Election Minute

November 19, 2020

Biden Begins Transition as Trump Digs In

President-elect Joe Biden has begun the process of transitioning from political candidate to President of the United States, even as the sitting president, Donald Trump, fights to get the results of the election overturned. The theme emerging from Biden’s public statements is unity, with the former vice president attempting to bring together Republicans and Democrats after one of the most divisive campaigns in presidential history.

In numerous statements, Biden has spoken of how much all Americans—Republicans and Democrats—have in common and repeated his calls to lower the levels of tension and animosity between liberals and conservatives. “The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another is not due to some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a conscious decision,” Biden said in an address this week.

But the president-elect has been playing both sides of the game, at the same time bashing President Trump, saying, “The only reason people question the [coronavirus] vaccine now is because of Donald Trump.” President Trump has for months urged scientists to develop a vaccine in record time, prompting Democrats to accuse him of promoting a possibly unsafe vaccine for political gain.

Biden appoints White House staff

Joe Biden has begun installing personnel in key White House positions, with multiple allies receiving first dibs at senior positions.

Biden’s first major move was to tap Ron Klain, a Jewish aide who first began working for Biden in 1989, to be his White House Chief of Staff. Klain, 59, served as Chief of Staff to Al Gore and Joe Biden during their tenures as vice president, and was also the White House Response Coordinator when an Ebola virus outbreak occurred in late 2014.

Jennifer O’Malley Dillion, Biden’s national campaign director, will take the position of Deputy Chief of Staff. Representative Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, a vice-chair of the Biden campaign, will also be joining the White House team as a senior adviser and chief of the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. Other additions include Mike Donilon as senior adviser, Steve Ricchetti as counselor to the president, and Dana Remus as counsel to the president. Julie Chavez Rodriquez, Biden’s deputy campaign manager, will become the director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, and longtime Biden aide Annie Tomasini will be the director of Oval Office operations. Additionally, Anthony Bernal will serve as senior adviser to the First Lady, and Julissa Reynoso Pantaleon will be the First Lady’s chief of staff.

Progressives have not been thrilled with Biden’s choices of White House advisers and personnel, saying that they are too connected to big business interests. Justice Democrats, a liberal group, criticized Biden’s plans to make “corporate-friendly appointments” to his administration, saying the president-elect risks “quickly fracturing the hard-earned goodwill his team built with progressives to defeat Donald Trump.” And the Sunrise Movement, a progressive environmental group, slammed Biden for choosing Rep. Cedric Richmond for a White House position, calling the pick a “betrayal” due to Richmond’s ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Biden has not yet announced any picks for his Cabinet, but reports say that Independent Senator Angus King of Maine is being strongly considered for the Director of National Intelligence position. King is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and co-chairs the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which develops strategies to deter cyberattacks from foreign adversaries. The Biden transition team is also considering Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to become the Secretary of the Interior, which would make her the first Native American Cabinet member in history.

Progressive Democrats have been urging Biden to install leftist figures in key Cabinet positions. Most notably, they want Senator Elizabeth Warren to be appointed Secretary of the Treasury, and socialist Vermont senator Bernie Sanders to receive the Secretary of Labor spot. Biden, who has pledged to try to work with Republicans on issues, is unlikely to give either of those positions to far-left progressives.

Biden attacks Trump over coronavirus coordination

Joe Biden slammed President Trump this week for refusing to work with his advisers on a plan to distribute a coronavirus vaccine when one becomes available, warning that a lack of coordination between his and Trump’s teams may result in more people dying unnecessarily.

“The vaccine is important. But it’s of no use until you’re vaccinated,” Biden said, underscoring the need for a well-organized distribution plan, adding that distributing a vaccine to several hundred million Americans poses a massive logistical challenge that must be addressed immediately. “It’s a huge, huge, huge undertaking,” Biden said. “If we have to wait until January 20 to start that planning, it puts us behind. More people may die if we don’t coordinate.”

Two pharmaceuticals—Pfizer and Moderna—announced earlier this week that their vaccines were effective more than 90 percent of the time, boosting hopes that a reliable vaccine will be ready to be mass-developed within weeks.

Trump still fighting

Despite Biden acting as any president-elect would, President Trump is holding steady in his assertion that the presidential election was stolen from him and that widespread fraud was present. In several different tweets, the president wrote that Biden “won” the election, but only because it was “rigged,” then tweeted in all-caps, “I WON THE ELECTION!”

In another tweet, the president wrote, “The only thing secure about our 2020 election was that it was virtually impenetrable by foreign powers. On that, the Trump Administration takes great credit. Unfortunately, the Radical Left Democrats, Dominion, and others, were perhaps more successful!”

President Trump also took to Twitter to fire a top Pentagon official for saying that there was no evidence of fraud in the election. “The recent statement by Chris Krebs on the security of the 2020 Election was highly inaccurate, in that there were massive improprieties and fraud—including dead people voting, Poll Watchers not allowed into polling locations, ‘glitches’ in the voting machines which changed votes from Trump to Biden, late voting, and many more. Therefore, effective immediately, Chris Krebs has been terminated as Director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency,” Trump tweeted. Twitter immediately slapped warning labels on Trump’s tweets, saying his claims are disputed.

President Trump put his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani in charge of leading his legal efforts to have the election overturned, but the prospects of that happening appear to be getting bleaker as the days pass. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected Trump’s legal team’s claims that Philadelphia violated state law by keeping ballot watchers too far from the actual tabulating of votes. The US Supreme Court declined to hear a case challenging Pennsylvania’s absentee ballot receipt deadline, striking a blow against the president’s attempts to have the results in the Keystone State overturned in his favor. And Mr. Giuliani, who has teased that he will expose massive fraud in the presidential election, continues to lob allegations without providing solid evidence of any wrongdoing.

To date, the litigation by Trump’s team—they have filed over two dozen election-related lawsuits in multiple states—has produced very few court wins for the president and has unearthed no evidence that ballot tampering or fraud swayed the election for Biden. One of Giuliani’s primary claims—that Dominion voting machines have a “back door” that allows officials to see and change votes—have yet to be substantiated as of this writing. And his other major claim—that 600,000 votes in Pennsylvania should have been disqualified—was taken out of the lawsuit filed by President Trump’s legal team in the state. There may indeed be some serious allegations of wrongdoing, but little evidence has yet been provided to prove it.

“With an overwhelming number of losses and withdrawals of cases, there is no path for the Trump campaign to overturn the results in a single state, much less states making up more than 36 electoral college votes,” said law professor Rick Hasen.

“There have never been lawsuits with a realistic chance of putting the result within the margin of litigation,” Loyola Marymount University law professor Justin Levitt said. “The lawsuits that were viable were about small procedural issues that don’t really matter. And the other lawsuits were never, ever viable.”

Still, the Trump campaign remains unfazed, saying they will fight in court until President Trump is guaranteed a second term in office. “There are legal avenues to pursue to achieve that goal, and when we are successful, we believe the president will be reelected,” said Trump 2020 senior legal advisor Jenna Ellis. “Every American should agree that all legal votes should be counted, and all illegal votes should not be.”

Republicans slowly acknowledging Biden win

As the Trump campaign’s lawsuits continue to fail in court, more Republican lawmakers are beginning to publicly accept that Joe Biden has won the presidential election.

Senator John Cornyn of Texas said that Trump should continue with his legal challenges but he “has every confidence on January 20th we’re going to inaugurate a president. And it will probably be Joe Biden.” Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has called Biden the president-elect outright, saying so because “that’s what the results, the preliminary results, seem to indicate, and we certainly have to anticipate that that’s what the highest likelihood is at this point.” Republican Senators Kevin Cramer and Mike Rounds said that, based on the available data, there was no way for President Trump to reverse the outcome of the election. “We have to assume right now, based upon the current electoral count, that we are getting closer to the point where the facts on the ground will bear that out,” Senator Rounds said. “Right now, it looks like it will be President Biden. We understand that.”

Senator Kramer went further, arguing that Biden should be receiving the daily intelligence briefings received by the president, as well as transition help from the Trump administration, both of which President Trump has so far withheld from the apparent president-elect. “It grows increasingly unlikely that a remedy would involve overturning the election,” Kramer said. “Biden ought to be getting briefings and the transition ought to be in the works so that there’s an infrastructure for that. And if he ends up winning, as it seems likely he will… he won’t have to get caught up on one day in January.”

Others, including Senator Jim Risch, retiring Rep. Francis Rooney, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, and even Trump’s own national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, have acknowledged that Joe Biden will most likely be the next president. And on Tuesday, when Vice President-elect Kamala Harris was attending a vote in the Senate, multiple Republicans approached her to offer their congratulations, including Senator Lindsey Graham, Tim Scott, James Lankford, and Ben Sasse.

Post-presidency plans

President Trump reportedly has some big plans lined up for when his presidency ends. There have been reports that if and when it is confirmed that Joe Biden is the elected president, Trump will almost immediately announce that he is running again for president in 2024. Doing so would give the current president a leg up on other Republicans with aspirations to run for president in four years and would also help him remain the de facto leader of the Republican Party throughout the duration of the Biden presidency.

Trump has also begun fundraising through his reelection campaign for a new “Save America” PAC whose goal is to raise and distribute millions of dollars for Republican candidates, cementing Trump’s position as an extremely powerful power broker in GOP circle.

Allies of President Trump are also raising millions of dollars to start a conservative TV network to counter Fox News, with Trump at its helm. Advisers to the president have discussed buying out Newsmax TV, a small but very conservative outlet, and replace it with a Trump TV network. However, Newsmax CEO and Trump confidant Chris Ruddy threw cold water on the idea, saying that Newsmax would not become Trump TV. “We have always seen ourselves as an independent news agency, and we want to continue with that mission,” Ruddy said. He did, however, note that he expects Donald Trump to remain a dominant political and media personality after his presidency ends and said that he would be open to offering Trump a weekly show on his network.


Trump Discusses Striking Iran before Leaving Office

President Trump discussed taking military action against Iran’s main nuclear site at Natanz before his presidency ends, according to a report by the New York Times. Trump, who has been perhaps the most anti-Iran US president in history, asked his advisors about bombing the site a day after international nuclear inspectors said that Iran had significantly increased its stockpile of uranium, with the mullah-ruled country having 2,442 kilograms of the material, enough to develop two nuclear weapons.

The Times reported that a bunch of advisors, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, advised against a strike and eventually dissuaded President Trump from ordering one.

Officials reportedly say that while a missile strike on an Iranian nuclear facility is likely off the table, President Trump could still take other actions to hurt Iranian assets and allies, including against pro-Iranian militias operating in Iraq. It is also possible that, rather than a military strike, the president could order a cyberattack against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which could further cripple their atomic program, already severely damaged by covert US and Israeli operations.

In response to the report, Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei warned that “any action against the Iranian nation would certainly face a crushing response.”

Biden, Harris Receive First Intelligence Briefing

President- and Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris received their first intelligence briefings from national security experts on Tuesday, despite President Trump continuing to block them from viewing the classified intelligence reserved for the president.

According to a readout distributed by the Biden team, the briefing, which took place in Wilmington, Delaware, provided Biden and Harris with information on “the diplomatic, defense, and intelligence challenges the administration will inherit on day one, focusing on both the strategic landscape as well as the readiness of our foreign policy and national security departments and agencies.”

Among the officials who briefed Biden and Harris were retired four-star Army General Lloyd Austin, former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, former career diplomat Nicholas Burns, former Army General Stanley McChrystal, former four-star Navy Admiral William McRaven, and former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Powers. Although he is barred from viewing the intelligence received by the president, Biden said he is learning about the US’s challenges from his non-classified briefings and through speaking to world leaders.

Biden said he has already spoken to a number of presidents and prime ministers, including those from Israel, Chile, India, and South Africa.

Progressives Tell Biden to Cancel Student Debt

Multiple Democrats urged President-elect Joe Biden this week to cancel student loan debt on his first day in office, citing the crushing burden of loans during the coronavirus pandemic. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren co-authored a resolution in September calling on the next president to cancel up to $50,000 in outstanding federal student loans per borrower. According to data from the College Board, such a move would result in the cancellation of all student loan debt for more than 75% of borrowers.

Asked about his position on the matter, Joe Biden said he supports the erasure of at least some student loan debt, and said it should be taken care of “immediately.” Biden repeated his support for provision in the HEROES Act, which calls for the federal government to pay off up to $10,000 in private, nonfederal student loans for “economically distressed” borrowers. The president-elect said his support for the provision is out of sympathy for those who are stuck “having to make choices between paying their student loan and paying the rent.” However, and to the chagrin of some, Biden did not say he would sign an executive order to cancel the debt unilaterally and without prior Congressional approval.

Trump Orders Troop Withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan

President Trump has ordered the Pentagon to withdraw 2,500 US troops from Iraq and Afghanistan by mid-January, Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller announced on Tuesday. The withdrawals would cut the number of troops in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 and in Iraq from 3,000 to 2,500.

Miller said that the decision by President Trump is “based on continuous engagement with his national security Cabinet for the past several months.” He added that Trump spoke with “key leaders in Congress as well as our allies and partners abroad” before settling on the decision. But Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the withdrawal of troops from the war-torn countries a mistake. “I think it’s extremely important here in the next couple of months not to have any earthshaking changes with regard to defense and foreign policy,” McConnell said. “I think a precipitous drawdown in either Afghanistan or Iraq would be a mistake.”

Trump Planning Action Against China in Final Weeks as President

President Trump is planning to take action against China over human rights violations and malicious trade practices in the final months before his presidency ends. A senior White House adviser told the New York Post that “over the coming weeks, the Trump administration will continue to expand the depth and breadth of the historic actions it has taken over the past four years to protect the vital interests of the United States and its allies countering Beijing’s predatory and coercive behavior.”

In 2018, President Trump launched a trade war with China, slapping massive tariffs on Chinese imports and forcing concessions to benefit US companies. Trump has also signed bills placing sanctions on China for eliminating autonomy in Hong Kong, and for their discrimination against the Muslim Uighur minority, including sending many of them to “reeducation” concentration camps.

The White House official told the Post that “actions being contemplated include protecting American technology from [Chinese military] exploitation, countering illegal, unreported, unregulated fishing, and further sanctions against [Chinese Communist Party] officials or institutions causing harm in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.”

Joe Biden has been critical of President Trump’s trade war, saying that tariffs only end up hurting American businesses and consumers.

Biden Wants to Avoid Trump Investigations

President-elect Joe Biden has privately told advisers that he does not want investigations into President Trump to consume his own presidency, according to five sources who spoke to NBC News. Many Democrats have been hoping that investigations into President Trump by Biden’s Justice Department would land the now-lame duck president in jail. According to his advisers, the president-elect has raised concerns that investigations into his predecessor would further divide the country, which Biden would like to unite.

“He’s going to be more oriented toward fixing the problems and moving forward than prosecuting them,” one adviser said. Another adviser told NBC that Biden wants to let bygones be bygones. “His overarching view is that we need to move the country forward,” the Biden adviser said. “But the most important thing on this is that he will not interfere with his Justice Department and not politicize his Justice Department.”