Former Obama administration officials and outside groups say a growing list of challenges in the transition process are likely to impede President-elect Joe Biden’s entry into office.
The transition itself started later than usual after the General Services Administration waited for weeks to authorize it. Since then, there have been reports of political appointees sitting in on Biden transition meetings with career staff, blocking of information and reports to Biden’s team, and other unusual involvement by political officials.
Biden’s transition officials haven’t been vocal about the issues, and some say his team doesn’t want to exacerbate matters by publicizing them.
“I don’t think it’s been the smoothest process like they’d prefer, but I don’t think they’re that surprised. The tactic that they’re taking, it’s a little bit like how some of these foreign leaders approached the administration and [President] Trump specifically, which is: Don’t offend them, don’t rock the boat, get what you need out of them, and do what you have to,” a source familiar with the transition said.
The source added that the Biden transition team “knows it’s tough and they don’t want to make it any more difficult.”
Another source with knowledge of the transition said Biden’s team was expecting these types of hurdles.
“There was an expectation to prepare for every piece of a distinct lack of cooperation from the outgoing administration. They anticipated somewhere between zero help from the outgoing Trump universe to nominal help,” the source said.
One development that some have described as unusual is the presence of Trump political appointees at certain agency meetings with the Biden transition team.
Spokespeople for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Defense Department confirmed to The Hill that political staff have participated in transition calls or meetings.
The New York Times, which first reported that political officials were sitting in on the transition meetings, also reported that political appointees have insisted on attending some transition meetings regarding the State Department.
“Associate Deputy Administrator [Doug] Benevento asked the Biden environmental transition team if political staff could sit in on transition calls so they could provide any information they might have regarding the agency, and they obliged,” said EPA spokesperson James Hewitt in an email.
“We have not been made aware that they have had any concerns with the quality of information provided on those calls,” Hewitt added.
Department of Defense (DOD) spokesperson Sue Gough said in an email that the Pentagon sometimes includes extra people, either career officials or political appointees, at transition meetings. She said the Biden team has also requested to meet with some political appointees.
“There is no requirement that all meetings be attended by a political appointee,” Gough said. “Based upon the topics or subjects that the [agency review team] wants to discuss, DOD is sometimes adding additional personnel beyond the by-name requests so that we have the right subject matter experts present for the discussion.”
However, some former government officials have indicated that previous transitions did not involve a similar setup.
“It has a chilling effect on what the career staff may be willing to say to the agency review team,” said Stan Meiburg, former acting deputy administrator of the EPA during the Obama administration. He noted that when he was at the agency, typically only career staff members were involved in transition meetings.
“There’s obviously concerns that there would be some form…of potential retaliation against career officers that didn’t say exactly what the political officers wanted,” Meiburg said. “I’m not stating that any of the political officers in EPA are doing that, but when you’re a career person, and I was for many years, you worry about that sort of thing.”
Meiburg added that the Biden transition probably agreed to this to avoid a fight.
“To say that they obliged is a matter of trying to be as accommodating as possible in an administration where the president still thinks he won the election,” he said.
Myron Ebell, who led the EPA transition team for Trump, said that during the last transition, political staffers weren’t involved.
“We never met with a political person. We asked to meet with some political people and those interviews were not made available to us,” he said.
“Of course it’s happening,” one source familiar said. “Not sure if it’s blocking. In some cases…it’s probably trying to see what Biden people want and blocking on those issues.”
Trump loyalists attempting to insert themselves into transition meetings are running short on time. With the inauguration just a little over a month away, many are looking for new jobs.
“While it’s unorthodox and sort of spy-game oriented, most of these people are out of a job on Jan. 20, and so there’s not much anyone can really do to impact what the Biden people want to do besides knowing what’s coming, some of which is obvious,” a source familiar with the situation said.