Chapter One: What Will You Do If He Loses? ONE WHAT WILL YOU DO IF HE LOSES?
Joe Biden was restless. It was late April 2020, nearly seven months before the presidential election. Biden hadn’t even won the Democratic nomination yet; only a few months earlier, after dismal showings in the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary, pundits had declared his candidacy dead. But after a stunning victory in the South Carolina primary and a string of primary wins across the South, Biden was almost sure to be his party’s nominee against Donald Trump. At his home in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden called up an old friend, Ted Kaufman, his next-door neighbor. “
Want to go for a walk?” he asked.
Contrary to popular belief, presidential transitions don’t begin upon the election of a new president; they start almost a year before. That is when the incumbent and the front-runner for the opposing party’s nomination begin preparing for a transfer of power. On this spring morning, as he walked around a nearby schoolyard with his best friend, Kaufman, Joe Biden’s transition had begun.
Kaufman, eighty-one, was Biden’s confidant and alter ego. Lanky and slightly disheveled, with a twinkle in his eye, he resembled an older version of the actor John Lithgow. An engineer by training, Kaufman was like family; he’d been at Joe’s side during his first successful race for councilman in New Castle, Delaware, in 1970. He’d been Biden’s chief of staff on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was appointed to his Delaware Senate seat when Biden joined Barack Obama’s ticket in 2008. For decades, Kaufman and Biden had sat together on Amtrak while commuting between Wilmington, Delaware, and Washington, D.C. “
We were back and forth on the train for 4,000,827 hours,” said Kaufman. “So we talked about everything
Presidential transitions are herculean exercises. That’s why Biden’s team needed to start so early. More than 200 members of the incoming White House staff needed to be picked and readied to govern; 1,200 officials chosen and prepped for confirmation by the Senate; another 1,100, who don’t require confirmation, recruited, vetted, and hired; executive orders written, tabletop crisis exercises conducted. Kaufman explained: “
If you went to a corporate CEO and said, ‘We’re going to take away the very top managers in your organization. And then we’re going to bring in a whole new team that has to go through an incredibly complicated selection process. Now let’s make it the most complex organization in the history of the world. And then let’s say that every one of your enemies around the world knows you’re at your most vulnerable when you’re turning it over.’ Are you kidding? They’d laugh
Often, as transitions go, so do presidencies; seamless cooperation with George W. Bush’s team, beginning early in 2008, gave Barack Obama a running start when he took office in 2009. By contrast, the bobbled handoff from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, delayed by legal battles during the tumultuous 2000 recount, was cited by the 9/11 Commission as having left Bush’s national security team unprepared for the Al Qaeda attacks on September 11.
But the 2020 presidential transition was unique. It was the most contentious and dangerous since the Civil War. In his effort to remain in power, Trump tried to decapitate the Justice Department, threatened state election officials, pressured state legislators, terrorized local poll workers, and concocted slates of fake electors. When these measures failed, he incited a violent mob to attack the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
All of this happened in plain sight. Beneath the surface, another remarkable drama was playing out.
Donald Trump wanted no part of a presidential transition. In 2016, running against Hillary Clinton, when asked if he’d respect the results of the election, Trump had said he’d keep people “
in suspense.” By early 2020 there was no suspense; Trump would acknowledge only his own victory. How could a transition begin with a president unwilling to give up his office? The task would fall to a little-known White House staffer who worked steps away from the Oval Office. His success would depend on doing everything out of Donald Trump’s sight.
Christopher Liddell was one of several assistants to the president—first in the so-called Office of American Innovation, then as deputy chief of staff for policy coordination. A New Zealand citizen, he’d come to the U.S. in 2001 to work for an Auckland-based paper company. He then jumped to the American sector, where he worked his way up to a position as chief financial officer of Microsoft and, later, vice chairman of General Motors.
Liddell, sixty-one, still spoke with a Kiwi accent, called everyone mate, and drove a bright red vintage 1960 Corvette convertible that stood out like a Christmas ornament among the limos and SUVs in the West Wing parking lot. But unlike other wealthy members of Trump’s team—Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Steve Mnuchin—Liddell kept a low profile; his passion was for process
: organizing, managing, hitting targets. In 2012, he’d run Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s transition team so competently that it was called “
the most beautiful ark that never sailed.” In a West Wing full of sycophants and conspiracy theorists, Liddell was one of the few rational people in the place.
Why was he working for Trump? Liddell was a fiscally conservative but socially moderate Republican. He didn’t like Trump’s incendiary rhetoric but thought the presidency would change him. Unfortunately, events showed that to be a fantasy. Liddell was in denial. But, oddly, his blinders served him well—because the less he knew about what Trump was doing, the better he would be at his job.
The 2020 presidential transition became a sub rosa operation, carried out under Trump’s nose. The president, publicly and privately, raged about a rigged election and threw up roadblocks, but the wheels of the transition kept turning. Ted Kaufman, Biden’s transition chairman, was amazed. “
I thought they’d never cooperate with us on anything,” he told me. “And that’s not the way it worked out.” An obscure White House staffer who’d only recently become an American citizen helped make the transfer of power possible.
Yet Liddell was an unlikely leader of a plot to save democracy. One morning in January 2020, a full year before Biden’s inauguration, he’d invited two guests to breakfast in the White House Mess: Joshua Bolten, George W. Bush’s former White House chief of staff; and David Marchick, director for the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit devoted to effective transitions. Marchick had no formal role in the transfer of power, but he would play a vital part in the events to come. Bolten had run the transition between Bush and Obama, which, despite taking place during two wars and a financial crisis, was considered a model.
Over breakfast, Liddell told his guests that he was planning for a second Trump term. Bolten then asked, “Okay. Now
what are your plans if he loses?” Liddell stared at his empty plate. “Well,
I guess we’ve got to figure that out,” he replied. Liddell was depressed by the prospect of a defeated but defiant Trump. Throughout 2020, every time the president railed about a rigged election, Liddell considered resigning—and Bolten and Marchick talked him off the ledge. They thought of themselves as support therapists—and air traffic controllers. “He would call us and we’d say, ‘Hey,
you need to land this plane. You can’t quit,’?” said Marchick. Landing the plane would become the go-to metaphor for the turbulent transition.
By the spring of 2020, Biden’s team, led by Kaufman, was anxious to get started. “
We had a plan—a very, very complicated plan—and we had excellent people executing it,” he said. Kaufman’s first hire was Jeffrey Zients, a managerial wizard who, when Barack Obama’s health care website crashed upon its debut in 2013, reconfigured the site and got it up and running. For that, he was known as “Biden’s BFD,” or “
Big Fucking Deal”—after the vice president’s famous off-mic remark at the signing of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Other key players in the transition were Ron Klain, Biden’s longtime aide and vice-presidential chief of staff; Anita Dunn, a public relations expert and member of both the Obama and Biden inner circles; Yohannes Abraham, a former Obama national security staffer; former Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond; and New Mexico governor Lujan Grisham.
The fate of Biden’s agenda would depend on the preparations they made now, in the spring of 2020. There was no time to waste. Thousands of Americans were dying of COVID-19 every day. The economy had cratered. Cities were besieged by protesters demanding an end to police killings of unarmed Black men. The dangers posed by climate change were coming to a head. And then there was the war in Afghanistan, where 8,600 American troops were bogged down in a seemingly endless conflict. Trump had pledged to withdraw those forces by May 1, 2021. Biden’s incoming national security team would have to prepare a range of options, all problematic, for resolving America’s twenty-year quagmire.
The most urgent challenge was COVID-19. Biden ordered his transition team to bring him the news, good and bad, and to fight the pandemic as a wartime effort. That summer, as he ramped up for the challenge, Zients, who would become Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, worked in an office with the television on mute. “But every channel had the number of people who were diagnosed, the number of hospitalizations, the number of deaths,” he recalled. “Our team was asked to resolve
the greatest public health crisis in a hundred years, which had cost hundreds of thousands of lives and was critical to his presidency. Was that sobering? Was that a little frightening? Absolutely.”
Zients and his team worked around the clock. “It was routine to have emails flying back and forth at all hours of the night, to have meetings at three a.m.,” said a senior adviser. Ted Kaufman recalled thinking, I’m too old for this
, when he began getting emails at 5:30 a.m. The intense preparation was aimed at not wasting a moment after noon on Inauguration Day.
Biden’s team needed answers to basic questions: What was the status of the vaccine development program, Operation Warp Speed? What was the plan for getting vaccine shots into people’s arms?
The first step in taming the pandemic would be climbing out of the hole that Trump and his team had dug. It was a hole that seemed to have no bottom.
From the moment the virus arrived on U.S. soil, Trump had denied that there was
a pandemic. Then he tried to wish it away, insisting that fifteen cases would go down to zero. But while he was publicly calling the coronavirus a hoax, Trump was privately telling the author Bob Woodward that it was “
There was plenty of blame to go around for the tragically inept pandemic response. Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were slow to recognize the threat, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) botched the early testing. But Trump made it exponentially worse. Obama’s team had prepared a sixty-nine-page blueprint, “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infectious Disease Threats and Biological Incidents,” also known as the pandemic playbook. But Trump’s team had ignored it, along with other transition materials.
From neglecting warnings about the virus to pretending it would magically disappear, to failing to mobilize a federal response, to staging super-spreader campaign rallies, to ignoring safety protocols in the West Wing, Trump thoroughly fumbled the pandemic, empowering quack scientists who handicapped the nation’s response.
There was still hope that professionals at HHS and the CDC would rise to the challenge. The trouble was, few senior officials in the Trump administration knew how to make the bureaucracy work. Most had come to destroy government, not to mobilize it.
Trust in government had been the first casualty. Competence was the second. In March 2020, Vice President Mike Pence asked the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, if he could help with the COVID response. Kushner knew nothing about epidemiology or public health but was undaunted; he cleared his calendar for thirty days. Kushner started calling his friends, mostly private equity entrepreneurs in their twenties and thirties. The “
slim suit crowd,” as they were dubbed, worked out of the West Wing basement and at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), emailing their
friends. There were no government laptops, so they used their smartphones.
They started cold-calling CEOs in search of testing swabs, personal protective equipment (PPEs), masks, and ventilators. When they found what they were looking for, they’d try to buy it, only to discover that the federal contracting system didn’t work that way. One day one of the slim suits came into Kushner’s office. “I ordered six hundred million masks,” he told Kushner. “Oh, that’s amazing,” Jared replied. “Where are they?” “The first order comes in June,” the young man said. “Are you fucking crazy?” said Kushner. “You know, it’s war. We’re going to be dead in June.” Kushner realized he had a big problem.
Testing had been a disaster. So Kushner started calling his corporate friends. At a briefing in the Rose Garden on March 13, clutching a cardboard chart, Dr. Deborah Birx announced that Google was constructing a website for a testing network. The trouble was, Google wasn’t. Someone from Verily, a division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, had told Kushner that engineers were on the case. In fact, the pilot testing program was only for the San Francisco Bay Area, and it was in its early stages.
On a more positive note, Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership to develop a vaccine, was off to a promising start. But in every other respect, the U.S. was failing catastrophically to contain the worst public health crisis in a century.
Biden’s team couldn’t afford to wait until January. “
We had to be ready on Day One to set DOD [the Department of Defense] in motion, activating military troops to help in the fight against the pandemic,” said Zients. “We had to order FEMA to stand up a whole-of-country emergency response.” But there was no one to talk to: Trump’s DOD would not cooperate with Biden’s team. Neither would the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) or the United States Trade Representative (USTR).
No one knew who was in charge of Trump’s pandemic response team. Was it Vice President Mike Pence? Dr. Scott Atlas, Trump’s COVID-19 adviser? Kushner? A Yale epidemiology professor who’d joined Biden’s transition team, Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, recalled: “Warp Speed would say, ‘
Talk to CDC.’ And CDC would say, ‘Talk to Warp Speed.’ I mean, the silence was deafening.” And even if someone were
in charge, no one dared run the risk of getting caught by Trump talking to Zients and his team.
In April 2020, the number of COVID-19 cases had exceeded one million, with sixty-three thousand lives lost, more than the country suffered during the entire Vietnam War. But Kushner was upbeat: “
I think you will see by June, a lot of the country should be back to normal, and the hope is that by July the country is really rocking again.”
July came and went. More than a thousand Americans were dying every day. And Donald Trump continued to rail that the upcoming election would be rigged.