President Donald Trump's refusal to coordinate with President-elect Joe Biden on the critical Covid-19 vaccine is bringing a staggering possibility into clearer view: that an outgoing US commander in chief is actively working to sabotage his successor.
Trump's denial of his election defeat, his lies about nonexistent mass coordinated voter fraud and his strangling of the rituals of transferring power between administrations are not just democracy-damaging aberrations.
Given the current national emergency, they threaten to cause practical fallout that could damage Biden's incoming White House not just in a political sense. There are increasing concerns that Trump's obstruction will slow and complicate the delivery of the vaccine that brings the tantalizing prospect of a return to normal life amid stunning news from trials showing doses are effective in stopping more than 90% of coronavirus infections.
The distribution operation will be a massively complex and historic public vaccination effort targeting hundreds of millions of Americans -- many millions of whom have resisted following basic safety protocols like wearing masks because Trump has encouraged them not to. The inoculation campaign will require a high level of public trust and will involve sharp ethical debates among officials about who should get the vaccine first. The entire program could be damaged if it is politicized. But unless something changes, the Biden team may face the task of tackling those issues afresh, in a frantic catch-up operation.
It's not just on the vaccine where Trump is threatening the success of the next administration. Attacks by the President and aides on governors stepping into his leadership vacuum as the pandemic rips across all 50 states mean the situation Biden will inherit will be worse than it needed to be.
The victims of this neglect will be thousands of Americans whom health experts expect to die or get sick in the absence of a coordinated national response to the winter spike in infections and workers caught up in new restrictions imposed on business by local leaders trying to get the virus under control -- as well as the millions of schoolchildren who are already falling behind while classrooms remain shuttered.
"More people may die if we don't coordinate," Biden warned bluntly on Monday, stepping up his pressure for Trump to recognize his defeat in the election and impending exit from office.
Unlike Trump, who is wallowing in his sense of personal grievance and fury at what he sees as a humiliating loss, Biden does have a sense of urgency and new proposals, and he is calling for a coordinated national effort to mitigate the harrowing impact of the nationwide spike in infections.
But while he has the moral standing of an election win, he has no power to implement his plans until Inauguration Day on January 20.
CNN reported on Monday that Trump has no intention of abandoning his false attacks on the election to initiate an orderly transition process or to accept that Biden is the rightful next president.
Instead, his legal challenges, which have made little headway in the courts, seem expressly aimed at boosting conspiracy theories among his supporters and preserving his hold on the Republican Party, and ultimately to cast Biden's tenure as illegitimate. The failure of many GOP leaders in Washington, who remain hostage to Trump's political base, to unequivocally refer to Biden as President-elect or to rebuke Trump for his undemocratic conduct are only further undermining the next administration.
Two weeks after the election, it remains surreal and extraordinary that the President is refusing to accept Biden's victory, which matched the 306 Electoral College votes that he himself stacked up in 2016. That he would act in such a way in the middle of a grave national crisis, with 246,000 Americans already dead from Covid-19 and millions out of work, is an even more revealing glimpse into the mind of a President who has consistently prioritized his own goals and gratification over a traditional view of the national interest.
Transition tension is a change from recent years
It is not unusual for there to be animosity between outgoing and incoming administrations, especially when a president has been ejected from office. The transition from President Herbert Hoover to President-elect Franklin Roosevelt in 1932-33 -- in the middle of another crisis, the Great Depression -- was notoriously prickly.
Many White House teams have used their rule-making power to frustrate the policy-making goals of administrations of the opposite party. Trump is already taking things a step further. Military commanders expect orders in the coming days from the commander in chief to begin significant drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan to be completed by January 15, CNN's Barbara Starr reported on Monday. If there are consequences from such a move -- like a collapse of the Afghan government under a Taliban resurgence -- it will be up to Biden to deal with the fallout.
There are also expectations that the President will take steps in foreign policy, including stiffened tariffs on China or strengthened sanctions on Iran, that will further trim the next White House's negotiating room.
The New York Times reported Monday that the President sought options to strike Iran after his "maximum pressure" policy failed to rein in its nuclear program. Such action would make it almost impossible for Biden to revive the Obama administration's agreement with Tehran and international powers. But the report said advisers had dissuaded Trump from triggering attacks that could spark a wider conflict and undercut one of his proudest legacy achievements: avoiding new Middle East wars.
And in another apparent attempt to complicate the next administration's quest to lessen America's dependence on fossil fuels, the White House on Monday solicited tenders for oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Another departure from norms
In recent years, presidents of both parties have prioritized a peaceful and effective transfer of power over personal political pique, recognizing their duty to secure the health, security and welfare of the American people.
Warm letters of welcome left in the Oval Office desk -- for instance, from President George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton -- have become the norm. George W. Bush's team showed deference to incoming President Barack Obama during the 2008 financial crisis.
The 44th President then ordered his team to make life as easy as possible for Trump's incoming White House -- a fact Michelle Obama recalled in a tartly worded Instagram post Monday: "I was hurt and disappointed -- but the votes had been counted and Donald Trump had won. ... My husband and I instructed our staffs to do what George and Laura Bush had done for us: run a respectful, seamless transition of power -- one of the hallmarks of American democracy."
So the current President's behavior, apparently motivated by fury over his defeat and a conspiratorial belief that the probe into his team's suspicious and multiple links to Russians was part of a plot to render his presidency illegitimate, is a stark departure from recent norms.
Trump wants credit for the vaccine
Ironically, Trump's mood, characterized by wild tweets divorced from any factual anchor, is detracting from his administration's own undeniable achievement in shepherding the swift development of vaccines. Early data released Monday found that the Moderna vaccine currently in trials is 94.5% effective against the coronavirus. This followed news that Pfizer's vaccine was more than 90% effective. The news brought the prospect of a return to normal life and economic activity in 2021.
One of Trump's few recent references to the worsening pandemic was a tweet on Monday in which he demanded that historians recognize his role in the vaccine breakthroughs.
The President has ordered government agencies not to offer the traditional cooperation with the incoming administration or to allow the release of millions of dollars in funding, office space in agencies and briefings from government officials.
Biden initially reacted with circumspection to the move, apparently eager not to further antagonize Trump as the President comes to terms with his dashed hopes of winning a second term. But increasingly, the President-elect is warning of the damage caused by the impasse and is highlighting the vaccine in particular.
"The sooner we have access to the administration's distribution plan, the sooner this transition would be smoothly moved forward," Biden said in Wilmington, Delaware, on Monday.
While the nation's top infectious disease specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has said the vaccine could begin to be administered to high-priority patients like health care workers and the elderly in December, it will likely be at least April until it is available to most Americans.
"Transitions are important, and if you don't have a smooth transition, you would not optimize whatever efforts you're doing right now," Fauci told CNN's Jim Sciutto on "Newsroom" Tuesday morning, comparing the task to a "relay race in which you're passing the baton and you don't want to slow down what you're doing, but you want the person to whom you're giving the baton to be running with it as opposed to stopping and starting all over again."
Dr. Luciana Borio, a member of Biden's Covid-19 advisory board, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Monday night that obstruction from the administration on the vaccine could have a serious impact on its eventual distribution.
"It's very important to know what are the timelines for manufacturing the vaccines," Borio said. "This is not going to be easy; this is a complex task."
But Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown told CNN's Jake Tapper that during a call between state leaders and the White House coronavirus task force on Monday, Vice President Mike Pence made no mention of transferring responsibility for vaccine distribution.
"The Vice President clearly articulated a strategy for distributing the vaccines across the country," Brown said. "But the conversation was extremely disingenuous when we have a new administration coming in in a matter of weeks. There was no conversation about what the hand-off was going to be and how they were going to ensure that the Biden-Harris administration would be fully prepared and ready to accept the baton."