A brazen refusal by the president to leave office is surely a nightmare scenario. But even if President Donald Trump were to lose and accept the results on November 3 or soon thereafter, he could nevertheless wreak significant damage during the period between the election and the inauguration of Joe Biden—endangering the incoming administration, at best, and actively sabotaging it, at worst.
Presidential transitions are perilous even in normal times. With each inauguration of a new president every four to eight years, the executive branch undergoes a massive overhaul; more than 4,000 new political appointees flood into federal departments and agencies, including 1,200 senior officials who require Senate confirmation. The minute a new president is sworn in, his administration assumes responsibility for everything from nuclear launch codes to pandemic response, economic policy, and counterterrorism—at the very moment when the government’s capacity is most diminished. At the Defense Department alone, the nation’s largest employer and perhaps the world’s most complex organization, the top 59 senior civilian leaders, from the secretary of defense on down, are political appointees requiring Senate confirmation. A private-sector company would be crazy to emulate this approach, yet the security, the health, and the prosperity of Americans depend on its success.
Facilitating the smoothest possible transition—if one should happen in January 2021—is of paramount national importance, particularly at a time of ongoing upheaval at home and abroad. If elected, Joe Biden would face the extraordinary challenge of seizing the reins of government amid the triple crises of a global pandemic, an economic collapse, and a national reckoning over racial justice, and his effectiveness in managing these would redound to the entire nation’s benefit. Yet there is ample reason to worry that the outgoing Trump administration will disregard the laws and the norms that are supposed to govern the transition period. Without question, a stolen election or a refusal to accept electoral results is the nightmare scenario. But well short of a constitutional crisis, the Trump administration can nevertheless hobble the incoming Biden team and endanger the nation with a scuttled transition process.