President-elect Joe Biden is projecting the authority and purpose of an incoming chief executive, naming a coronavirus task force and vetting candidates for top positions for his administration. But for the current president, Donald Trump, the election is “not over.”
Lines from Dylan Thomas, a poet Biden is known for quoting, are more appropriate for Trump as a tussle between the incoming and the outgoing darkens the skies over America.
“Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
Trump is raging all right, but his world is likely to end “in a whimper” and not with a “bang”, to summon another poet. He has 217 electoral votes to Biden’s 290, which is way past the winning total of 270.
As you read this with your morning cuppa, the American capital is preparing for a “Million MAGA March” by Trump supporters. “Make American Great Again,” the slogan made famous by him in 2016, remains the anthem. A new group called Stop the Steal, echoing the president’s claim the election was being stolen from him, will join hands. So far no evidence of widespread election fraud has emerged. A counter protest by the Them/They Collective, a gay pride organisation, called “F*ck MAGA” is planned near the Supreme Court at the same time.
The 50-50 America will be on full display as the national nightmare continues. Former military generals and officials are worried that Trump’s unfounded claims are endangering national security. Retired General HR McMaster, Trump’s former national security advisor (there have been several), said showing “weakness or division” at a time of presidential transition gives advantage to “malign actors like Iran and the Communist Party of China.” More apocalyptic scenarios include Trump ordering all troops back from Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Democrats are concerned that Trump won’t concede and allow a dignified transition so Biden can begin receiving the classified national security briefing traditionally provided to a president-elect. But the secret service began providing extra cover as results came in and secured the airspace over Biden’s home in Delaware. The state is a no-fly zone for the Ray-Ban Aviator man — Biden’s signature sunglasses are a pop-culture thing.
But “Joe Cool” has to be patient as the twists and turns of the 2020 election play out. Washington hasn’t seen a turbulent transition such as this in a while. Trump aides told Politico he was “unlikely to concede, he is unlikely to invite Biden to the White House (tradition), and he’s unlikely to attend Biden’s inauguration.” To be fair, many Democratic Party lawmakers refused to attend Trump’s inauguration too. They called him “illegitimate” — such was the shock of Hillary Clinton’s defeat at the hands of a political upstart they considered unfit, unseemly and unqualified.
Trump never had a honeymoon and he is determined to deny Biden one. The 10 weeks between voting day and inauguration on January 20, 2021, will be difficult, may be even harrowing enough to suck the lifeblood out of average folk. The relief felt by Biden supporters a week ago quickly gave way to fear of what Trump might do. Wild theories flew around. Many Americans “got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore” but in some remote country where power flows from places other than the ballot box, not the magical, fantastical land Dorothy found “over the rainbow” in the American classic, Wizard of Oz.
That Trump would make life difficult for Biden was a given. But Biden is moving along, fielding calls from foreign leaders, receiving briefings from experts and designing strategies to work with a divided government. The blue wave didn’t come. Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives and may keep control of the Senate, making life more difficult for the president-elect if it weren’t so already — a galloping pandemic, a battered economy, a healthcare crisis and disgruntled Trump voters he must assuage.
The Biden people are doing what they can to take charge. This week, they announced “agency review teams” of about 100 volunteers who will help the transition and work with each government department as a kind of liaison officers for incoming political appointees. More than 20 Indian American names were spotted in the teams, including professors and former administration officials. Former surgeon-general Vivek Murthy is the co-chair of the coronavirus task force. Murthy, the first Indian American to hold the high position of surgeon general, knows Biden well.
A new president has leeway to appoint his people to an estimated 4,000 federal government jobs. This temporary army of political appointees can sometimes be a problem, as Biden is finding out. A little known Trump appointee in a little known government agency has refused to hand over the keys — literally. Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, needs to officially sign off on paperwork for the Biden team to access government buildings and receive $6 million in funds. But she won’t.
Back in 2000, when Al Gore lost to George W Bush after a contested result in Florida and a Supreme Court judgment, it took 37 days for Americans to get the final results. It was only in mid-December that Bill Clinton’s man at the GSA signed the papers. Every transition has its share of horror stories. Clinton’s aides removed the “W” key from scores of computer keyboards when they left the White House to rub it in to George W Bush. Gore should have been president was the message from outgoing Democrats.
But 2020 is not like 2000 and Trump’s legal challenges won’t reverse the outcome because Biden’s victory margins in battleground states are overwhelming compared to Bush’s lead of 537 votes over Gore. The writing on the wall is clear but the Republican leadership is afraid to take a stand against Trump. They fear Trump’s wrath and power to ruin their careers with a flick of a Tweet. They have to watch their coattails for the 2022 mid-term elections and their own presidential bids in 2024. They know Trump commands the loyalty of 70 million voters nationwide. That’s just a fact, however rude.
The top Republican in the Senate, Majority leader Mitch McConnell, and Trump’s most important ally over the past four years has publicly supported his decision to file lawsuits and ask for recounts but stopped short of following the leader to a point of no return and say the election was “stolen.” Others are doing similar balancing acts.
Republicans feel they have to humour the president in his toughest moment — he has become “the one thing he hates the most: a loser,” The Washington Post reported. Senate Republicans are calling their Democratic colleagues privately to convey their best wishes to Biden, according to Senator Chris Coons, a close friend of the president-elect and desirous of being his Secretary of State.
Trump is litigating not only 2020 but also 2016 when the Democrats alleged that “Russian collusion” helped him win. In the last weeks of his presidency, Trump wants to declassify information that has since apparently been unearthed which rebuts those claims. He fired Defence Secretary Mark Esper this week via Twitter partially because Esper opposed the move since it would compromise sources. Esper was in New Delhi last month for the India-US 2+2 dialogue.
Reports say Trump may fire CIA Chief Gina Haspel and even FBI director Christopher Wray for the same reason — not being loyal enough. Two top Pentagon officials overseeing policy and intelligence resigned following Esper’s firing. Since the November 3 election, even the officer responsible for producing the climate change report was shown the door, along with the deputy administrator of the US aid agency. Trump will probably hold the record for the number of senior officials fired in a single term.
A small step off the loyalty road, and the axe falls. Who would have imagined the word “purge” in the context of American democracy? But this is the state of play 10 days after a historic election but one that was closer than anyone predicted. Some of the joy the Democrats wanted to feel was immediately tempered as results poured in. A Congresswoman who won her seat narrowly against a Republican contender told the party caucus she didn’t want any more talk of “socialism” and “defund the police.”
The Left’s heroine, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, clapped back with an interview to The New York Times. Do more door knocking and use more digital media and may be you will do better, the young leader advised.
Saving or Stealing?
Meanwhile, Trump supporters are in mourning, trying to process the loss. They gathered in small numbers in small pockets from Minnesota to Arizona carrying placards that said “Stop the Steal”. Trump has launched a new political action committee called “Save America” purportedly to defend the election but it actually will fund his new political endeavours, if you read the fine print. Small donors probably don’t know as they part with hard-earned money to “save” democracy. They believe the show must go on.
So far, Trump lawyers haven’t won any cases in the six states they targeted and investigative reporters have debunked the rest, including the claim a great number of “dead” people voted. The score is 0-12 as of now. Even if a few thousand votes across the battleground states are found to be invalid — one of the many reasons cited by the Trump campaign for his loss — they are hardly enough to tip the balance against Biden. His lead is in the tens of thousands.
As the Trump campaign exhausts legal avenues, states’ officials are in the process of certifying results to send “electors” to state capitals on December 14 when they will cast their votes for the winner of that state. The results are then signed and sealed and sent out, including a set to Vice President Mike Pence, who also serves as president of the US Senate. The US Congress will meet on January 6, 2021, for a joint session to count the electoral votes and declare the official winner. Yes, technically the result is not “official” yet. But the tradition of The Associated Press and major cable networks declaring a winner has long been in place. They “call” a state in a candidate’s favour only when trends become clear. Counting is still on but 99% of the votes have been tabulated.
Between now and inauguration, Americans will remain anxious. One half doesn’t trust Trump to do the right thing and the other half feels Biden shouldn’t be taking the oath. The record turnout only proved the deep divide.
Postscript: This democratic exercise cost an unprecedented $14 billion in private cheques by the rich and in small donations by the middle class. But Republicans and Democrats had failed to pass a second stimulus package at the time of writing despite a second wave of the pandemic raging through the country.
Seema Sirohi is a columnist based in Washington DC.