WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – US President Donald Trump, facing the prospect of leaving the White House in defeat in just 70 days, is harnessing the power of the federal government to resist the results of an election that he lost, something that no sitting president has done in American history.
In the latest sign of defiance, the president’s senior Cabinet secretary indicated on Tuesday (Nov 10) that he did not expect Mr Trump to hand over power to President-elect Joe Biden after legal challenges to the vote.
“There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
Mr Trump’s attorney general has at the same time authorised investigations into supposed vote fraud; his general services administrator has refused to give Mr Biden’s team access to transition offices and resources guaranteed under law; and the White House is preparing a budget for next year as if Mr Trump will be around to present it.
The president has also embarked on a shake-up of his administration, firing Defence Secretary Mark Esper as well as the heads of three other agencies while installing loyalists in key positions at the National Security Agency and the Pentagon.
Allies expect more to come, including the possible dismissals of the directors of the FBI and the CIA.
But the rest of the world increasingly moved to accept Mr Biden’s victory and prepared to work with him despite Mr Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the results.
Speaking with journalists, Mr Biden called the president’s actions since Election Day “an embarrassment” that will not serve him well in the long run. “How can I say this tactfully?” Mr Biden said. “It will not help the president’s legacy.”
The standoff left the United States in the position of the kind of country whose weak democratic processes it often criticises. Rather than congratulating Mr Biden and inviting him to the White House, as his predecessors traditionally have done after an election changed party control, Mr Trump has been marshalling his administration and pressuring his Republican allies into acting as if the outcome were still uncertain, either out of faint hope of actually overturning the results or at least creating a narrative to explain his loss.
The president’s efforts to discredit with false claims both the election results and the incoming Biden administration is in many ways the culmination of four years of stocking the government with pliant appointees while undermining the credibility of other institutions in American life, including intelligence agencies, law enforcement authorities, the news media, technology companies, the federal government more broadly and now election officials in states across four time zones.
Throughout his presidency, Mr Trump has tried to condition much of the American public not to believe anyone other than him, with evident success.
Although the evidence shows there was no widespread conspiracy to steal the election in multiple states that Mr Trump has invented, at least one poll showed that many supporters accept his claims. Seventy per cent of Republicans surveyed by Politico and Morning Consult said they did not believe the election was free and fair.
“What we have seen in the last week from the president more closely resembles the tactics of the kind of authoritarian leaders we follow,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House, a nonprofit organisation that tracks democracy around the world. “I never would have imagined seeing something like this in America.”
Mr Abramowitz doubted there was much danger of Mr Trump overturning the election. “But by convincing a large part of the population that there was widespread fraud, he is seeding a myth that could endure for years and contribute to an erosion of public confidence in our electoral system,” he said.
Mr Biden has proceeded without waiting for Mr Trump’s concession and spoke on Tuesday with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Ireland.
Most major world leaders have congratulated him on his victory, including close Trump allies like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, another Trump favourite, joined the chorus on Tuesday.
The major holdouts remained Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Xi Jinping of China.
Mr Biden said he was not overly concerned with the Trump administration’s refusal to provide transition money, offices and access to agencies, insisting he could assemble a government by his Jan 20 inauguration.
“We are going to be moving along in a consistent manner, putting together our administration, White House,” he said. “Nothing is going to stop us.”
Mr Biden agreed that it would be helpful to have access to classified information like the presidential daily briefing, something an outgoing administration usually provides an incoming president. But he added: “The fact that they are not willing to acknowledge that we won at this point is not of much consequence to our planning.”
In a testy exchange with journalists at the State Department, Mr Pompeo insisted that American efforts to prevent voter intimidation and ensure free and fair elections around the world were not diminished by Mr Trump’s refusal to concede.
“We must count every legal vote,” Mr Pompeo said, adopting the president’s language. “We must make sure that any vote that wasn’t lawful ought not be counted. That dilutes your vote if it’s done improperly.”
He snapped when asked if Mr Trump’s delaying tactics undermined the State Department’s efforts to pressure political leaders abroad to accept losing results.
“That’s ridiculous and you know it’s ridiculous, and you asked it because it’s ridiculous,” he said.
Mr Pompeo can often be sarcastic, particularly when speaking to reporters, but the State Department made no effort to clarify if he was joking.
Asked later on Fox News if he was serious, he did not say. “We will have a smooth transition,” he said. “And we will see what the people ultimately decided, when all the votes have been cast.”
His comments provoked a backlash from career diplomats, including criticism of his glib tone and outright concerns that the Trump administration would try to steal the election.
The delay in acknowledging the results has left American embassies in limbo. At least some embassy officials have been told to steer clear of any efforts to help Mr Biden with foreign leaders who want to congratulate him, as they normally would during a transition.
Diplomats said they could not even begin enumerating the successes of the Trump administration for fear of describing it in the past tense.
Some ambassadors sought to straddle the line of neutrality even as they pointedly did not recognise Mr Biden as the victor.
“It’s been a hard fought race that has shown us the American spirit of both grit and resilience,” Robert “Woody” Johnson, the ambassador to Britain, said on Twitter. “Nothing in the history of America worth achieving has ever come easy.”
Other envoys echoed the president’s allegations of voter fraud. “Please don’t disenfranchise me and my fellow voters in order to win at all costs,” Carla Sands, the ambassador to Denmark, said on her personal Twitter page. By way of evidence, she posted a screenshot of a State Department website that could not track her absentee ballot.
“Secretary Pompeo shouldn’t play along with baseless and dangerous attacks on the legitimacy of last week’s election,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The State Department should now begin preparing for President-elect Biden’s transition.”
In extending his purge of the Pentagon on Tuesday, Mr Trump replaced three more policy officials with loyalists. Some Defence Department officials worried that the replacements could be more amenable to striking American adversaries than their predecessors were.
James Anderson, the acting under secretary of defense for policy who was at odds with the White House, stepped down and was effectively replaced by Anthony Tata, who became “the senior official performing the duties of the undersecretary of defence for policy,” as the announcement put it.
Tata, a retired Army one-star general who has called Islam “the most oppressive violent religion” and referred to former President Barack Obama as a “terrorist leader,” withdrew from consideration for the top Pentagon policy job in August amid opposition from both Republican and Democratic senators.
Mr Trump’s allies said the president was justified in fighting the election results even if he was not successful, citing what they deem illegitimate court decisions expanding mail-in voting.
“In light of the Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court’s unconstitutional de facto legislation enacted through its rulings, along with the coming 2022 US Senate and governor races, the Trump campaign’s litigation is essential for Republicans to have a fair playing field in the long term no matter the short term result,” Sam Nunberg, an adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, said by email.
Only nine sitting presidents before Trump lost bids for another term in a general election (a few others were not renominated by their party), and some like John Adams and John Quincy Adams were sour enough to skip their successors’ inaugurations. But none resisted leaving office or made claims of widespread conspiracy to reverse the outcome.