Defeated American President Donald Trump’s petulant firing-by-tweet of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper makes it clear that the United States will not be undergoing a normal transition of power. And to make matters more unsettling, Esper was not the only official Trump was evidently interested in purging after the vote; CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray are apparently both on Trump’s targets list as well.
Had Donald Trump won last Tuesday’s vote, this would be a sign that he was seeking to clear the decks and rebuild his national security teams with more pliant leadership – Wray, Haspel, and Esper had all, in various ways, stymied some of Trump’s more outlandish instructions. But as things stand, it will not result in a lasting power shift in those agencies, because Congress will almost certainly not waste time approving replacements in the weeks remaining before Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take over from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
But a national election rarely has a single overarching narrative, and this year’s – taking place amidst interlocking health and economic crises – was no exception. In a year marked by enormous turnout on both sides, Biden won by a convincing margin though not a landslide; meanwhile, his party will hold a diminished majority in the House and will only capture a razor-thin Senate majority if it can win two January runoff elections in Republican-leaning Georgia. Notwithstanding Trump’s (legally irrelevant) refusal to concede, the multifarious conspiracy theories that have sprung from it, or Biden’s language of unity and healing, American politics will remain mired in suspicion and deep divisions, which will extend beyond domestic politicking and well into foreign and defense policy.
This has both short- and long-term implications. Trump’s refusal to concede the election and his defenestration of high-ranking security and defense officials – especially given the unresolved legal questions surrounding certain acting appointments – creates wholly unnecessary uncertainty around the chain of command. It is perfectly possible – likely even – that the U.S. will get through to late January without facing a new or renewed security crisis. But the combination of a sullen, checked-out president unwilling to coordinate with his successor and a national security team composed of acting officials thrown together at the last minute could badly exacerbate one if it occurs.
In the longer term, the degree to which a peaceful transition of power is being consumed by conspiracy theory and bad faith could undermine the country’s ability to marshal national power and use it strategically in the world. For the last four years it has been useful to observe that the president is not the administration, the administration is not the federal government and the federal government is not the whole of American engagement in the world. That observation will remain true, though President-elect Biden will doubtless work more easily with the established bureaucracy than his predecessor ever did. But there is always friction in converting executive decisions into action or results – especially when the legislative and executive are in the hands of different parties. And by humoring the election truthers, the GOP is backing itself into a corner and forcing confrontation with the incoming president: if a critical mass of Republican voters believe the new administration is fundamentally illegitimate, why would their senators vote to approve that administration’s nominees?
Biden will have somewhat more room for maneuver on foreign than domestic policy, at least. Per the Constitution, presidents and the vast and powerful executive agencies that answer to them – including the State Department, USAID, the entire intelligence community, and the Department of Defense – have a great deal of latitude, provided that Congress provides funding and authorization. And Biden is well aware of how to work with, and around, Congressional Republicans, given that he and Barack Obama only had a Democratic Congress to work with for two of the eight years they were in office.
But Biden will also need to do more than to not be Trump. Certainly, his win will reassure traditional American allies in Europe, the Asia-Pacific, and elsewhere; but as the Obama administration discovered, the grace period afforded successors to globally unpopular American presidents is real but short-lived. The more of that period Biden is forced to spend trying to staff his government over the objections of an opposition that believes he is illegitimate, the harder it will be for him to rebuild American alliances.
There are some reasons to be optimistic: most promisingly, a COVID-19 vaccine may be around the corner, taking pressure off the public health system and the economy and hopefully opening new spaces for a domestic political settlement. But it will be some time yet before the United States can muster the full measure of its national power to overseas issues, and it is fair to assume that American adversaries have noticed.