An Unprecedented Transition
A Texas A&M political scientist says the transfer of power from President Donald Trump to the Biden administration has been marked by a series of broken norms.
By Caitlin Clark, Texas A&M University Division of Marketing & Communications
There’s a traditional routine to the time between Election Day in November and Inauguration Day the following January.
Privately, the new president-elect and staffers prepare for their new roles in the White House while the outgoing administration wraps up work. Publicly, the transition culminates with a day of genteel proceedings and celebration. The transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden, however, has been anything but traditional.
Texas A&M University Distinguished Professor George C. Edwards III is an expert on American politics. Edwards also serves on the board of the White House Transition Project, which provides non-partisan expertise on democratic transitions.
Symbolically, a peaceful transition of power is extremely important, Edwards said. Without it, “you don’t have a democracy.” This display of stability is especially important, he said, after Trump supporters earlier this month stormed the Capitol while Congress certified Biden’s election.
The Customs Of Transitions
Biden’s transition had a late start. Normally, one candidate concedes, and the General Services Administration identifies a president-elect.
Edwards said the Biden team was put at a disadvantage when the GSA chief cited uncertain election results in her decision to delay signing off on funding and other federal resources to assist with the transition. Trump also held up the process by not authorizing personnel in various agencies and departments to meet with the new administration, which is critical in an area like foreign policy.
Trump still has stopped short of conceding his loss to Biden, but he eventually authorized the federal government to initiate the transition. This allowed the Biden administration to begin selecting key personnel and receive national security briefings and access to federal agencies.
“I don’t know President Trump’s motivation, but I presume he didn’t want to provide a symbol that he was giving up his effort to have the election go his way,” Edwards said. “In pursuit of his own goal of re-election, he put the nation at risk by not cooperating with people on the Biden team. There’s nothing good for the nation in this.”
Trump will be notably absent from the traditional Inauguration Day events on Jan. 20.
Inauguration Day has more or less looked the same throughout modern history: The outgoing president and first lady welcome the president-elect and their spouse that morning at the White House. Edwards said they usually ride together to the Capitol, where the new president takes the oath of office and is sworn in by the chief justice.
Trump will skip the ceremony — the first president to do so since Andrew Johnson in 1869. In an earlier snub to tradition, Trump did not host the Bidens at the White House shortly after the election.
Trump will reportedly hold his own departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews.
“I think that Trump does not like other people to get attention,” Edwards said. “It would not surprise me if he tries to draw attention away from the president on Inauguration Day.”
It has also been a modern custom for the outgoing president to leave a handwritten letter in the Oval Office for his successor, something Edwards said probably won’t happen.
Biden’s Path Forward
In Trump’s final days in office, Edwards said to expect to see a large number of last-minute pardons.
“It looks like he’s going to follow his normal process of not going through the usual vetting procedure, and pretty much abuse that pardon power,” he said. “I think we should expect probably [today] to get some announcement about that. I think it’s also possible it could be on the 20th.”
Once Biden is officially installed, he’ll likely move rapidly on early legislative initiatives and executive orders.
“That will be sending signals from the Biden administration to the nation of, ‘We’re going to do something about the pandemic, we’re going to do something about the economy, about racial strife. We’re going to have a peaceful transition of power here and put this assault on the Capitol behind us,’” Edwards said.
Biden will probably also make moves of symbolic importance, like rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and issuing a face-covering mandate for federal property.
But Biden will also receive immediate pushback from the opposition party, Edwards said. There’s not much the president-elect will be able to do about this beyond explaining his policies, meeting with Republicans, and tempering the rhetoric of the last four years, he said.