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‘Transition from hell’: America caught in post-election twilight zone

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Washington: The meeting was tense but civil. Two days after the 2016 US election, Barack Obama welcomed Donald Trump to the White House, maintaining a tradition that outgoing presidents meet with their successors shortly after the poll. As well as an opportunity to discuss practical issues about the handover, it is a moment that symbolises the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another.

"My number one priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures president-elect Trump is successful," Obama told reporters.

Barack Obama hosted Donald Trump in the White House soon after the 2016 election, symbolising the peaceful transfer of power. Credit:AP

No such meeting has yet occurred between Trump and Joe Biden — and there’s no prospect of one happening any time soon. That is despite Biden’s victory being, in many ways, more decisive than Trump’s 2016 triumph. Biden is projected to win the same number of Electoral College votes as Trump did four years ago, as well as a five million-vote margin in the national popular vote.

Yet Trump continues to claim, without any compelling evidence, that the election was stolen from him and was marred by widespread corruption and fraud.

As a result, Americans are trapped in a post-election twilight zone in which Trump appears to have little realistic prospect of changing the outcome but will not acknowledge the reality of defeat. Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the centre-right American Enterprise Institute, says that America will suffer a presidential "transition from hell" in the two months leading up to Biden's inauguration on January 20.

President Donald Trump, left, plays golf.Credit:AP

The Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration, a relatively obscure but important government agency, has so far declined to declare Biden the apparent winner of the election. Such a declaration would provide Biden's transition team with office space at federal agencies and speed up the background check process for potential appointees to government roles.

The Trump administration has also broken with tradition by refusing to give Biden access the presidential daily briefing, which includes important national security information. And the State Department has not been transmitting congratulatory cables from foreign leaders and diplomats.

Trump has also used the post-election period to fire Defence Secretary Mark Esper and appoint a series of loyalists to top positions at the Pentagon. This makes it easier for Trump to make major foreign policy decisions — such as withdrawing all US troops from Afghanistan — during his final weeks in office, even if they go against the advice of top military officials.

"This is a very, very dangerous period," Ornstein says. "I have no idea what an unhinged Trump will do during this time. He could do something truly reckless."

'Not a democracy'

In the hours after US media outlets declared Biden the winner, world leaders such as Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison moved quickly to congratulate him on his victory. But, at time of writing, just four Republican senators have acknowledged Biden as the winner of the election. It would be one thing if Trump was alone in contesting the election results, but so far the Republican Party is largely standing behind him.

When asked by a reporter this week whether he had congratulated Biden on his victory, Republican Senator Ron Johnson said: "No." When asked why, he replied: "Nothing to congratulate him about."

Joe Biden says the presidential transition is proceeding smoothly, despite Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat. Credit:AP

Meanwhile, his top legal adviser, Bob Bauer, has dismissed the Trump campaign’s election-related court challenges as “noise, not really law” and "theatrics, not really lawsuits".

Biden has fielded calls from world leaders, announced the members of his coronavirus taskforce and revealed that longtime adviser Ron Klain will be his chief-of-staff. Klain served as the White House's Ebola Response Coordinator in 2014, putting him in a good position to oversee the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden is expected to wait until early December to announce most of his selections for key cabinet roles such as treasury secretary, secretary of state and defence secretary.

Lawrence Douglas, a law professor at Amherst College, says the Biden campaign is right to feel relaxed about their position. Earlier this year Douglas published Will He Go?, a book exploring what could happen if Trump rejected the election outcome.

"To cause a larger constitutional crisis Trump would have to successfully attack the results in multiple states, but his lawsuits seem frivolous and destined to go nowhere," he says.

"I have every expectation that Biden will be duly inaugurated on January 20."

Douglas expects more Republicans will begin to publicly acknowledge Biden as the President-elect when the Electoral College results are certified on December 14. As for Trump, Douglas draws a distinction between conceding defeat — which recognises the legitimacy of an opponent's victory — and submitting to the reality of it.

"I think Trump will ultimately submit to defeat but I don't see him ever conceding," he says.

"That will continue to spread a poison throughout the nation because tens of millions of Americans will be labouring under the misconception that the election was fraudulently conducted.

"That's a terrible thing for people in a democracy to believe."

Trump Biden 2020

Understand the election result and its aftermath with expert analysis from US correspondent Matthew Knott. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald‘s newsletter here, The Age‘s here, Brisbane Times‘ here and WAtoday‘s here. 

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