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Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Explained: Why a ‘holiday break’ caused a standoff between Joe Biden’s team, Pentagon

Joe Biden’s transition executive director Yohannes Abraham has alleged there was 'an abrupt halt' in the meetings scheduled between the transition team and the US Defence Department.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: December 21, 2020 10:22:05 am
Joe Biden, Donald Trump, us transfer of power, Yohannes Abraham, biden team, biden team department of defence, biden team pentagon, express explained, indian expressThe peaceful transfer of power between the outgoing and the new occupant of the White House is a cornerstone of democracy in the US. (Photo: AP)

Even after the US’ Electoral College met and certified the 2020 general election results, the transition to power for President-elect Joe Biden does not seem to be going smoothly. President Donald Trump is yet to formally concede defeat, and Biden’s team has repeatedly claimed that Trump’s administration is delaying the critical transfer-of-power process.

This week, Biden’s transition executive director Yohannes Abraham alleged there was “an abrupt halt” in the meetings scheduled between the President-elect’s transition team and the US’ Defence Department to share critical government information before inauguration day.

The Pentagon has insisted that talks were stalled due to a “mutually agreed upon” holiday break — a claim team Biden has categorically denied.

Why is Biden’s transition team unhappy with the Department of Defence?

Biden’s transition team Friday expressed their frustration after the Pentagon suddenly halted talks. The meetings were originally planned to take place from Friday until after the new year.

But the team has claimed that they learnt about the delay only on Thursday, after the briefings were stopped without much explanation, CNN reported.

“There was no mutually agreed-upon holiday break,” Abraham told reporters. “In fact, we think it’s important that briefings and other engagements continue during this period, as there’s no time to spare.”

He called for meetings and information requests to resume immediately, with inauguration day just weeks away and critical data on national security and continuity of government yet to be shared.

Abraham claimed that his team had faced resistance from some government agencies, including the Department of Defence (DoD). Cancelling the meetings, he said, had “immediately and appropriately” escalated the issue.

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What was the Pentagon’s response to Biden’s transition team’s allegations?

On Friday, US media reported that acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller ordered meetings to halt due to frustration within the Trump administration at Biden’s transition team.

Responding to the reports, the Pentagon acknowledged that they were rescheduling around 20 meetings with 40 officials until after the new year, but insisted that cooperation was continuing, The Hill reported. Miller said that the Biden team would be provided with documents even during the break.

“After the mutually agreed upon holiday pause, which begins tomorrow, we will continue with the transition and rescheduled meetings from today,” Miller said in a statement. “Again, I remain committed to a full and transparent transition — this is what our nation expects and the DoD will deliver as it always has.”

Defence officials claimed that some of the meetings were postponed so that department personnel could focus on issues associated with a possible government shutdown that was planned on Friday if Congress was unable to agree on a Covid-19 relief package.

However, when Friday came around, the Congress was able to narrowly avert the shutdown, even though it still has not secured the $900 billion pandemic relief deal.

Earlier this month, the DoD denied reports suggesting it was placing unnecessary hurdles for the President-elect’s team and making it difficult for them to coordinate meetings with the department.

What is the role of the transition team?

Over the last few weeks, President-elect Biden’s transition team has been meeting with officials from various government agencies to prepare for the eventual handover of power, slated to take place on inauguration day in January. During these meetings, top government officials are required to share important information pertaining to the programmes and challenges that the incoming administration will ultimately inherit.

The peaceful transfer of power between an outgoing and incoming president is considered a cornerstone of democracy and is enshrined in the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and its amendments. The Act was designed to “promote the orderly transfer of the executive power in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a President and the inauguration of a new President.”

The most critical part of the transition phase — a roughly 75-day period — kicks off once the winner of the presidential race is ascertained by the General Services Administration (GSA), a US government agency that is responsible for managing federal property and for supporting the basic functioning of federal agencies.

Once the winner is certified, the transition team is given access to government agencies and funds (worth $9.9 million this year) to begin preparing for the new administration.

Why was the transition delayed this year?

The transition phase was cut short for two big reasons this year — with an increase in postal ballots due to the coronavirus pandemic, the election results were declared later than usual; and even after the results were ascertained, President Trump refused to concede defeat.

The transition period generally begins when a letter is issued by the GSA, declaring the winner of the election. But this year, the GSA delayed recognising Biden as thewinner until November 23 — nearly three weeks after the election was held.

The Biden team did not wait for the formal transition to begin to start preparing for the presidency. He announced several of his cabinet picks even before the GSA released its letter. But prior to receiving the GSA’s nod, team Biden did not have access to federal funding, infrastructural support, or government data and contact with federal agencies.

This is not the first time a presidential transition has been delayed. During the 2000 election, when the fate of the race hinged on electoral votes in Florida, the outgoing Bill Clinton administration did not ascertain George W. Bush’s victory until December 14 when the US Supreme Court delivered its verdict in Bush v Gore.

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