Trump’s failure to concede, approve a swift transition, and his purge of Defense officials puts the US at risk, according to a bipartisan group of former Department of Homeland Security chiefs, transition experts, and government officials.
President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede the election and purging of top Defense Department officials are putting the national security of the United States at great risk, according to current and former government officials and national security experts.
Trump, who lost the election handily by wider margins than he won in 2016, has refused to acknowledge defeat and has instead attempted to cast doubt on the country’s free and fair elections with a flurry of lawsuits and lies. As part of that effort, his administration is refusing to begin the transition process with President-elect Joe Biden. Emily Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration, has yet to issue a letter of “ascertainment,” which would legally allow Biden’s transition team to begin the transfer of power.
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By not allowing Biden access to federal agencies, Trump is depriving Biden of critical intel and classified information he will need to make decisions after being sworn in as president. Such a delay is also going to slow the process of Biden’s political and cabinet appointments, potentially handicapping the early days of his presidency.
This failure to transition quickly puts the US at risk, according to a bipartisan group of former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chiefs. The former DHS heads—Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff, Janet Napolitano, and Jeh Johnson—laid out their case in a statement issued Tuesday by the Citizens for a Strong Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit they founded to encourage public confidence in American elections.
“A peaceful transfer of power was defined as essential to national security by the 9/11 Commission. It was critical following the 2008 election, when the country was confronted with active terror threats during the transition and what was then the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. It was essential in 2016 when America was working to defeat ISIS. And it is essential now,” the group wrote.
Andy Card, the former White House chief of staff under President George W. Bush, also said the delay in the transition while the 2000 election was contested before the Supreme Court may have affected the government’s failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks, which killed nearly 3,000 people.
“The Bush transition did not have access to federal agencies and resources for 37 long days,” Card and John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “When the 9/11 Commission finished its report, it found that the delayed transition ‘hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees’ in the national security arena. The commission also concluded that avoiding future disruptions in transitions was deeply in the national interest.”
Card and Podesta emphasized that Biden and his team should “not suffer a similar delay.”
“We know from history—including a foiled terrorist attack on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration—that our adversaries seek to take advantage of the United States during transitions. We cannot let that happen today.”
What’s Really at Stake in this Bureaucratic Blockade
Other attempts to sow chaos amid transitions have succeeded. The 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, occurred during the transition from President Ronald Reagan to President George H.W. Bush, and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, which killed six people and injured more than 1,000, occurred just a month after Bush was replaced in the White House by President Bill Clinton.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who sits on the US Senate committee for foreign relations, was even more pointed in his criticism of Trump, his administration, and the Republican Party writ large.
“The president’s delusion, which is being enabled by congressional Republicans, is jeopardizing American national security,” Murphy told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. He warned that if Trump continued to prevent Biden from accessing vital intelligence information, the US would be left vulnerable to enemies who could take advantage of the vacuum of power.
“There are a number of crises that are festering around the world right now. A conflict in Armenia and Azerbaijan, a hot war on the eastern edge of Ukraine, China pressing further into Hong Kong,” Murphy added. “President-elect Biden has to be ready to go on day one. It is true that we’ve probably never had someone so experienced with respect to foreign relations, but he hasn’t been getting these detailed briefings for four years.”
Max Stier, director of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that oversees the Center for Presidential Transition, has also called on the GSA to begin the transition.
“What’s at stake, really, is our security, our safety,” Stier told CNN.
The ex-DHS chiefs echoed that notion, arguing that while Trump is within his rights to file legal challenges and request recounts in some states, “his legal claims cannot and must not prevent the transition process from beginning.”
Biden himself has called Trump’s refusal to concede and begin the transition process an “embarrassment.” He also said receiving daily intelligence would be “useful,” but is “not necessary” at this point.
Meanwhile, Turnover at the Department of Defense Is Also Raising Flags
Concerns over national security only grew this week after he began installing loyalists in key positions at the Department of Defense. Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Monday and within roughly 24 hours, the top officials overseeing policy, intelligence, and the defense secretary’s staff had resigned and were replaced by political operatives who have previously promoted baseless conspiracy theories.
Trump appointed Kash Patel, a former aide to California Rep. Devin Nunes, as the department’s chief of staff. Patel was heavily involved in attempts to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Anthony Tata, who is now in charge of policy at the Defense Department, is a former pro-Trump Fox News pundit who has a history of promoting conspiracy theories, making Islamophobic comments, and calling former President Barack Obama a “terrorist leader.” And Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who is set to serve as the new acting undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security, formerly worked under Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
The appointments of Patel, Tata, and Cohen-Watnick sparked immediate alarm among members of Congress and former government officials.
“It is hard to overstate just how dangerous high-level turnover at the Department of Defense is during a period of presidential transition,” Congressman Adam Smith said in a statement. “If this is the beginning of a trend—the President either firing or forcing out national security professionals in order to replace them with people perceived as more loyal to him—then the next 70 days will be precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst.”
Smith, who serves as the Chair of the House Armed Services Committee, added that Trump’s actions served to hamstring the government during the transition and that his “singular obsession with loyalty has severely undermined the competence of our government and made us less safe.”
Olivia Troye, who previously worked as homeland security, counterterrorism and coronavirus adviser to Vice President Mike Pence, also sounded the alarm over the appointments.
“Be concerned: Many of us in the #intel community are appalled at this announcement & many of us agree #EzraCohen is a significant counterintelligence threat,” Troye wrote in a tweet. She added that Cohen should have never had security clearance and that she does not trust Patel.
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