Rushed 2000 Transition Hampered Gov. Before 9/11, Former Officials Warn As Trump Delays

394509 01: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks to Vice President Dick Cheney by phone aboard Air Force One September 11, 2001 after departing Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. (Photo by Eric Draper/The White House/Getty Images)
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November 12, 2020 5:00 p.m.

As the President Donald Trump continues to refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election, multiple officials from previous administrations have expressed concern about the national security implications of withholding key information from the Biden transition team.

For veterans of past administrations, the situation echoes another, in 2000, when a contested recount of the presidential race in Florida stalled the official presidential transition until mid-December, when the Supreme Court ruled in George W. Bush’s favor.

The 9/11 Commission Report, which was published in 2004 and dissected the months running up to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, offered a grave analysis of that delay. 

“The dispute over the election and the 36-day delay cut in half the normal transition period,” the report found. “Given that a presidential election in the United States brings wholesale change in personnel, this loss of time hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.”

In the final days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, the administration had been “seized by the threat of what was going on with Al Qaeda and [Osama] bin Laden,” Clinton’s chief of staff at the time, John Podesta, said during a recent interview with the “Transition Lab” podcast.

But, Podesta said, the shortened transition period interrupted that focus.

“One of the effects of that truncated period of time was we were unable, I think, to put the focus of their security team really on the threat of bin Laden,” he said, referring to the Bush transition team.

On Wednesday, Bush’s first chief of staff Andrew Card said the report’s warnings were ringing in his ears nearly two decades later. 

“The 9/11 Commission had said if there had been a longer transition and there had been cooperation, there might have been a better response, or maybe not even any attack,” Card told CNBC’s Shepard Smith.

“We’ve got a lot of enemies that would love to attack us during this time of uncertainty,” Card added of 2020. 

Philip Zelikow, the executive director of the commission that produced the report, told TPM Thursday that it speaks for itself.

“I certainly believe the President and GSA are improperly delaying the transition operations,” he said.

The Bush administration’s subsequent hand-off to Barack Obama in 2008 is now held out as the “gold standard” among recent presidential transitions. That’s in part because the task of filling the thousands of political vacancies created by Bush’s departure “took on new urgency after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,” the Center for Presidential Transition noted earlier this year.

“Every day matters in a transition, and every day that’s lost is increasingly important” David Marchick, the center’s director, told TPM Thursday.

“It’s deeply in our country’s interest to have as many people in their seats as possible on or soon after Jan. 20, and a stalled transition makes that harder.”

Stacks of national security and diplomatic memos, millions of dollars, government resources and valuable expedited security clearances await the national security officials working with the President- and vice-president elect. But first, a Trump administration official, Government Services Administration head Emily Murphy, must officially “ascertain” that Biden has in fact won the presidential election.

But so far, Murphy remains silent, to the increasing confusion and frustration of outside observers.

As the Trump administration reportedly continues to put pressure on political appointees to hold the President’s line and ignore reality about the election’s results, pressure is mounting on Murphy to open up government resources to Biden’s team.

On Tuesday, four former secretaries of the Department of Homeland Security called on the administration to acknowledge Biden’s victory, noting that “a peaceful transfer of power was defined as essential to national security by the 9/11 Commission.”

And on Thursday, more than 150 former national security officials — including the former heads of the Pentagon and CIA, among others — wrote bluntly to Murphy that delaying the transition further “poses a serious risk to our national security.” 

Citing the 9/11 Commission Report, the former officials said its recommendation to minimize national security disruptions “carries all the more force amidst a once-in-a-century pandemic.” 

“In this moment of uncertainty, we must put politics aside,” the former officials concluded. “Further delaying the Biden team’s ability to access the President’s Daily Brief and other national security information and resources compromises the continuity and readiness of our national leadership, with potentially immense consequences for our national security.” 

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