America’s democratic institutions are living a nightmare. US President Donald Trump is refusing to concede to President-elect Joe Biden and his administration is blocking government officials from cooperating with Biden’s team. The Attorney General William Barr authorised the Justice Department to investigate allegations of massive vote fraud, ignoring the fact that there is no evidence. Election officials from both political parties have publicly stated that voting went well, and international observers also confirmed that there were no serious irregularities. Biden campaign lawyer Bob Bauer said Barr’s memorandum authorising investigations will only fuel the “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched claims” he professes to guard against.
Some top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, rallied behind Trump’s efforts to fight the election results. “Our institutions are actually built for this,” McConnell said as he opened the Senate Monday. “We have the system in place to consider concerns and President Trump is 100 per cent within his rights to look into allegations of irregularities and weigh his legal options.”
Legal challenges from the administration have been dismissed in battleground states like Georgia and Wisconsin. And Trump’s legal efforts were dealt another blow Monday when campaign adviser David Bossie, tasked with leading the effort, tested positive for coronavirus.
Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said the Republicans’ refusal to accept the election results is “extremely dangerous, extremely poisonous to our democracy… Joe Biden won the election fair and square.” But the administration is having none of it. Those close to Trump seek Supreme Court intervention, hoping for a decision in the president’s favour.
The White House is also refusing to receive President-elect Biden and his wife, Dr Jill Biden, to start procedures for the transitional period and the handover of power. It is an extremely messy business made worse by Trump’s appointee, Emily Murphy, who is the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA), as she refused to sign a letter allowing the Biden team to formally begin its work. The paperwork would release millions of dollars for use in the transition process and give Biden’s team access to government officials and office space and equipment.
An agency spokesperson said late Monday that an “ascertainment” on the winner of the election had not yet been made. Citing what the agency did during the extended 2000 electoral recount, it signalled that it may not do so until Trump concedes, or the Electoral College meets next month.
According to the Associated Press, a transition official said the Biden team believes it is time for the GSA administrator to accept that Biden is president-elect. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said legal action from Biden’s team is “certainly a possibility” if that does not happen, though there are also other options being considered.
For the Democrats, these are all dirty tricks from the Trump administration to delay the inevitable and cast seeds of doubt on the democratic process.
According to the latest figures, Biden leads across Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan with a greater margin than Trump led in the same states in 2016.
A few in the Republican Party acknowledged Biden’s victory, among them Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska who offered congratulations to Biden, and Senator Susan Collins of Maine who noted the Democrats’ “apparent victory”.
Amidst the unprecedented chaos, Trump has moved to crack down on those not deemed sufficiently loyal to him. The president fired, by a tweet, Defence Secretary Mark Esper. Others believed to be vulnerable and that might be fired soon including FBI director Christopher Wray, CIA head Gina Haspel and infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci.
At the White House, Trump remained out of sight with discussions ongoing about how the president would spend the coming days and weeks as he challenged the election results.
Top Republicans on Capitol Hill have been hesitant to push Trump to concede, fearing it would anger their base of Trump’s most loyal supporters. (More than 71 million people voted for Trump, while Biden got more than 76 million votes.)
It is total chaos that no one imagined, and it is likely to intensify in the coming weeks, casting doubt on whether America would witness the same kind of smooth transition of power that has been a cornerstone of its democracy.
No wonder that contacts between top Democratic and Republican leaders are very limited with the escalation of accusations and bad-tempered exchanges.
Nonetheless, some elements of the federal government are already mobilising to prepare for the Biden administration to assume power. The US Secret Service and Federal Aviation Administration extended flight restrictions over Biden’s Wilmington, Delaware, home through Inauguration Day. Biden’s security detail has been bolstered with agents from the Presidential Protective Division.
Also, Biden pressed forward with plans to build out his administration, assembling a team of experts to face the surging Covid-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, Biden defended the Obama administration’s signature healthcare law as it goes before the Supreme Court in a case that could overturn it. Biden delivered a passionate speech about a universal healthcare system in the United States.
The Supreme Court ruled eight years ago to leave intact the essential components of the law, known as Obamacare, but the court is now controlled 6-3 by a conservative majority. Biden’s speech reflects the importance he is putting on healthcare as he prepares to take office in January amid the worst pandemic in more than a century.
But despite Trump’s public stance, there was a growing realisation in his inner circle that the election result would be impossible to overturn. Some senior officials have tried to make the case that Trump should turn his efforts to cement his legacy, but they are wary of being labelled disloyal for even thinking of it.
So far, Trump’s refusal to acknowledge his loss has fed concerns that the presidential transition would be sabotaged, which could constitute a threat to US national security. The Centre for Presidential Transition, a nonpartisan advisory board, urged the Trump administration to begin the handoff to staff supporting Biden, whose victory continued to grow in magnitude as states completed their ballot counts.
“We urge the Trump administration to immediately begin the post-election transition process and the Biden team to take full advantage of the resources available under the presidential transition act,” the centre said in a letter.
“This was a hard-fought campaign, but history is replete with examples of presidents who emerged from such campaigns to graciously assist their successors.”
For Trump’s critics, what he is doing seems like a strategy with no exit. His legal attempts have gained zero traction so far, with judges throwing cases out of court for lack of evidence, and there is no indication that any new strategy would fare any differently. The Trump campaign has set up a “voter fraud hotline”, but instead of hot tips, aides taking phone calls and emails have been subjected to a barrage of pranks from “lefty teenagers”.
Neither Trump nor his campaign nor political appointees have the power to stop the transition, and there is no sign that the basic steps toward Biden’s installation as president are at risk of interruption. Yet, non-cooperation by the Trump administration in the transition could slow the ability of some agencies to act on directives by Biden in essential areas such as pandemic response and the reinstatement of environmental regulations, protections for migrants and international accords.
Also, some fear that Trump and his administration are too busy with legal challenges and that may endanger US national security. Trump’s public schedule has not included in an intelligence briefing since 1 October. The White House has not provided a “readout” of any call between the president and a foreign leader in weeks. And he has not met with members of the White House coronavirus taskforce in months.
Biden has won the election and he is going to be the next president of the United States. But the question is, can American democratic institutions, values and traditions survive another two months of Trump?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly