President Trump's Non-Existent National Security Handoff : Consider This from NPR President Trump's refusal to engage in any meaningful national security transition is dangerous, say two former national security officials.

Kori Schake with the American Enterprise Institute served on George W. Bush's National Security Council and in senior posts at the Pentagon and the State Department. Harvard's Nicholas Burns served at the State Department and on the National Security Council in every administration from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.

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'There's No Transition': Trump's Non-Existent National Security Handoff

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'There's No Transition': Trump's Non-Existent National Security Handoff

'There's No Transition': Trump's Non-Existent National Security Handoff

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(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS KEAN: Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It took nearly two years for the U.S. government to investigate what went wrong.

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KEAN: Today, we present this report and these recommendations to the president of the United States, to the United States Congress and the American people.

KELLY: The 9/11 Commission, set up in the fall of 2002, was led by Republican Thomas Kean, who you just heard, and Democrat Lee Hamilton. Their task was to study what led to the disaster of 9/11 and make recommendations to try to prevent such a thing from ever happening again.

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LEE HAMILTON: If you look back, all of us had signals.

KELLY: Lee Hamilton.

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HAMILTON: We recite those signals at great length in the report. And we simply did not put them together.

KELLY: One thing that final report zeroed in on - the presidential transition process, namely the chaotic end to the 2000 election, recounts in Florida, Bush v. Gore - how that delayed the process of putting key national security staff in place. That delay, to quote the report, "hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees in the national security arena."

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HAMILTON: We need a better process for transitions between one administration and another for national security officials so that this nation does not lower its guard every four or eight years.

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KELLY: CONSIDER THIS. With a president consumed by his election loss and a president-elect boxed out of the transition process, some former national security officials are worried that America's guard is lowered right now. We'll speak with two of them. From NPR, I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It is Friday, November 13.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR.

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BARACK OBAMA: OK. Well, I just had the opportunity to have an excellent conversation with President-elect Trump.

KELLY: Back in 2016, news outlets called the race for Donald Trump on election night. Hillary Clinton conceded the same night. And just two days later, President-elect Trump was in the White House at the invitation of President Obama.

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OBAMA: And as I said last night, my No. 1 priority in the coming two months is to try to facilitate a transition that ensures our president-elect is successful.

KELLY: That race was closer than this year's.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So, Mr. President, it was a great honor being with you. And I look forward to being with you many, many more times in the future. Thank you, sir.

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: Thank you, everybody.

KELLY: As we know, this year's transition is going very differently.

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OBAMA: Thank you. Here's a good rule...

(CROSSTALK)

OBAMA: ...Don't answer any questions when they just start yelling. Come on...

KELLY: In the weeks since the election was called, the president has fired his defense secretary, installed loyalists in other top jobs at the Pentagon and DHS. He has withheld classified briefings from his opponent, now the president-elect. He has filed lawsuits to have ballots thrown out, and he is doing it with the support not just of his administration, but many Republicans in Congress and states across the country. That willingness to back him has surprised even some folks who once moved in the highest levels of Trump's orbit.

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JOHN BOLTON: Well, there's absolutely no justification to firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper, who's done a great job, no excuse for firing many of his subordinates.

KELLY: That is John Bolton, conservative Republican, Trump's former hand-picked national security adviser. Bolton told NPR this week he doesn't get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOLTON: The idea that decapitating the national security leadership of the country is going to do anything other than satisfy Donald Trump's personal pique is unclear to me. And there's simply no reason that people need to accept it or feel any obligation to defend it.

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KELLY: Bolton says it is time for his fellow Republicans to, quote, "acknowledge the reality that Joe Biden is the president-elect." It's not about what's best for the party, he says, but what is best for the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BOLTON: For example, agree that Biden and key people on his transition team should have full access to intelligence briefings. Agree that at least on the national security agencies, the individual transition teams at the State Department, the Defense Department, the intelligence community can begin their work. It's good, prudent planning for the benefit of the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: So just how much damage could an American president do on his way out the door? I put that question to two veterans of national security transitions, Kori Schake - she served on George W. Bush's National Security Council, also in senior posts at the Pentagon and the State Department; she is now at the conservative American Enterprise Institute - and Nick Burns, now at Harvard, before that, at the State Department and the National Security Council. He served every administration from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.

You have both witnessed multiple transitions from one president to the next. On a scale of 1 to 10, how unusual is this one so far? Nick Burns, you first.

NICK 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 a scale of 1 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?

KORI SCHAKE: I agree it's a 10. The unwillingness of the president to allow that 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 a little bit of - this is him speaking on Tuesday.

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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 as our win does not change the dynamic at all and 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?

SCHAKE: (Laughter).

KELLY: 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.

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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. I mean, 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 (laughter) 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, Friday the 13, that we've seen our institutions of government hold. And the American people in 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, that a...

SCHAKE: Good God, no.

KELLY: ...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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KELLY: Kori Schake with the American Enterprise Institute and Nick Burns at Harvard's Kennedy School.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

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