This has been a disastrous lame duck period. Although there are always concerns about what may happen in the months between a presidential election and inauguration, the last few weeks have lived up to our worst expectations.
The transition period used to be even longer. Until the 20th Amendment was ratified in 1933, this gap lasted from early November until March 4, when Presidents were inaugurated. This four-month gap allowed Congress to count and report votes and gave the President-elect sufficient time to travel to the capital. But the problems that could arise during this time — along with technological advances that cut down on travel time — created pressure to shorten the window, especially after the infamous “Secession Winter” of 1860 left President-elect Abraham Lincoln powerless as several Southern states left the union to form the Confederacy.
The 20th Amendment moved Inauguration Day to January 20 (and set the start date for a new Congress on January 3). If the nation needed one last reminder of why the shift was necessary, they got it after the 1932 election, when President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt was unable to launch the New Deal for months amidst the deteriorating economic crisis of the Great Depression.
It turns out, however, that even two months is no guarantee of a smooth interregnum. President Donald Trump has managed to use his remaining time in office to act as a political wrecking ball while the country is still being ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Trump, who had been spouting false claims of voter fraud for months, launched several failed lawsuits in an attempt to challenge the election results in key swing states, and also contacted state legislatures to try to persuade them to intervene on his behalf. Even when this strategy proved unfruitful, and his attempt to hold onto power looked increasingly desperate, the President continued to maintain with no credible evidence that the election had been rigged.
While the President has been unsuccessful in his efforts to overturn the election, he may have succeeded in sowing distrust among many in our democracy, fanning the flames of the toxic political atmosphere and likely making governing that much more difficult for President-elect Joe Biden.
Trump has also set a dangerous precedent for future Presidents to dispute the election results on spurious claims. And to make matters worse, Trump has delayed the transition process and made it more difficult for the Biden administration to hit the ground running on day one.
While attacking the election, the President has fumbled the issue of the moment: the country’s pandemic policies. As states face a winter surge and intensive care units reach capacity, President Trump has turned a blind eye to the millions of families that are suffering as a result of the pandemic. Despite 18 million cases, more than 330,000 deaths, and millions facing economic hardship, there has been little direction from Washington about what states need to be doing right now to curb the spread of this horrible virus.
Although 1 million Americans have already gotten the Covid-19 vaccine, that falls far short of the administration’s goal of inoculating 20 million Americans by the end of December. General Gustave Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, apologized last week for miscalculating the number of doses that would be sent out to several states, and there have been staffing and planning problems that have slowed the process.
President Trump’s 11th hour decision to blow up the stimulus negotiations has also jeopardized much needed financial relief for millions of Americans. Rather than showing a genuine effort to pressure Senate Republicans to agree to legislation House Democrats passed in May, which would have provided $1,200 checks for individuals and up to $6,000 per household, Trump decided to intervene only after Congress finally agreed on individual payments of $600 — saying he wanted $2,000 checks instead.
President Trump has also used his remaining time in office to dole out presidential pardons that exemplify the absolute worst use of this constitutional power. Rather than employing the pardon as a mechanism to provide mercy and justice, he has saved his powers for his cronies. Russia-gate alumni Roger Stone, who was convicted of seven felonies including obstruction, threatening a witness and lying under oath; Paul Manafort, who was convicted of eight counts of financial crimes; Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators; George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI; and Michael Flynn, who twice pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, were all pardoned, likely as a reward for their loyalty.
Trump also offered presidential relief to corrupt Republican Congressmen Duncan Hunter, who pleaded guilty to a charge of conspiracy to misuse campaign funds, Steve Stockman, who was convicted of a number of felonies including fraud and money laundering, and Chris Collins, who was serving time on charges of conspiracy to commit securities fraud and making a false statement — along with Charles Kushner, the father of son-in-law Jared Kushner, who was sentenced to two years in federal prison for retaliating against a federal witness, evading taxes and lying to the Federal Election Commission. Four Blackwater guards were also pardoned after a lengthy trial found them guilty of killing 14 Iraqis in 2007. The list goes on-and-on and is sure to grow in the coming weeks. While Trump is certainly not the first to use his presidential powers in terrible ways, the scale and scope of his decisions — many of which are unjustifiable — moves him to the very top of the list.
Given all that has happened during this transition, some commentators wonder whether Congress should reduce the time between election and inauguration even more. It’s unclear whether doing so is possible or desirable. In an age where the responsibilities of the President have expanded as a result of the growth of government, there is something to be said for allowing enough time for a new President to establish his administration and prepare for the challenges ahead.
But we have learned once again just how much leeway there is within our political system for Presidents to misuse their power and create immense instability. Even if Congress doesn’t shorten the transition period, there are safeguards it can put into place. This transition has given us more than enough reason to revisit our election laws, provide more clarity about the Electoral College certification process, and rein in the executive power that a lame duck President can wield.