Analysis: Biden unveils his administration as Trump's firewall crumbles

 edition.cnn.com  11/24/2020 14:33:49  3

After nearly three weeks of his absurd legal claims and corrosive attacks on democracy, a cascade of momentous developments Monday obliterated the President's fantasy that he would have a second term.
In the most significant and symbolic sign that it's over for Trump, General Services Administrator Emily Murphy, heeding the inevitability of constitutional processes, finally switched on the administrative machinery that will formally transfer power to President-elect Joe Biden.
The legally mandated transition will unblock millions of dollars in funding and compel the administration to grant access and briefings to the President-elect's incoming team. Most importantly, it will allow Biden's representatives to huddle with government health officials to learn how best to escalate the effort to tackle the Covid-19 disaster that is ravaging the nation.
Yet even before Murphy's belated move, Biden had engineered a tangible shift in implied power from the current administration to the next, unveiling a slew of high-profile Cabinet appointments. In the process, he turned his White House from a theoretical proposition into a tangible glimpse of the policies and leadership style that will set America's course from January 20 next year.
Biden's choices, including longtime aide Antony Blinken as secretary of state, signaled that the President-elect plans an era of serious, unostentatious governance after years of Trump's dictates by tweets and a Cabinet assembled from appointees who can be relied upon to pay him homage. Biden also plans to pick former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen as treasury secretary, according to two sources familiar with his plans.
Trump offered his clearest indication yet that he understands his presidency is ending when he tweeted that he had told his team to do what is necessary "with regards to initial protocols." Yet given his past behavior, repeated denials of his defeat and attempts to shatter Biden's legitimacy, there will be serious questions over whether Trump will fully cooperate with the transition.
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows notified West Wing staff in a Monday night email shown to CNN that the transition process to was formally underway. According to the email, Meadows has appointed liaisons in each office to be the point of contact for the transition and said that person should deal with the incoming team, citing the Presidential Transition Act of 1963.
Trump's remaining two months in office, during which he will retain the institutional power of the presidency, leave him plenty of time to try to sabotage Biden's administration.
Still, Trump's outrageous bid to disenfranchise the votes of millions of Americans is destined to fail because election officials and the courts in the states largely did their duty and rejected his baseless claims of fraud. During the President's most dangerous attack on the institutions of the US political system, the center held.
Biden, much as he did in the Democratic primary and general election campaigns, is plowing ahead relentlessly, creating his own sense of inevitability, ignoring the President's tantrums. He made the best of the fact that power always flows to a new, aspirational administration yet to be tested by the impossible compromises of governing or the dents left by daily crises.
The President, meanwhile, presiding over an exhausted administration laid low by his defeat, spent the last few days watching as more and more Republicans peeled away in dismay at his wild legal challenges. CNN's Jim Acosta reported Monday that Trump had grown frustrated with Rudy Giuliani and his Keystone Kops lawyers as his court options run out.
"It's the end of the road," one adviser said.
Multiple attorneys and advisers were huddled with Trump in the Oval Office and on the phone Monday, trying to persuade Trump to move forward with the transition to the Biden administration, a source close to the conversations said. White House counsel Pat Cipollone and Meadows, as well as outside attorneys Jay Sekulow and Giuliani were discussing the path forward with Trump, the source said.
The off and on discussions throughout the day Monday culminated in a final 30-minute conversation with Trump during the afternoon as the President yielded to the reality that the General Services Administration should commence with the transition.
A combination of factors was taken into consideration as Trump and his team discussed the decision to allow the transition to proceed, including the certification of the election results in Michigan and the latest court ruling in Pennsylvania, permitting the counting of certain absentee ballots.
Another major factor, the source added, was last Thursday's press conference held by Giuliani and ousted Trump team attorney Sidney Powell. The source described the news conference as a "sh*t show" that prompted Trump allies around Washington, including Republican members of Congress, to begin calling the White House to urge Trump to abandon his quest to overturn the election results.
"Things have changed significantly since last Thursday," the source said.
The Thanksgiving holiday was also seen as a good time to start the transition process, the source added.
The source said Trump was "very clinical" as he listened to his advisers tell him that he was running out of legal options to contest the election. Still, the President feels he was cheated out of winning reelection, the source added, noting a small but dwindling number of legal challenges will continue.
Part of the problem, the source said, is that Trump "still has people whispering in his ear," pointing to outside advisers and attorneys, notably Jenna Ellis, who are pushing Trump to keep fighting.
By withholding transition funding and access to government departments, Trump appears to have hoped to leave his successor's administration-to-be in a suffocating kind of limbo. But through his public actions, and by dictating news coverage while the President remains out of sight, behind the iron cage fence that rings his White House, Biden largely thwarted Trump's goal. His team will now move quickly to secure briefings on key issues including the pandemic as infections rage out of control and efforts begin to rev up a historic public health effort to vaccinate Americans that could restore a semblance of normalcy next year.
Murphy's decision followed a string of fresh blows to Trump's effort to steal the election, as Michigan's state board of canvassers formally certified Biden's victory and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court dealt another withering defeat to the President. Both decisions came despite vigorous White House efforts to pressure local and state officials to validate his effort to invalidate millions of legally cast votes.
Biden supporters interpreted Murphy's move in finally writing a letter of ascertainment to trigger the transition -- apparently precipitated by the events in Michigan and Pennsylvania -- as validation for his decision not to escalate a direct confrontation with Trump or to resort to legal action.
Bakari Sellers, a CNN commentator and former South Carolina state legislator, said the day's events demonstrated the seriousness of the incoming administration.
"The Joe Biden presidency is not built for Snapchat, it's not built for Twitter, it's built to govern," Sellers said on CNN's "The Situation Room."
Biden's flurry of Cabinet picks, which were revealed more quickly than had been initially expected, was an effective way of creating the stagecraft of a changing political era even as Trump sought to frustrate such perceptions.
One of the ways that Presidents transmit their intentions and values shines through in their initial picks for their administrations. President-elect Barack Obama assembled a group of rivals, seeking to create a vision of a vigorous intellectual team forging change. With characters like Rex Tillerson at the State Department and retired Gen. James Mattis, then still referred to by his old Marine nickname, "Mad Dog," at the Defense Department, Trump's early nominations strode out of central casting -- a key consideration for the former reality star who interprets life through television.
Biden's selections, by contrast, are notable for their lack of flash. Many Americans will not have heard of Blinken, new national security adviser Jake Sullivan or Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines.
But among the people who will matter to a new government, foreign leaders, diplomats, intelligence officers and congressional power brokers, all three of the trio are well-known and respected after years building their experience, notably in Obama's administration. By nominating Linda Thomas-Greenfield, an African American, as UN ambassador, Alejandro Mayorkas, a Latino American, to head the Department of Homeland Security and the first female leaders of the Treasury and the intelligence community, Biden is keeping his promise to frame a Cabinet that looks like America.
In turning to Blinken and Sullivan, long a Democratic rising star, to helm foreign policy, Biden is making a statement that Trump's "America First" approach is heading for the scrap heap and he will pursue a pragmatic approach based on restoring US global leadership and multiplying US power through a revived system of alliances. US allies that have become accustomed to being berated by the President will be relieved at the promise of some strategic stability.
Biden's expected selection of Yellen, meanwhile, won some praise from the powerful progressive wing of his party -- an important consideration as he tries to keep Democrats united. Former presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tweeted that the nomination would be "outstanding." Yellen is "smart, tough, and principled. As one of the most successful Fed Chairs ever, she has stood up to Wall Street banks," Warren tweeted.
Biden also chose his old Senate buddy and the former Democratic presidential nominee and Secretary of State John Kerry, the only Washington big beast in the new national security team, to serve as climate czar. The move indicated a sharp correction away from the current President's disdain for the science behind global warming. Kerry was a key architect of the Paris climate accord, which Biden has vowed the US will rejoin.
The President-elect is expected to formally unveil his Cabinet picks and senior officials alongside Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday, a day that will again epitomize the often-cruel hemorrhaging of power from a defeated President. While his successor is resetting America's global posture, Trump will be performing one of the dwindling duties left to him before he leaves office: pardoning Thanksgiving turkeys.
Even before the transition became official and Trump was hammered by new legal reversals, it was already becoming clear that his effort to challenge the election was running out of steam.
A growing list of Republican lawmakers and outside advisers had made clear that his crusade was hopeless. Retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee joined that band on Monday, as did West Virginia's Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, an adviser to the Republican Senate leadership.
Capito called for a transition to begin and warned that the President's legal options were narrowing.
"I will respect the certified results and will congratulate our nation's new leaders, regardless of the policy differences I might have with them," she said in a statement that encapsulated the political quicksand enveloping Trump.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins and Jim Acosta contributed to this report.

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