Joe Biden’s team is pressing forward with preparations to take over the federal government when his term starts despite virtually no help from Donald Trump’s outgoing administration.
The president-elect faces choices that will either please or anger the bickering wings of his party as leftists and centrists vie to set the direction of the incoming Democratic administration. The process also sends a clear message to the Republican party and Trump: Biden won and will be sitting in the White House come January.
“The truth is the Trump administration can file whatever it wants to the federal register, can do whatever executive orders it wants until noon on January 20th, and at that moment they can no longer do it and the Biden people get to stop whatever they had in the pipeline and put whatever they want in their own pipeline,” said Tevi Troy, who helped run the transition to the second Bush-Cheney term in 2004. Troy also authored Fight House: Rivalries in the White House from Truman to Trump.
The Biden team, Troy added, “know the things they want to stop from happening and they’re just going to go do it”.
On Wednesday night Biden took his most significant step yet, naming Ron Klain, a longtime aide, as his chief of staff. The move underscored that even as Biden vows to fill out his administration with figures spanning all wings of the Democratic party, he also plans to include hands familiar with the conventional levers of Washington DC.
“He wants people who are super capable … part of what you want to do is restore faith in government, in public service and the way that career folks are treated,” said Lisa Brown, a former staff secretary for Barack Obama’s administration who worked on the 2008 presidential transition.
Brown noted that Biden’s team was focused on diversity. “A lot of what he wants to do if we don’t get the Senate back is going to be harder and so one of the things he’s got control over is the people that he wants to appoint. So you can show people you’re representing America even if you’re not able to get through Congress some of the initiatives.”
Klain’s appointment comes at a moment of high political tension in Washington. Despite losing the popular vote and electoral college, Trump has not conceded the race, and the General Services Administration, the federal agency in charge of supporting other agencies, has not yet given the Biden team the normal designation a victorious presidential campaign gets.
A sign-off from the administrator of the GSA is required for an incoming administration to get some essential transition resources – such as access to classified briefings – and take steps for background checks on cabinet appointees. In past elections, the GSA has recognized the results much faster.
Meanwhile, Trump’s re-election campaign has pressed forward with long-shot lawsuits on voter fraud. Those lawsuits have helped fuel conspiracy theories that the election was rigged and stolen from Trump – unfounded claims Trump has pushed directly.
Biden has shrugged off the Trump administration’s dawdling and denial of access to the presidential daily briefing of national security information.
Increasingly, though, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have voiced disagreement with the White House’s stance. The Oklahoma senator Jim Lankford, a Republican, said in a radio interview that Biden should have access to intelligence briefings. Lankford said he would push for Biden if the president-elect was not given those briefings.
Even with a green light from the GSA, Brown said she could still see the Trump administration trying to “clog things up”.
In the meantime Biden has carried on a flurry of activity linked to the transition.
He has held calls with world leaders and welcomed their congratulations. Earlier this week, the Biden transition team unveiled its agency review teams to size up various federal departments. His team has begun extensive outreach to offices on Capitol Hill, underscoring an understanding of how essential Congress will be for moving any of Biden’s agenda. That outreach has been preliminary but it is clear from interviews with half a dozen congressional staffers that the Biden team is eager to start taking input on personnel and policy. The team has emailed congressional chiefs of staff, and the House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office has contacted other offices about liaising with the Biden team.
“People seem very happy with the level of outreach and engagement so far,” said one congressional chief of staff.
But the specter of a split Congress has loomed over the transition process.
Subject to the results of two runoff races in Georgia, Republicans appear likely to narrowly keep their majority in the Senate, the body that handles confirmations for cabinet appointments. It’s possible that the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, could stonewall all of Biden’s cabinet nominees or the more liberal ones, although discussion among Senate Republicans on that has been sparse, according to a keyed-in Senate staffer.
So far that hasn’t had any effect on the names most often bandied about for top cabinet positions. Liberal favorites like the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders have signaled interest in running the treasury department and the Department of Labor, respectively. Lael Brainard, a member of the Federal Reserve board of governors, is often mentioned as a more establishment-minded pick for Treasury.
Michele Flournoy, a former deputy secretary of defense, is regularly mentioned as a potential secretary of defense. Jeh Johnson, Barack Obama’s former homeland security chief, is often mentioned as another top candidate to run the defense department. New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s name is often included in cabinet shortlists, possibly to run the Department of Health and Human Services.
The emerging pattern is that Biden is eager to bring in people with prior government experience and longstanding ties to him.
One of the most hotly speculated posts is secretary of state. The Delaware senator Chris Coons, former national security adviser Susan Rice and Antony Blinken have all been mainstays of Biden administration shortlists for the job. Blinken, a former deputy national security adviser, and Coons are longtime Biden friends. Rice made it to the final rounds of Biden’s search for a running mate.
Similarly, the outgoing Alabama senator Doug Jones, whose ties with Biden go back years, is a top prospect to run the Department of Justice. The Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, who hails from roughly the same ideological region of the party as Biden, is being pushed as a possible attorney general. And Pete Buttigieg is the name most commonly touted for a potential position – possibly UN ambassador, possibly Department of Veterans Affairs, possibly director of the Office of Management and Budget. Biden, according to multiple Democrats, has grown especially fond of the young former South Bend mayor and erstwhile presidential candidate.
Democrats suspect Buttigieg would ultimately be drawn to whichever post could help his long-term ambitions. Serving as ambassador to the UN would give him a powerful megaphone and proximity to deep-pocketed New York donors.
Klain’s appointment is probably the first of several transfers of top Biden campaign staffers over to his administration. Symone Sanders, a senior campaign adviser, has written about her hopes to be White House press secretary. Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s campaign manager, has also been encouraged to play some role in the administration. Jake Sullivan, another key Biden campaign staffer, often appears on shortlists for a national security post, possibly national security adviser.