WASHINGTON — It’s not just President-elect Joe Biden’s transition that’s under a microscope.
President Donald Trump and his allies are harking back to his own transition four years ago to make a false argument that his own presidency was denied a fair chance for a clean launch. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany laid out the case from the White House podium last week and the same idea has been floated by Trump's personal lawyer and his former director of national intelligence.
The comparisons are part of a broader attempt by Trump and his team to undermine the legitimacy of Biden’s election and his right to an orderly transition by unspooling mistruths about both this election season and Trump’s treatment four years ago.
“It’s worth remembering that this president was never given an orderly transition of power. His presidency was never accepted,” McEnany told reporters who questioned the Trump administration’s refusal to cooperate with the Biden transition.
But the situations are far different.
The day after her defeat in 2016, Democrat Hillary Clinton conceded.
“Donald Trump is going to be our president,” she said. “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead.”
The next day, President Barack Obama, who had portrayed Trump as an existential threat to the nation, invited the president-elect to the White House and visited with him in the Oval Office. Obama's aides offered help to Trump's incoming staffers.
“My number one priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures our president-elect is successful,” Obama said.
During his inaugural address, Trump thanked Obama and his wife, Michelle, “for their gracious aid throughout this transition” and called them “magnificent.”
Trump’s team is not wrong that his own transition was chaotic, but the disarray in many ways was of his own doing.
Trump fired the head of his transition, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and abandoned months of planning in favor of a Cabinet hiring process that at times resembled a reality show. His team ignored offers of help from the outgoing Obama administration.
That's a far cry from the description issued by McEnany as pressure mounts for Trump to concede and for his administration to begin cooperating with Biden's transition team. Among other things, Biden is being denied access to the presidential daily intelligence briefing and to detailed briefings on the vaccine distribution plan as COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. eclipse 255,000.
Trump has refused to concede, instead making baseless claims of electoral fraud and trying longshot legal challenges that risk undermining the nation’s democratic traditions.
In 2016, despite his claims, Trump did receive standard cooperation during the transition.
But Trump's team largely ignored advice from Obama staffers, leaving briefing books unopened and ignoring special iPads loaded with materials. The lack of preparation left aides clueless even about how to work the overhead intercom in the West Wing.
A potential transition plan worked on for months by Christie was cast aside. He was dismissed from his post as part of a long-running feud with the president’s son-in-law and future senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.
Some of Trump's hires were done on whim, as Cabinet candidates visited him in Trump Tower. The president-elect chose Michael Flynn for national security adviser after a recommendation from Trump’s children and despite Obama’s warnings. Flynn was out after less than a month in office.
Christie, in his recent autobiography, wrote that 30 binders were discarded and that members of Trump's team “got rid of guidance that would have made their candidate an immensely more effective president” and “stole from the man they'd just helped elect the launch he so richly deserved.”
McEnany and others have claimed that Trump was undermined by an FBI investigation that was opened in the summer of 2016 into possible election interference, a probe that was taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller the following May after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey.
Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, in a news conference last week, claimed the FBI “made up the Russia collusion plot” that damaged Trump and “cost our country $40 million." Ric Grenell, Trump's former ambassador to Germany and acting director of national intelligence, has said that what Obama offered “was not a peaceful transition” because the FBI was already working to undermine Trump.
After nearly two years, Mueller found insufficient evidence to charge anyone in the Trump campaign with conspiring with Russia to sway the election. Throughout his term, Trump has framed the investigation as part of a “witch hunt” meant to destroy his presidency and said it showed the federal bureaucracy was working against him.
Obama had no role in directing the FBI’s investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign or in impeding Trump’s transition to president. Though Obama was aware that his intelligence officials were investigating Russian interference, and had concerns about Trump and his background, the investigative decisions were made not by him but by his law enforcement and intelligence agencies.
Since his loss to Biden, Trump has repeatedly challenged the fairness of the election with false claims about voting and he has looked for ways to block certification of the vote. The Trump administration has yet to formally acknowledge Biden’s victory, slowing the transition at a time when the nation is facing a confluence of economic and health crises.
“The lack of the transition and cooperation is the most reckless and irresponsible thing he has ever done,” David Plouffe, a former senior Obama adviser, said in a recent interview. “We have an election in early November, the new president takes over in the third week of January. It’s no time at all, it’s over in the blink of an eye. The damage is severe.”