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The Morning Dispatch: Trump Creates Roadblocks for Biden Transition
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The Morning Dispatch: Trump Creates Roadblocks for Biden Transition

Plus: A rash of eleventh-hour firings at the Pentagon.

Happy Thursday! We hope you all had a wonderful Veterans Day yesterday and were able to take some time to reflect on the service and sacrifice of the servicemen and women who have devoted their lives to our country.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President-elect Joe Biden announced yesterday that his longtime aide Ron Klain will serve as White House chief of staff. Klain has worked with Biden off and on since the 1980s, and he served as the White House Ebola response coordinator from 2014 to 2015.

  • Days after GOP Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler called on him to resign over vague “failures” they did not provide evidence to support, Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced Wednesday that Georgia will conduct a by-hand recount of all 5 million presidential votes cast last week. Raffensperger doesn’t believe the recount will affect Joe Biden’s current lead in the state. “I have faith in the accuracy of the electronic voting machines,” he told the Wall Street Journal yesterday. “I believe the results are accurate.”

  • Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer were both reelected to lead their respective conferences. With GOP Sens. Thom Tillis and Dan Sullivan both winning their races in North Carolina and Alaska, control of the Senate in the next Congress will come down to two runoff elections in Georgia on January 5.

  • Facebook and Google are extending their election-season bans on political ads, likely for at least another month. “While multiple sources have projected a presidential winner,” Facebook reportedly wrote in an email to advertisers, “we still believe it’s important to help prevent confusion or abuse on our platform.”

  • The United States confirmed 155,912 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 11.3 percent of the 1,381,858 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 2,001 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 241,619. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 65,368 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.

Trump Administration Blocks Biden’s Transition Team

We’re now five days past Saturday, November 7*—when most media decision desks projected Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election—and the Trump administration is still refusing to cooperate with Biden’s presidential transition team. Asked about this stonewalling on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo first laughed and said “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” before adding that he’s “very confident that we will do all the things that are necessary to make sure that the United States government will continue to perform its national security function as we go forward.”

The administration instructed federal agencies on Monday not to cooperate with Biden’s transition team. “We have been told: Ignore the media, wait for it to be official from the government,” one official told the Washington Post

The transition becomes “official from the government” once Emily Murphy—a Trump political appointee who serves as the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA)—issues a letter of ascertainment recognizing Biden’s win. That has yet to happen.

Without such approval, Biden officials said on a call with reporters on Monday, the Biden transition team cannot begin moving into government offices to securely discuss classified material, start background checks on potential nominees that require top-secret access, or tap into any of the federally appropriated $6.3 million in funding for the transition. They can, however, continue to access donations for the transition from organizations or individuals, which are capped at $5,000. Trump himself has not allowed Biden to begin receiving the President’s Daily Brief intelligence reports.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Biden downplayed the impact of the Trump administration’s actions. “Access to classified information is useful, but I’m not in a position to make any decisions on these issues anyway. It would be nice to have it, but it’s not critical,” he said. “The fact that they’re not willing to acknowledge we won at this point is not of much consequence in our planning and what we’re able to do between now and January 20.”

The president-elect announced the members of his pandemic task force on Monday, and named longtime aide Ron Klain his chief of staff Tuesday night. The Washington Post reports that Biden transition staffers “are under strict orders not to have any contact with current government officials, even back-channel conversations.” Instead, they are relying on government officials who have recently resigned or been fired to help get them up to speed.

On the Trump administration side, staffers are being warned against aiding not only the Biden team’s transition, but also their own. “According to a senior administration official, John McEntee, director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office, is spreading the word throughout the administration that if he hears of anyone looking for another job they will be fired,” CNN’s Jake Tapper reported. “The news is dismaying to many members of the Trump administration who worry especially about young staffers who will soon need other sources of income given the fact that President Trump lost the election.”

Those sympathetic to Trump’s ongoing election disputes point to the election of 2000, when the transition from the Bill Clinton administration to the George W. Bush administration was delayed by the outcome of the 2000 presidential election being adjudicated in the courts. “We’ve been working for months to prepare the transition offices,” then-GSA official Gary Caruso said at the time, defending the Clinton administration’s withholding a letter of ascertainment. “Once we have a president-elect, he and his staff can walk in and start working right away.”

The Bush transition team rented out office space in McLean, Virginia and conducted the transition from there.

But Max Stier—the founding president and CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which works with presidential transition teams—doesn’t think this current situation is analogous to the Bush v. Gore stalemate from 20 years ago.

The 2000 election involved “a dispute around hundreds of votes in a single state,” he told The Dispatch. With only 217 electoral votes safely in his column, President Trump is disputing election results in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Nevada, and Georgia—five battleground states where he trails Biden by the tens (or hundreds) of thousands of votes. It’s incredibly unlikely that any litigation efforts will be able to secure Trump another 53 electoral votes.

The consequences of this delay, Stier argued, could be very real. “The 9/11 commission was quite clear on the fact that the shortened transition that President Bush had to deal with was a problem for our response to the attack on this country,” he said. “The national security team was not completely in place at the point at which we were attacked.”

“I think the easiest way to resolve this is to say there’s no harm done to the president’s interest in pursuing litigation by allowing [the Biden transition team] to proceed,” Stier continued. “There is real harm done by not allowing them to proceed.”

Perhaps for this reason, a growing chorus of Republican elected officials has begun calling on the Trump administration to release the block on Biden’s transition. 

“There’s a very likely prospect that there will be a change in administration,” Sen. Mitt Romney said on Monday. “For the purposes of smooth transition and national security, we have a national interest in the transition proceeding as rapidly as can be done.”

In an interview with Pittsburgh’s Action News 4, Sen. Pat Toomey said that “a transition process ought to begin” because “we’re on a path it looks likely Joe Biden is going to be the next president of the United States.”

Sen. Marco Rubio—acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee—called on Murphy to issue a letter of ascertainment, noting that that action by itself would not undermine any of the Trump campaign’s ongoing legal battles. “We need to have that contingency in place,” he said. “I don’t think allowing the GSA to move forward on some of the transition work prejudices in any way any of the legal claims the president intends to make.”

Sen. Ben Sasse echoed Rubio’s comments during our What’s Next event on Tuesday. “I think [Rubio] said it really well when he said … no matter what position team Trump administration folks have on a ballot challenge in Arizona or a county in Pennsylvania or something, there’s nothing wrong with also in parallel letting the Biden team transition plan.”

Sen. James Lankford told KRMG-Tulsa in an interview yesterday he believes the GSA issue “should be resolved by Friday,” and added that he, as a member of the Senate Oversight Committee, would step in if it hasn’t been. “There’s nothing wrong with Vice President Biden getting the briefings to be able to prepare himself and so that he can be ready,” the Republican senator said. “If that’s not occurring by Friday, I will step in as well to be able to push him to say this needs to occur, so that regardless of the outcome of the election, whichever way that it goes, people can be ready for that actual task.”

Cleaning House at the Pentagon

Despite his ongoing refusal to concede the presidential election, President Trump has spent the last few days behaving like a man whose power has a looming expiration date. The White House has been purging top civilian officials at the Department of Defense, rattling Pentagon brass as they are replaced with personnel widely perceived to be Trump’s personal loyalists.

The first to go on Monday was Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who had reportedly butted heads with Trump since he assumed the job in July 2019. During the George Floyd demonstrations over the summer, Esper drew heat from both supporters and opponents of the sometimes-violent protests—the former for joining Trump on his infamous Lafayette Square photo op and for calling for the government to “dominate the battlespace” against protesters, the latter for breaking with President Trump by saying he did not support invoking the Insurrection Act to deploy the military for crowd control. Esper had also reportedly dragged his heels on pulling U.S. forces out of Afghanistan before a stable situation between the Afghan government and the Taliban had been reached.

Esper appeared to see the blow coming last week, giving an uncharacteristically frank interview to Military Times where he argued explicitly he’s refused to be a “yes man” to the president. “Have you ever seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?” Esper said. (Answer: Yes.)

Trump’s pick to replace Esper is Christopher Miller, a former Army Special Forces officer who recently became director of the National Counterterrorism Center. While Miller’s leap from the NCTC to heading up the entire DoD raised some eyebrows, he’s a well-respected veteran who was (as Trump pointed out) confirmed to his former role without objection by the Senate three months ago.

But Esper’s ouster opened the door for Trump and Miller to bring on several more new staffers Tuesday, and those are much more controversial. Acting policy chief James Anderson was replaced by retired Brig. Gen. Anthony Tata, a frequent Fox News guest whom Trump had nominated for the job earlier this year. His nomination was withdrawn, however, after it came to light he had called President Obama a “terrorist leader” and shared an article calling him a “Manchurian candidate” in now-deleted tweets.

The secretary’s chief of staff and the undersecretary of defense for intelligence were also replaced by two associates of top Trump ally Rep. Devin Nunes: Kash Patel, who drafted the famous “Nunes Memo” in January 2018, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, a former aide to Gen. Michael Flynn, respectively.

Finally, the Pentagon confirmed Wednesday that Miller is bringing on as a senior adviser retired Col. Douglas Macgregor, long a proponent of total U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has also advocated for establishing martial law on the U.S.-Mexico border and wrote in 2016 that fewer people would attempt to immigrate to the U.S. illegally if they realized they “are NOT going to survive an attempt to enter the US, and will be LUCKY if they are turned back rather than killed in the attempt to violate U.S. sovereign borders.”

Several congressional Republicans spoke up in Esper’s defense on Monday. Rep. Mac Thornberry, the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that Esper had “served the nation well under very challenging circumstances” and “deserves the gratitude of every American.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher, a former Marine Corps intelligence officer, told The Dispatch earlier this week that Esper’s firing had come as a surprise.

“I’ll admit I was a bit surprised that they fired him, even though there’s not going to be a second term most likely,” he said during our What’s Next event. “I’m not sure what the strategic move is, other than to prove a point that Esper has wronged the White House.”

But Republicans have largely declined to comment further as Pentagon turnover has accelerated this week.

Worth Your Time

  • Thanksgiving is going to look a whole lot different this year, but it is coming up. Whether you’re still planning to travel to be with family or are staying put, the New York Times’ Food Department’s compilation of their staff’s 21 favorite Thanksgiving recipe ideas is a fun read. “If the usual cook isn’t cooking and the table isn’t full, why stick with exactly the same food?” writes Emily Fleischaker. From new spins on classics like roast turkey and pecan pie, to more unorthodox Thanksgiving dishes like hot crab dip and squash on toast, you’ll have plenty of ideas for your Thanksgiving table.

  • Is Florida Democrats’ new Wisconsin—a state full of voters that party officials took for granted, and lost? In a piece for the New Yorker, Stephania Taladrid outlines how the Biden campaign consistently ignored warnings from ground-level staffers in Florida about the Latino vote slipping away from them. It “was clear that the resources for the Hispanic team were an afterthought,” Chris Wills—Biden’s Hispanic vote director in South Florida—told Taladrid. The Biden campaign failed to provide consistent funding, coordination, or even much attention to get-out-the-vote efforts.  Wills said he “literally had to stand at an A.T.M. to find out how much Wells Fargo would allow me to overdraw to pull out one of these events,” buying stickers and buttons on his own dime. Latino Democrats in Florida are disappointed and frustrated: Mille Raphael, a Latino-outreach associate, told supporters at an election night event that the “campaign did not give you the resources that you needed to do your jobs.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Mark Esper’s sudden dismissal from the Trump administration and the accompanying firing spree of numerous other Pentagon officials has raised both questions and alarm bells in the national security world. On Wednesday’s Dispatch Podcast, Sarah and the guys break down competing theories regarding what the Pentagon purge is all about. Plus, they discuss emerging arguments surrounding the future of the post-Trump GOP, ongoing election lawsuits, and the conspiratorial trajectory of conservative media.

  • Speaking of “emerging arguments surrounding the future of the post-Trump GOP,” it’s Jonah’s midweek G-File (🔒)! In it, he takes aim at the conservatives who, based on early exit polls, trumpet the arrival of a new “workers’ party.” While Sens. Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio argue that Trump’s success these past five years demonstrates the unpopularity of free market fundamentalism, Jonah thinks it had more to do with the man himself. “The real lesson of the Trumpification of the GOP isn’t that it’s become more ‘pro-worker’—whatever that is supposed to mean—but that it became simply ‘pro-Trump,’” he writes. “You think more finely crafted subsidies for dying industries or more clever tax credits is going to put asses in the seats at a Pence 2024 rally?”

Let Us Know

If you’re a veteran, what inspired you to serve? If you have veterans in your family, what’s a story they told you about their service that has stuck with you?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), James P. Sutton (@jamespsuttonsf), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

Correction, November 12: An earlier version of this newsletter incorrectly labeled last Saturday as November 8.

The Dispatch Staff's Headshot

The Dispatch Staff