WASHINGTON – President Trump’s loyalists have blocked transition meetings at some government agencies and are participating in discussions between other officials and President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s transition teams that sometimes have chilling conversations, several federal officials said.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, policy makers have joined virtually every discussion between career workers and Mr. Biden’s team, monitoring conversations about climate change, scientific research, and other topics. At the State Department, such drop-ins take place based on the people appointed by Trump, which are defined as needed. On Tuesday, Mr Biden’s transition team was first inducted into the National Security Agency, but at the U.S. Global Media Agency, parent company of Voice of America, the Trump-appointed leader refuses to work with Biden’s transition team. two agency officials confirmed.
Experts on the president’s transition said the presence of political representatives at agencies’ handover meetings was not uncommon and could even be seen as helpful. For example, at the end of 2008 President George W. Bush worked closely with Barack Obama’s new team to calm the volatile financial markets. Against the backdrop of Mr Trump’s refusal to concede an election defeat, the actions of those Trump-nominated seemed like a harmful effort to slow the transition, some experts said.
“The norm is that the political people are not really involved,” said Michael E. Herz, professor of administrative law at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law.
He described the Trump administration’s apparent determination to oversee the transition process by overseeing the meetings as part of its broader plan to “milk its authority for as long as possible and disrupt the new administration as much as possible.”
Under the Presidential Transition Act, career workers play the primary role in managing agency transitions, largely because they have an institutional understanding of the government functions and are viewed as the apolitical administrators of the agencies they serve. However, there are no clear rules or guidelines detailing how the process should develop.
For example, when Obama’s administration was handed over to Mr. Trump, political officials were specifically banned from transitional meetings, said Thomas A. Burke, who at the time was EPA scientific advisor in the Obama administration.
“For me it means having the opposing coach sit in the room while you develop your team’s strategy,” he said.
Myron Ebell, a senior official at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who led the Trump administration’s transition to the EPA, agreed that Mr Obama’s political representatives were absent but said he would have liked to meet with them. Regardless, he said, meetings were held in an open plan office.
“I assumed that everything we said and the people we spoke to were open to the political people there,” said Ebell. “And they never said, ‘We cleaned the room and there are no microphones in it.'”
The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment on the process. Several people close to the president-elect’s team said that after more than two weeks to start the formal transition process, the handover of the Trump administration was fairly smooth and that Mr Biden refused to comment on that process to disturb tensions.
To date, around 40 federal agency review teams have conducted more than 1,000 interviews and meetings, according to Mr Biden’s interim officers.
Federal officials discussing the transition and asking to remain anonymous because they were not empowered to speak about the process offered mixed checks on the presence of political leaders.
Some said they felt that Trump officials were implicitly intimidating staff into speaking openly about issues awaiting the new administration. Others described the meetings as awkward.
At the Education Department, an official said the Trump-appointed people did not crash the briefings, but rather the written briefing materials Mr. Biden provided to teams “glossed over any controversy” and described the briefings as “politically influenced”.
The transition of the president
Apr 8, 2020, 9:08 am ET
At the State Department, the people appointed by Mr. Trump have insisted on attending some, but not all, of Mr. Biden’s transition team meetings with career staff, according to an official familiar with the process. It was not immediately clear whether this was seen as largely intrusive or suffocating for discussions at the State Department, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
However, the official said it was not uncommon to involve the outgoing government officials in at least some diplomatic discussion and that State Department staff had so far been cooperative in fulfilling the requests from the Biden team.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told department officials he was ready to meet with Mr Biden’s transition team, CNN reported last week, describing Monday’s in-depth management as “pretty smart enough.” That was a postponement from late November when he said in an interview with Fox News that Mr. Biden’s foreign affairs advisors “lived in a kind of fantasy world” when they served during the Obama administration.
This week, the Biden team was inducted into the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency after several days after two people on the verge of transition were described by newly appointed Trump administrators at the Pentagon as trying to slow the transition down by blocking access to the Department of Defense Intelligence.
Defense Department spokeswoman Susan Gough said the agency sometimes adds staff to the list of people Mr. Biden’s team requests meetings with “so we have the right subject matter experts present,” but she added, “That’s not A political officer will attend all meetings. “
Mr. Biden’s team has not yet received any classified material and it is not clear if or when this will be available. Meetings at other intelligence agencies, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, are expected to take place later.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that Michael Pack, a Trump agent who oversees the Voice of America and other federally funded news outlets, has refused to provide Mr. Biden’s team with records and staff.
At the EPA, a spokesman for the agency, James Hewitt, confirmed the political leaders were attending the meetings, saying it did so with the blessings of Mr Biden’s transition team.
“Assistant Assistant Administrator Benevento asked the Biden environmental transitions team if policy makers could participate in transitional calls for information about the agency and they were committed,” he said in a statement via Doug Benevento. “We were not made aware of their concerns about the quality of the information provided on these calls.”
Lisa Brown, who served as co-director of the EPA review team during the Obama administration, said that after weeks of efforts by the Trump administration to slow the transition, the Biden team most likely agreed to terms to just get on with work to start.
“They want to get in and see what they can learn instead of wasting time on a fight,” she said.
But Ms. Brown described the arrangement as unusual and worrying.
“What you need to worry about is the chilling effect on career workers,” she said. “You will worry that people are not completely open-minded, especially when you have a president who still has not admitted.”
Erica L. Green, Lara Jakes, Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt, Michael D. Shear and Katie Benner contributed to the coverage.