Reasons to Be Thankful — But Watchful

Conceding to reality, the outgoing administration has set the official transition into motion—but may salt the earth more before President-elect Biden takes the oath

Good evening. Voting in the 2020 presidential election ended 22 days ago. The inauguration happens in 56 days.

The Latest

Habemus Biden

The transition has officially begun. America, in the eyes of the federal bureaucracy, has an apparent president-elect. 

The powers of ascertainment that had deserted the head of the General Services Administration, Emily Murphy, returned to her late Monday when Michigan certified its electoral votes for former Vice President Joe Biden — leading to her acknowledgement, in a dutiful but self-pitying letter, that President Trump would soon leave office. Within hours, the Biden transition team had moved its web site to a .gov top-level domain — and arrangements to meet with civil-service leaders at agencies and cabinet departments quickly swung into motion. 

The president himself still appears beset by denial of his defeat. News emerged on Tuesday of arrangements for Trump to join his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, at a Gettysburg, Pa., meeting with Republican state lawmakers to air evidenceless charges of voter fraud. Trump’s Pennsylvania foray, however, was not to be; Giuliani’s exposure to yet another associate who later tested positive for the coronavirus forced the president to retreat from Gettysburg.

He did, however, join the proceedings by teleconference:

Interregnum co-writer Melissa Ryan pithily summarized the president’s state of mind: “Trump should be so embarrassed for himself. … [He’s] calling into a partisan state senate hearing that won't change any outcome, to whine.” 

It’s safe to expect that whining to go on well past Jan. 20. But we still have reason to be thankful — if not Trump, at least the rest of the federal government appears to know he’s leaving.

Other Reasons to Be Thankful

With windows across official Washington getting measured for new drapes and the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, today makes a good time to take stock of where we stand:

  • It could have been worse. Sure, the administration has at last decided to cooperate in the transfer of power — but the fact that his defeat in the election has led to this outcome does not prove that it was always bound to end with him departing.

    Let’s recap: Barriers to safe voting during pandemic conditions had to be overcome. Court orders affecting deadlines and voting procedures repeatedly roiled the process. Voters had to adjust plans when the apparent sabotage of the U.S. Postal Service came to light. And systemic polling errors resulted in expectations of a blowout yielding, instead, results just a scant distance outside the margin of theft. 
    Against the backdrop of that knowledge, I share the scorn of activist Brittany Packnett toward influential observers who dismiss the reality that this could have gone differently:

  • Boredom feels safe again. The key takeaway from Biden’s announcement of national-security nominees was … competence? Sorry to sound tentative — it was all too easy to forget, during the Trump administration, what competence looks like.

    The people tipped for office by Biden share years of experience at their departments, personal knowledge of the civil-service systems and personnel they’ll oversee, and deep familiarity with Washington. Janet Yellen, too — who appears a lock for the secretariat of the Treasury Department — has unmatched experience at the commanding heights of economic policy. A colorful crew this is not, although its racial and gender diversity would fulfill Biden’s pledge to name a cabinet that looks like America. But after four years of chaos, dull looks gorgeous.

  • Vaccines. Sure, this is afield from the main topic of this newsletter — but it’s still worth celebrating. Doubts have arisen about the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate after the disclosure of data and dosing errors, the Moderna and Pfizer candidates still appear to hit their promised marks — and may soon receive emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. 

Two Reasons to Be Watchful

Trump will leave office — this we know. But he hasn’t yet, and in the intervening weeks he can still do damage.

I’m particularly watching for two varieties of acting out:

  • Sabotage. Republicans at the state level have made a notable habit, in recent years, of stripping offices of power when Democrats take them over after winning elections. As they pack their belongings, administration officials can do something kindred in spirit: stripping their successors of policy options they might need when they arrive.

    Two recent incidents belong in this category: at the Pentagon, officials have moved, after Trump’s scrapping of an arms-control treaty with Russia, to have the equipment used to enforce that treaty designated for destruction. Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has reclaimed funds provided to the Federal Reserve to help manage the economic damage done by the pandemic — which saddles the Biden administration with the work of prevailing on Sen. Mitch McConnell (R), if he remains that chamber’s majority leader, to allow economic relief of the sort his party has blocked for over six months.

  • Pardons. A president who has no evident use for the rule of law can still do plenty to damage it as he bids the West Wing farewell. One case in point:


Leading the Conversation

Greg Sargent, at The Washington Post: “Michigan Republicans just showed us the future, and it’s not pretty.” 

“For many Republicans, an extraordinarily corrupt and anti-democratic strategy — denying certification of voting on grounds that thousands of African American votes were illegitimate, and sending rogue electors in defiance of the people’s will — has become something career-minded Republicans must treat as a legitimate tool of political competition. A squeamish unwillingness to deploy this strategy risked being seen as betrayal. … Indeed, when [a] obscure Michigan canvassing official agreed to certify the vote, he didn’t merely assert that he was being asked to exercise powers he didn’t have — a step which apparently required great bravery — he also had to plead for understanding on this point.”

Ryan Lizza, at Politico: “‘People are pissed’: Tensions rise amid scramble for Biden jobs.”

“Just below [the] elite level there is concern bordering on panic — depending on who you talk to — about the perceived lack of outreach to many campaign alumni. ‘There’s real doubt about whether they will be taken care of,’ said [one] Biden adviser. … Some of the grumbling dates back to one of the main divides in the Biden campaign: people who joined the campaign before Dillon was named campaign manager in March and those who came in after. Some in the old guard feel they were underappreciated — they won the Democratic nomination! — and were layered over by Dillon hires who are now being prioritized for White House jobs.”

Zeynep Tufekci, at The New York Times: “We Need Election Results Everyone Can Believe In. Here’s How.”

“If we can’t get even voter registration and counting right, what hope is there? … We have well-studied methods that are effective, and there is nothing more urgent than making sure our elections work — everything else a government can try to do depends on that.”

Rick Hasen, at The New York Times: “Trump’s Legal Farce Is Having Tragic Results.” 

“It should go without saying that a democracy requires the losers of an election to accept the results as legitimate and agree to fight another day; Republican leaders echoing Mr. Trump’s failure to support a peaceful transition of power undermine the foundation of our democracy. It’s not only the fact that we have had to say this, but that we keep having to repeat it, that shows the depths that we have reached.”

Rebecca Solnit, at Lit Hub: “On Not Meeting Nazis Halfway.” 

“There are situations in which there is no common ground worth standing on, let alone hiking over to. If Nazis wanted to reach out and find common ground and understand us, they probably would not have had that tiki-torch parade full of white men bellowing “Jews will not replace us” and, also, they would not be Nazis. … In fact the whole Republican Party, since long before Trump, has committed itself to the antidemocratic project of trying to create a narrower electorate rather than win a wider vote. … Having failed to prevent enough Black people from voting in the recent election, they are striving mightily to discard their votes after the fact. What do you do with people who think they matter more than other people? Catering to them reinforces that belief, that they are central to the nation’s life, they are more important, and their views must prevail. Deference to intolerance feeds intolerance.”

Biden Hires and Appointments

There’s no news to announce today — but if you feel interest in serving as a political appointee in the Biden-Harris administration, the transition team has put up a general application form. Clean up your C.V. and submit your qualifications

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Recording artist and savant David Byrne runs a website by the name of the header above — and there he provided, on the day after Election Day, some pictures that reflect the in-between state of our world.

Earlier this fall, in collaboration with director Spike Lee, he also released ‘David Byrne’s American Utopia’ — a documentary film of his Broadway residency by that name. I was luckier than I knew in late January to catch that in person, before the pandemic brought the performing arts to a halt. HBO’s trailer for the film:

That’s all for this issue. Enjoy Thanksgiving, however you choose to in these strange times — and for one day, at least, don’t worry about the government.

We’re taking Friday off for the holiday. See you on Monday.

American Interregnum is a pop-up newsletter covering the issues and ideas that will define the Presidential transition period from Nov. 3, 2020, through — we’re all but sure now — Jan. 21, 2021. It is written and edited by Justin Hendrix, Greg Greene, and Melissa Ryan. Have questions or comments? We love your feedback. Reply directly to this email. We read all responses and respond to most. 

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