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2 Veterans Of National Security Transitions On What Could Happen Before Trump Leaves


How much damage could an American president do to national security on his way out the door if, say, that president had lost an election but was refusing to concede and if, in the weeks since the election was called, that president had fired his defense secretary, pushed out other top officials at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security, withheld classified briefings from his opponent - now the president-elect - filed lawsuits to have ballots thrown out and enlisted both his political party and his administration to back him in blocking the start of a peaceful transition of power?

To consider this, I'm joined by two veterans of national security transitions. Kori Schake served on George W. Bush's National Security Council, also in senior posts at the Pentagon and the State Department. She's now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Welcome.

KORI SCHAKE: Thank you.

KELLY: And by Nick Burns, who is now at Harvard, before that at the State Department and the National Security Council - he has served every administration from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. Ambassador Burns, welcome.

NICK BURNS: Thank you very much.

KELLY: You have both witnessed multiple transitions from one president to the next. On a scale of one to 10, how unusual is this one so far? Nick Burns, you first.

BURNS: Well, if 10 is the worst possible transition in the modern history of the United States, this one. And, Mary Louise, I just say this. Transitions are very important for our democracy.

KELLY: Yeah.

BURNS: The centerpiece of the transition is the peaceful transfer of power, and that's the foundation stone of stability in a democracy. And they're very important for national security.

KELLY: So sorry to pin you to a number, but scale of one to 10 with one being a wonderful transition, 10 being the worst possible, where are we so far?

BURNS: I think it's a 10.

KELLY: Kori Schake, how about you?

SCHAKE: I agree it's a 10. The unwillingness of the president to allow the process of transition to begin is not only going to be damaging to the new administration's ability to step forward, but it's also going to cast a long shadow, both domestically among the president's supporters and internationally, that the United States isn't reinforcing the legitimacy of our elections and the peaceful transition of power.

KELLY: I will note that Joe Biden does not sound that worried. Let me play you a little bit of - this is him speaking on Tuesday.


JOE BIDEN: We are already beginning the transition. We're well underway. And the ability for the administration in any way by failure to recognize this administration - our win does not change the dynamic at all of what we're able to do.

KELLY: Let me ask you both, what do you think? And might that view of, it's good; it's all good - might that view evolve if this continues to drag out, Kori Schake?

SCHAKE: Yes, it might. But I think that's a smart position for President-elect Biden to take because it minimizes President Trump's ability to create chaos during the transition.

KELLY: If it's a smart political position to take in your view, is it real? I mean, does it really not change the dynamic at all of what they're able to do?

SCHAKE: Well, you know, the office of the presidency leaves the person. The person doesn't leave the office. And President Trump will cease to be president at noon on January 20, 2021. And I think President-elect Biden and his team are wise to focus the country on what's coming and minimize President Trump's ability to keep the attention on him and to propagate the falsity that the election outcome is in any doubt.

KELLY: I want to play you another moment that struck me from this week. This is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo answering a reporter's question about whether the State Department is engaging with the Biden team. And if not, might that hamper a smooth transition?


MIKE POMPEO: There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration, all right? We're ready. The world is watching what's taking place. We're going to count all the votes. When the process is complete, there'll be electors selected. There's a process. The Constitution lays it out pretty clearly.

KELLY: A smooth transition to a second Trump administration. Ambassador Burns, as a career diplomat, when you hear that from America's top diplomat, you think what?

BURNS: I was dismayed and extremely disappointed. You know, there's a dignity in the office, and there's a responsibility in the office of the secretary of state, of any Cabinet officer to tell the truth, to be straight with the American people. Some of his advisers say, well, he was just kidding - kidding at this time in our history. I thought it was a gross misuse of his power at the podium. And I worked for nine secretaries of state of both political parties. None of them would have uttered that statement.

KELLY: Barring some spectacularly unforeseen turn of events, there will be a handover of power on January 20. President-elect Biden will be sworn into office. He has won the election. Does whatever concerns you have - you know, are they temporary? Or do you see the real possibility, either of you, of a national security apparatus in real and perhaps lasting disarray?

BURNS: I do think there's enormous damage that this particular president could do during the transition. All the presidents for whom I worked in both parties saw the transition as an effort to help the new president succeed and to minimize any big decisions, even to defer big decisions that might handicap that new president.

And there's two issues, I think, that people are worried about now. One, of course, is the possibility that President Trump might decide to use military force against Iran and its nuclear facilities. The second is that President Trump might try to accelerate the Afghan peace talks, to end the war there and therefore to withdraw the American military forces in such a way that would be disadvantageous to the Afghan government. Both of those eventualities would have a direct impact on our national security a year from now, two years from now.

SCHAKE: I agree with everything Nick just said. A responsible commander in chief would underscore the stability and the normality of peaceful transitions of power in the United States. President Trump is doing enormous damage to that, and it'll cast a long shadow.

KELLY: So that we don't leave everyone irreparably depressed on a Friday, let me ask you both, what gives you faith that America's institutions will hold in the face of a sitting president who refuses to concede?

BURNS: I still have hope at the end of a long, tumultuous week on Friday the 13 that we've seen our institutions of government hold. And the American people and the majority understand who won the election. My bet is the highest probability is we're going to have a peaceful transfer of power. Our democracy is going to survive this, and we'll learn the lessons.

SCHAKE: In the long run, a Trump administration may turn out to be good for democracy in America by having given us a near-death experience that reminds us that our participation and our strengthening of the institutions may, in the long run, actually strengthen and support democracy in America.

KELLY: Did you ever think you would find yourself saying that, Kori Schake...

SCHAKE: Good God, no.

KELLY: ...That a Republican president and administration would represent a near-death experience?

SCHAKE: No. And it weighs on me that the Republican Party has not done more to fence in President Trump's attempts to do damage to freedom of the press, to the strength of American institutions and to the support of democracy at home and abroad.

KELLY: Kori Schake - she's director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute - and Nick Burns, career foreign service officer, now professor of diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School, thank you very much to you both.

BURNS: Thank you.

SCHAKE: It was a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUNO SONG, "GRAPEFRUIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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