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Trump's election transition standoff may do serious damage to national security

Trump is undermining a precedent set by presidents of both parties in the wake of one of our country's darkest days.
Image: A silver suitcase with a black lock and the seal of the President of the United States sits against a red background
President-elect Joe Biden has established experienced transition teams — but Trump won't permit them to receive classified information.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

Nearly three years after Sept. 11, 2001, a bipartisan group of experts issued the definitive report on how America was left vulnerable to such massive terrorist attacks inside its borders. One of the contributing factors, the report noted, was likely the delayed process of transition from Democratic President Bill Clinton to the Republican administration of George W. Bush following the election's legal dispute over less than 600 votes in Florida.

The 9/11 Commission Report emphasized the importance of an organized transition not only in power and personnel — but also in knowledge of pending threats and decisions.

The 9/11 Commission Report emphasized the importance of an organized transition not only in power and personnel — but also in knowledge of pending threats and decisions. Specifically, it recommended that future administrations "minimize national security risks" by providing "as soon as possible after election day ... a classified compartmented list that catalogues specific operational threats to national security; major military and covert operations; and pending decisions on the use of force." This classified document should aim not merely to provide notice of ongoing national security matters to an incoming team, but also to invite "the president-elect to inquire and learn more" through engagement with the outgoing team.

Since then, Bush and his successor, President Barack Obama, sought to ensure an orderly and efficient transition of both power and knowledge involving national security affairs beginning within days of the national election. President Donald Trump is now shattering this safeguard. Having served through the last two presidential transitions, I can't overstate just how careless this is — particularly in the midst of a pandemic that is killing over 1,000 people in the United States every day.

Infused with the lessons of 9/11, Bush began focusing on his transition in mid-2007, over a year before the election of his successor. At the time, I was serving as special assistant to the president and senior director on the National Security Council and briefed him regularly. Bush repeatedly pushed those of us in positions of public trust to ensure that what we handed off to a new chief executive was anchored in a multiyear framework to reduce the risk that an immediate crisis would imperil a new administration, regardless of political party.

In particular, we worked for over a year to ensure that the difficult, ongoing war in Iraq was on a more sustainable path, secured by two international agreements with the government of Iraq to guide force dispositions in the early years of a new presidency. Through engagement with Sen. John McCain's and Obama's campaign staffs — and later with President-elect Obama's transition team after the election — a new administration entered the White House with full knowledge of and insight into what it was inheriting. This helped Obama conduct a swift strategic review and then roll out his own Iraq policy after only five weeks in office.

When Trump was elected in November 2016, Obama similarly instructed everyone working under him to extend the same courtesy and preparation that he had received from the Bush team. I was then serving as Obama's special envoy, helping to oversee the complex campaign against the Islamic State, which brought together coalitions of countries from around the world and fighting groups on the ground. We prepared detailed briefings about the state of the campaign for Trump's transition team with decisions he might confront in his early weeks.

When Trump was elected in November 2016, Obama similarly instructed everyone working under him to extend the same courtesy and preparation.

One of those decisions was how to eject the Islamic State from its capital in Raqqa, Syria, where we believed it was planning major terrorist attacks against the United States and our allies. By the end of 2016, the Syrian force we had been supporting, nearly 60,000 fighters under an umbrella known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, was poised about 20 miles north of the city and awaiting a decision from Washington. That decision was difficult, because to take a city the size of Raqqa required directly arming the Kurdish component of the force, something that to date President Obama had not done because of objections from Turkey.

We worked for months to develop alternative options with Turkey for seizing Raqqa, but all of them required the infusion of thousands of U.S. ground combat troops into Syria, something that both Obama and Trump said they would not do. That left one option, and with the battle ready to launch, we sought to engage the incoming administration to discuss the issue. But there was nobody to engage. Even when Trump's transition teams arrived in Washington, they were often shifting casts of characters, with little connection to the incoming president.

Two days before the inauguration, Obama convened his senior advisers to discuss whether he should simply go ahead and make the decision himself. I was prepared to recommend that he do so rather than pass it off to what seemed to be a disorganized new team, which even in a best-case scenario would take months to review the situation, only to arrive, I believed, in the same place.

The stakes were high. Our campaign had been designed to launch operations against the two Islamic State strongholds, Mosul and Raqqa, around the same time, forcing the enemy to defend on two fronts. Mosul was underway, and the threats from Raqqa were continuing to increase even as the Islamic State strengthened its defense positions week after week.

Moments before we sat down with Obama, Trump's incoming team asked that we hold on the Raqqa decision. The new administration wanted to take a fresh look at the issue, after having never seriously considered it over the 11-week transition period.

The result was a lengthy review after Trump took office, all to arrive at the same decision point: arm the Kurds or send in thousands of U.S. troops. In May, Trump chose the former — and only realistic — option. The battle began shortly thereafter and lasted six months. It was costly, with nearly 1,000 casualties from the Syrian Democratic Forces. Having visited Raqqa multiple times during and after the battle, I'm convinced it would have been less so had we been able to move during the transition period or immediately afterward.

What's happening now is like "opposite world" compared to four years ago. President-elect Joe Biden has established experienced teams to engage with key federal departments and agencies. But Trump will not permit them to speak with anyone in his administration or receive classified information or even have office space in Washington. This includes a denial of access to public health institutions and the experts combatting the Covid-19 pandemic, even as our country approaches another grim milestone, with close to 250,000 dead in America. Information about military deployments, threat assessments and intelligence on hostile actors from terrorists to state adversaries are being kept from the president-elect and his senior team.

Such blockages are petty, for sure, but they also exhibit once again a reckless disregard for the health and safety of the American people. For even if Trump wants to pursue fruitless court challenges, there is no valid reason to deny Biden's transition team the same level of access his own team was afforded — as specifically recommended in the 9/11 Commission Report.

By refusing to do this, Trump is undermining a precedent set by presidents of both parties in the wake of one of our country's darkest days. And in doing so, he increases the risks of another one.