How Rocky Presidential Transitions Put America at Risk

How Rocky Presidential Transitions Put America at Risk

When the House of Representatives went without a Speaker for three weeks in October 2023, Democrats condemned the void at a time when fighting had erupted in the Middle East, but so did many frustrated Republicans: “I look at the world and all of the threats that are out there and what kind of message are we sending to adversaries when we can’t govern?” said Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, who is also chairman on the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

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That rocky leadership transition may be over, but it demonstrates the potential danger to American national security when political power is in flux. More recently, another leadership void was created when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was in hospital without the White House being aware, and despite significant military activity around the world.

A more monumental exposure to consider is the potential transition between presidents. An adversary seeking to exploit weakness has an opportunity during what is a time of maximum vulnerability for the country: when a new commander-in-chief moves into the Oval Office and White House senior staff commences work after a complete 100% turnover.     

The 9/11 Commission noticed this problem in 2004, observing that a factor in the terrorist attacks was that “the new administration did not have their team on the job until six months after it took office.” Despite this warning, none of the next three administrations assembled a full contingent of their national-security teams before Inauguration Day. “Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden were not able to nominate even half of top security positions needing Senate confirmation by the time they took office,” reports the nonpartisan group, Partnership for Public Service, as part of their Center for Presidential Transition initiative.

Read More: Barack Obama, Donald Trump and the Difficult History of Presidential Transition

The greatest catastrophe in American history—the secession of the Confederate states, inciting the Civil War—took place during the presidential transition of 1860 and 1861. The banking crisis of 1933 that contributed to the Great Depression was exacerbated by the halting management of President Herbert Hoover and the reluctance of President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt to support action during their passing of power. Even the botched Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 has its roots in bad planning during the transition to the Kennedy administration.

Fortunately, the United States has avoided similar problems recently. Amid the financial crisis of 2008, President George W. Bush promised to have “the gold standard of transitions,” and on the morning of the 2009 inauguration, national-security teams from the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration huddled to coordinate a response to a possible attack from the terrorist group al-Shabab. We faced similar concerns in 2021 in the face of the aftermath of January 6. In both cases, the national security teams cooperated closely, and catastrophic events were avoided.

The ambiguity in leadership during any transition nevertheless creates uncertainty in a world that has only grown more dangerous. Crisis scenarios that need to be contemplated a year from now include a Russian nuclear attack in Ukraine, an Iranian provocation in the Persian Gulf, and a Chinese assault on Taiwan—to say nothing of a combination of them, or an unpredictable “black swan” event, such as a new pandemic, an energy-grid failure, or another attack on the homeland from a terrorist group.

To prevent or mitigate these threats, presidential candidates must plan for their potential transitions well ahead of the election, in what I call “Year Zero.” Candidates are sometimes concerned about the optics of “measuring the drapes” before they can move into their offices, but it is never too early to prepare to govern the most important institution in the world. Candidates should set up comprehensive transition organizations and showcase their efforts, not hide them—for voters, planning for crises reveals the key skills required to govern effectively.

A potential administration also must assemble a fully functioning national security team consisting of both White House staff, whom the president appoints unilaterally, and key Agency staff, nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The team should include experts seasoned in both the issues and how to make the mechanics of government work. This same approach applies to transitions to second-term administrations, which can suffer from high personnel turnover. The Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act passed after 9/11 recommends that the president-elect submit high level national security positions before inauguration and Congress fast track their confirmation—but Congress can do this only if it has nominees to confirm, and in the last two elections it has failed to meet its own fast track guidelines.

Finally, outgoing and incoming national-security teams must cooperate. In the past, legislative guidance and precedent combined with goodwill and professionalism on both sides has sufficed. In the current polarized environment, however, full cooperation cannot be just presumed.  Congress should strengthen existing legislation from guidance to specific comprehensive measures, even if the election result is in dispute. Examples include requiring that the president’s daily intelligence report be shared with the president-elect, starting immediately after the election, and mandating the number and nature of joint planning exercises, and information sharing, to deal with multiple crisis scenarios.

National security is too important to leave to chance or poor planning. We also can’t expect that a bitterly fought election will then be overcome by patriotism and goodwill. Crises are inevitable. While some happen randomly, others emerge from conscious action of our foes—and all can be made worse by our own failure to prepare. An intelligent adversary poses a threat in our time of unique and maximum vulnerability, but we can minimize the risks if presidential candidates and Congress act.

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