Does the President Have to Help Transition to a New President?

By Andrew Leonatti on November 10, 2020

So, that was a fun week!

Vote counting continues (in many more states than just Pennsylvania), and it appears that Joe Biden will be the next president of the United States.

Of course, President Trump has yet to concede, which he is under no obligation to do, and he has the opportunity to make several legal challenges to the results in whichever states he chooses.

So, until vote tabulation is complete and the Electoral College results are certified, this article is all theoretical. But, assuming the current projections hold, what does President Trump have to do to assist in the peaceful transition of power?

The short answer is not much!

What Is the 'Transition'?

The time between Election Day and the president's inauguration — January 20, 2021 — is long. Normally this time provides for what we refer to as the "transition." The incoming president will convene their team, name their first cabinet appointees, announce other staffing decisions, and announce some policy initiatives they intend to undertake once they assume office.

The transition process actually begins long before the election, when current federal agency heads prepare a plan if the president is not reelected.

The other thing they do during this time — what we're focusing on in this post — is work with the outgoing administration to make sure nothing important is missed — deadlines on projects, national security risks, coronavirus response planning, etc. Typically, members of the president-elect's transition team will actually show up to work at federal agency buildings with their counterparts in the current administration.

And typically, the outgoing president will invite the president-elect to the White House for a frank discussion about the challenges that lie ahead. This also provides the nation with a show of unity to help heal some of the fractures that most campaigns cause.

No Transition Just Yet

We're not off to a great start so far.

The first thing that would normally happen is the administrator of the General Services Administration, the agency in charge of federal buildings, would sign a directive authorizing the beginning of the presidential transition process. That would mean:

  • Freeing up millions of federal dollars to pay transition team members
  • Giving transition team officials access to government facilities, including office space
  • Creating .gov email addresses for transition team members
  • Getting access to senior agency officials to coordinate and exchange information

However, GSA Administrator Emily Murphy is currently declining to issue that order. That means the transition process is at a standstill. It is likely to stay that way until the Electoral College certifies the election results or President Trump concedes the election. Biden shouldn't expect an invite to the White House anytime soon.

The GSA is, however, already helping the Biden transition team conduct background checks on potential nominees. Transition team members have no access to federal agencies.

According to the Constitution, Trump is president until January 20. And we don't really know what would happen if the GSA administrator refused to formally start the transition process. It would likely end up in federal court, but an outcome is hard to predict. Until then, a lot of this stuff — transitions, photo ops, concession speeches — are simply norms that presidents can choose to participate in or avoid.

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