The past should guide presidential transitions
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Days of tumult in the United States coincided with formidable days for Europeans. On Election Day, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a Nov. 2 terror attack in the heart of Vienna that killed four people and wounded more than 20. Austrian investigators have identified more than 21 suspected accomplices in what could have become a far deadlier attack.
France and Britain have shifted to their highest terror alert level. The Vienna attack closely followed other incidents in France, including the beheading of a teacher, and coincided with the fifth anniversary of a deadly rampage in Paris when ISIS gunmen killed 130 people and wounded more than 600 during a four-hour assault.
You don’t have to tell Americans that such attacks require years to heal, or remind people on either side of the Atlantic of the high cost of having to go to war. November brings Armistice Day, Veterans Day, and Remembrance Sunday, just so we will remember.
These are the crucibles that leaders are for.
U.S. presidential transitions can become perilous, and leaders must rise to meet the peril. We eye voting and counting while those who wish the United States harm are watching, planning. We are distracted. They are focused.
Election 2020’s thin margins in key areas made quests for reexamination, in some cases court redress and recounts, legitimate. Legal challenges to an election’s integrity are appropriate, but so is proceeding at the same time with transition. Our history and U.S. law argue for both.
We know al-Qaeda leaders began their “planes operation” in early 2000, with 9/11 organizers turning up in California and a year later for pilot training in Florida. In between—a protracted U.S. election and fraught transition.
In that time frame, the 9/11 Commission identified 10 incidents where the FBI and CIA tracked the planners’ activities—but leaders failed to deduce what they were up to. “The system was blinking red,” CIA Director George Tenet would later say.
There are many reasons we failed to halt the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.—attacks that struck our financial center and our defense headquarters and narrowly missed the Capitol. But the 9/11 Commission devoted two lengthy sections of its final report to the role played by transition delays. Congress amended the Presidential Transition Act in 2010 as a result. It sets a statutory timeline the Trump administration has dragged its feet on. National security leaders from both parties and four former secretaries of Homeland Security have weighed in, warning the delay poses “a serious risk to our national security.”
History speaks. The commission found that delays “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees” ahead of 9/11.
The 36-day legal fight between the Bush and Gore campaigns cut in half the normal transition period. Then departing Clinton personnel sabotaged the White House for the incoming George W. Bush administration.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found nearly $15,000 in damage due to “theft, vandalism, and pranks”—including the infamous removal of W’s from keyboards and graffiti on the walls. That 15-month investigation and 215-page GAO report represented further distraction for senior Bush staff. It’d be darkly comical—apart from 9/11.
These are watchwords for proper transition, even during ongoing legal proceedings and a recount in Georgia. Where legal challenges—and President Donald Trump himself—call the results into question without evidence, transition and security erode.
President Trump’s actions in other ways can risk national security. With five defense secretaries in four years, he fired the latest, Mark Esper, one week after the election, along with at least four top Pentagon officials. He is floating a mass withdrawal from Afghanistan in the next two months. Such a withdrawal in 2011 from Iraq by President Barack Obama squandered U.S. gains and beckoned the rise of ISIS.
The presumed president-elect, Joe Biden, also can learn from history by keeping experienced holdovers from Trump’s team in key positions as Bush did after his held-up transition. With a pandemic crisis already on the table, veterans in the situation room can strengthen confidence at home and abroad before the next crisis strikes.
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