department has made to work with the incoming Biden administration. He claims that since November 23 the Department has conducted 139 interviews with 265 officials, responded to 161 requests for information, provided 4,400 pages of controlled non-public information and provided 900 pages of classified information.

He additionally claimed the Pentagon has continued to schedule interviews with senior leaders and career officials.

"Today, we are working to reschedule approximately 20 interviews with 40 officials until after January 1," he said, adding that the administration also has provided additional documents and worked to "validate a pilot for rapidly onboarding political appointees in a new administration."

"DoD continues to support the presidential transition aligned with the President Transition Act, White House and Biden-Harris Transition Team Memorandum of Understanding and DoD policy," the statement added.

Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller
Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller speaks during a meeting with Minister of National Defence of Lithuania Raimundas Karoblis November 13, 2020 at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. Acting Secretary Miller held a bilateral meeting with Minister Karoblis during his visit to the Pentagon. Alex Wong/Getty