WASHINGTON – President Trump loyalists have blocked transition meetings at some government agencies and participate in discussions in other agencies between career officials and President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s transition teams, sometimes conversations frightening, several federal officials have said.
At the Environmental Protection Agency, political appointees have joined virtually every discussion between career staff members and Mr Biden’s team, monitoring conversations about climate change, scientific research and d ‘other subjects. At the State Department, such visits occur on what Trump’s appointees define as a base as needed. On Tuesday, Mr Biden’s transition team was first cleared to join the National Security Agency, but at the United States Agency for Global Media, mother of Voice of America, the executive named by Trump refuses to cooperate with Biden’s transition team, two agency officials have confirmed.
Experts on the presidential transition said that the presence of politicians at agency handover meetings was not uncommon and could even be seen as useful. President George W. Bush, for example, worked closely in late 2008 with Barack Obama’s new team to help calm volatility in financial markets. But against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s refusal to concede electoral defeat, the actions of those appointed by Trump appeared to be a pernicious effort to slow the transition, some experts have said.
“The norm is that politicians are not involved in the inner workings of this,” said Michael E. Herz, professor of administrative law at Cardozo Law School at Yeshiva University.
He called on the Trump administration’s apparent determination to micromanage the transition process by overseeing the meetings as part of its larger plan to “milk their authority for as long as possible and disrupt the new administration as much as possible.”
Under the Presidential Transition Act, career employees play the primary role in managing agency transitions, largely because they bring institutional knowledge about government functions and have been seen as non-managers. policies of the agencies they serve. There is no clear rule or guideline, however, that specifies how the process is to unfold.
During the transfer of the administration from Mr. Obama to Mr. Trump, for example, politicians were explicitly withdrawn from transition meetings, said Thomas A. Burke, who was then EPA science adviser in the Obama administration.
“To me it’s the equivalent of having the opposing coach sitting in the room while you develop your team’s strategy,” he said.
Myron Ebell, a senior researcher at the Competitive Enterprise Institute who led the Trump administration’s transition to the EPA, agreed that those named by Mr. Obama were not present, but said he would have liked to meet with them . Either way, he said, the meetings were held in an open-plan office space.
“I assumed that everything we said and who we spoke to was open to politicians,” Mr. Ebell said. “And they never said ‘we cleaned the room and there are no microphones in it.'”
Biden’s transition team did not respond to a request for comment on the process. Several people close to the president-elect’s team have said that after taking more than two weeks to begin the formal transition process, the transfer of the Trump administration has gone fairly smoothly and that Mr. Biden is loath to disrupt this process by commenting on the tensions.
So far, around 40 review teams from federal agencies have conducted more than 1,000 interviews and meetings, Biden transition officials said.
Federal employees who discussed the transition and asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak about the process offered mixed reviews of the presence of political leaders.
Several have said they believe Trump officials are implicitly intimidating employees into speaking openly about issues awaiting the new administration. Others described the meetings as simply awkward.
At the Education Department, an official said those Trump’s appointees did not squash briefings, but said the written briefing materials given to Mr. Biden’s teams “covered up anything controversial” and described the briefings as “politically influenced”.
The presidential transition
At the State Department, those appointed by Mr. Trump insisted that they attend some, but not all, meetings of Mr. Biden’s transition team with career employees, according to an official familiar with the process. it was not immediately clear whether this was seen as largely intrusive or stifling discussions at the State Department, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
However, the official said, including those appointed by the outgoing administration in at least some diplomatic discussions was not uncommon and, so far, State Department staff have cooperated in responding to requests from the ‘Biden team.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told department officials he was ready to meet with Mr. Biden’s transition team, CNN reported last week, and described the new administration on Monday as “smart enough.” It was a change from late November, when he said in an interview with Fox News that Mr. Biden’s foreign policy advisers “lived in a somewhat imaginary world” when they served under the administration. Obama.
This week, the Biden team was cleared into the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency after several days of what two people close to the transition described as an effort by newly appointed Trump administration officials to the Pentagon to slow down the transition by blocking access to the department. defense intelligence agencies.
Susan Gough, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, said the agency sometimes added staff to the list of people that Mr Biden’s team requests meetings with “so that we have the right experts in the field. material present, ”but added,“ It is not necessary that all meetings must be attended by a political representative. “
No classified material has yet been released to Mr Biden’s team, and it is not clear if or when that will be made available. Meetings at other intelligence agencies, including the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, are expected to take place later.
On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that Michael Pack, a Trump-appointed person who oversees the Voice of America and other federally-funded news agencies, refused to make the records and staff available to Mr. Biden’s team.
At the EPA, James Hewitt, a spokesperson for the agency, confirmed that political leaders were attending the meetings and said it was with the blessing of Mr Biden’s transition team.
“Deputy Assistant Administrator Benevento asked Biden’s environmental transition team if political staff could participate in transition calls so they could provide any information they might have about the agency and they obligated,” he said, speaking of Doug Benevento, in a statement. “We were not informed that they had any concerns about the quality of the information provided during these calls.”
Lisa Brown, who was co-director of the EPA review team during the Obama administration, said that after weeks of the Trump administration’s efforts to slow the transition, the Biden team has very probably accepted the conditions just to start work.
“They want to come in and see what they can learn rather than wasting time fighting, that’s my opinion,” she said.
But Ms Brown described the arrangement as out of the ordinary and disturbing.
“What you need to worry about is the crippling effect on career employees,” she said. “You’re going to worry that people aren’t completely open, especially when you have a president who still hasn’t conceded.
Erica L. Green, Lara jakes, Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt, Michael D. Shear and Katie benner contribution to reports.