WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s refusal to allow President-elect Joe Biden and his transition staff access to government offices, secure communications and classified briefings prompted growing warnings Thursday, including from Republicans, that keeping Biden in the dark potentially endangers the country.
On Capitol Hill, several Senate Republicans insisted that Biden should at least be given access to the President’s Daily Brief, the compendium of the nation’s most closely guarded intelligence secrets and assessments of threats like terrorist plots and cyberattack vulnerabilities. Their call amounted to an acknowledgment that Biden would be declared the victor in the election.
“I don’t think they need to know everything,” Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, said of Biden’s advisers. “I think they do need to know some things, and national security would be one of them.”
“President-elect Biden should be receiving intelligence briefings right now; that is really important,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a member of the Intelligence Committee and one of the few Senate Republicans to publicly acknowledge Biden’s victory. “It’s probably the most important part of the transition.”
Giving Biden and his top aides access to the daily briefing, as Trump got right after his election four years ago, would address only a fraction of the problem. Biden will confront an array of complex dilemmas: bruised relationships with foreign allies, a weak economy and sluggish recovery, perhaps the most high-risk period yet of the coronavirus, and a need to distribute a vaccine to 330 million Americans.
The president-elect’s team is concerned that it is being shut out of planning for the vaccine distribution, a huge undertaking that the incoming administration expects to inherit the moment Biden is sworn in. His advisers said they have not had access to the details of Warp Speed, the project that has vaccine distribution planning well underway, and understand little about its workings.
It is focusing on logistical challenges and policy questions, one senior Biden adviser said, like how to prioritize who gets a vaccine and how to make distribution equitable along racial and socioeconomic lines — a priority of Biden’s, but one rarely discussed by Trump.
“Every day Senate Republicans continue to indulge the president in the delusion he didn’t just lose the election, they are undermining faith in our democracy, putting our national security at risk and impeding the response to the COVID-19 health and economic crises,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader.
Trump’s stonewalling is already creating modest risks in the president-elect’s dealings with foreign leaders: Biden made his first contacts on unsecured telephone lines, without State Department translators or briefings about what those leaders might seek from him.
Aides to Biden said that so far, the risks were manageable. Biden’s decades of experience in Washington, including 17 years as chair or ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, means little will take him by surprise. But given the global tumult in the past four years, as one Biden adviser put it, “The risk is that we don’t know what we don’t know.”
Deprived of access to secure government communications by the Trump administration, Biden’s team of more than 500 former officials and outside experts has embraced workarounds, talking over encrypted apps like Signal to shield their conversations from the Chinese and meeting in outdoor coffee shops with government officials they once worked alongside.
The conversations are circumspect because of rules on both sides limiting their exchanges of information, participants said. But the Biden team will be relying on deep connections and old friendships that have kept up throughout the Trump administration, often with parts of the bureaucracy that Trump has referred to as the “deep state.”
It may be weeks until Biden’s agency review teams, made up of longtime government officials with deep roots in the bureaucracy, are let into the government departments that a Biden administration will run starting at noon Jan. 20. Some issues can wait until a formal “ascertainment” is declared, giving them access to the offices and classified material that some parts of the administration have prepared, including the Department of Homeland Security and the intelligence agencies.
Combating COVID-19 may be the most urgent issue for Biden. His team hopes to carry out a national testing strategy, but it will have to start from scratch because the Trump administration does not have one. Biden advisers are seeking guidance from groups including the Rockefeller Foundation, which has drafted a national testing plan and is partnering with states and cities to expand testing efforts.
And access to the Trump vaccine distribution plan will become increasingly important as Biden’s inauguration approaches so his team can take over without any hiccups, said the senior adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal transition details.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said she believed the Trump administration should share vaccine distribution plans with Biden, ensuring that “as the president-elect is able to come in and bring with him a transition team, that there is that flow of information that we typically see when we have transitions.”
Other matters also have a short time fuse. The last remaining arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, called the New START treaty, expires days after the inauguration. Biden has expressed a willingness to renew it, but his national security staff has had no access to the detailed discussions between the national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, and his Kremlin counterpart, or to a team of State Department negotiators who have dealt with Russia on questions like future inspections and verification.
An array of newer threats persist as well, like terrorist plots or brewing cyberattacks. The 9/11 commission concluded that the short transition caused by the Florida recount in 2000 hampered the Bush administration’s ability to deal with al-Qaida plots. At the time, President-elect George W. Bush discussed the dangers of abbreviated briefings in an interview with The New York Times at his ranch eight days before his first inauguration.
In many ways, what is happening now, officials said, is a reverse of four years ago — when President Barack Obama’s team was ready with detailed briefings and simulations of potential crises (including a pandemic flu), and Trump’s advisers were unwilling to receive them.
Trump’s incoming national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who was fired within a month, did sit for reviews of urgent national security threats with Susan Rice, his predecessor. But other officials refused briefings, apparently not wanting Obama’s worldview to taint theirs. Secretary of State John Kerry never met with his successor, Rex Tillerson. Ernest Moniz, the Obama energy secretary, never gave his full brief to Rick Perry, the former Texas governor, who was coming in to oversee, among other things, the remaking of America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
Now Biden has loaded his transition team with many of the same officials who were ready to brief the Trump appointees. But they have not gotten far.
With Trump unwilling to recognize the election result and authorize the ascertainment that allows formal transition to begin, the White House Communications Agency is forbidden to run secure lines to Biden’s house in Delaware. That creates a risk that some of his conversations could be vulnerable to foreign eavesdropping. His team cannot use the government transition email system, and intelligence agencies have warned that the transition operation is a prime target for Chinese, Russian, North Korean, Iranian and other hackers.
The refusal of the General Services Administration to recognize Biden as the president-elect has also all but halted transition work inside the Pentagon and intelligence agencies.
Even as congressional Republicans avoided acknowledging Biden’s victory, they began to push back at the Trump administration’s refusal to grant Biden classified intelligence briefings, in their first significant sign of recognition of Biden and the need for a transition.
“I see no problem,” Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, chair of the Senate Finance Committee, said Thursday when asked about whether Biden should receive those briefings.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters, “Yes, I think so,” when pressed as well.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. and a member of a key Senate oversight committee, told reporters that without an update from the General Services Administration by Friday, he planned to push for answers on the process for beginning to share information with transition officials.
“Both sides had access to the intel information through the whole campaign,” Lankford said, refusing to confirm that Biden is the president-elect because of the Trump campaign’s outstanding legal challenges and the need for states to formally certify results. “Both sides need to have access to the information because we don’t know who the president is going to be, so allow that part of this process to still continue, just for the sake of national security.”
The prolonged transition will have other consequences, like delaying the start of background checks for many senior and midlevel officials, said John Bellinger III, a former Bush administration official.
“We felt behind from the beginning,” Bellinger said.
Senior national security officials awaiting completed background checks could not start their jobs until the spring and summer of 2001, a delay that made it difficult to hold senior-level meetings and make tough policy decisions, including regarding al-Qaida and the Taliban, Bellinger said. Citing those transition delays, the 9/11 commission made recommendations to smooth presidential transitions and expedite clearances.
Fulsome briefing memos from the outgoing administration are also important, Bellinger said, even if a new administration is planning big policy changes.
“Incoming administration officials always want to fix policies they think are broken,” he said. “But it is important for them to know what the outgoing administration was already doing and why problems that may look easy to fix from the outside may not be quite so easy.”