Trump doesn't want peaceful transition of power. Legally, it doesn’t matter.

There is rightful outrage at Donald Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power should Joe Biden and Kamala Harris emerge victorious in the presidential election.

All offices of public trust - and especially the office of the president - belong to the people, not to their temporary holders, and peaceful transition of power is an acknowledgment and submission to this core fact of democracy. Donald Trump has, however, continually thumbed his nose at basic democratic norms, starting with his 2016 refusal to commit to accepting the results of that election should he have lost. So while it is shameful, Trump’s behavior fits a pattern, and it is, in fact, no surprise.

It also doesn’t matter. At least, not legally. And so far, the law has been followed when it comes to transition planning.

One of the prevailing myths surrounding presidential transitions is that it depends on the fiat of the sitting president. It does not. Presidential transitions are governed by the Presidential Transition Act (PTA), originally enacted in 1963. And under the Presidential Transition Act, transition planning starts long before a presidential election is even held, let alone decided.

According to the Center for Presidential Transition, the PTA not only mandates that the General Services Administration (GSA) provide office space and support services for transition teams for presidents-elect and vice presidents-elect, but also for transition staff of major candidates prior to the election, following the nominating conventions. Here is a summary of how the law requires that it work:

The Act establishes an early and organized cadence for the federal government’s transition planning:

- Before the election, each agency must designate a senior career official who will be in charge of transition planning, prepare transition briefing materials, and ensure that succession plans are in place so that as political appointees depart, career officials are prepared to step in place until new political appointees arrive.

- Six months before an election, the President must establish a White House Transition Coordinating Council, chaired by a senior employee of the Executive Office of the President and consisting of other high-level officials, such as cabinet officers; the Directors of the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Government Ethics; the Administrator of GSA; and the Archivist of the United States. A transition representative of the major candidates also sits on the council. The council provides guidance to agencies on transition and facilitates communications between the administration and the transition teams.

- The Act requires a standing Agency Transition Directors Council, co-chaired by GSA’s Federal Transition Coordinator and the Office of Management and Budget’s Deputy Director for Management, and including agency senior career officials responsible for transition activities as well as transition representative of the major candidates. This working-level council works toward an integrated, government-wide approach to transition and ensures that briefing materials are prepared.

Note that the only job given directly tot he sitting president is the establishment of a White House Transition Coordinating Council six months before the election. Did this happen?

Yes. The White House did indeed direct federal agencies to begin transition planning in April, and a GSA report for May (the 6-month deadline to the election), details that both the White House Transition Coordinating Council (WHTCC) and the Agency Transition Directors Council (ATDC) have in fact been established.

Donald Trump is a bully, and like all bullies, he is a coward at heart. Speaker Pelosi has won numerous political and legal fights against Trump, including on government shutdown and impeachment. Just this month the State Department, run by Trump-twin Mike Pompeo, turned over documents subpoenaed by the House under the threat of a Contempt citation. Trump himself, after a whole summer of threats to turn more American cities into military occupied land, has largely been reduced to whining about Democratic governors not requesting enough federal assistance to intimidate protesters.

Donald Trump is not invincible. The legal wheels are in place for a transition. All we have to do is elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by voting in massive numbers.

Trump’s bluster is not to be taken lightly, and there is little doubt that he will do everything he can to gum up the works, challenge the election results, and try to win by cheating. However, there is no legal maneuver for him to refuse to peacefully transition power once the election has been decided.

What’s more, as long as Trump holds up the results dooming him to a loss in court, Biden’s transition representatives - some of whom are already there - get to stay in their federal office spaces.

Trump’s threat to hold up a peaceful transition of power may be legally empty, but it can be dangerous in its true intent: voter suppression. The Trump campaign has been systematically implying that they will lie, cheat, and steal to stay in power not because they legally can, but so that the groundswell of people across political spectrum coming together to dethrone him will become dispirited and give up on exercising our franchise.

We cannot let this happen. We must vote in unprecedented numbers. Our votes matter, because if it didn’t, they wouldn’t be trying so hard to keep us from voting.


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