Worst. Transition. Ever.

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S1: The last few days have found President Trump engaged in a linguistic battle against the truth. It’s as if his mind knows the jig is up, but the rest of him just can’t recognize it. Not yet. Trump still firmly claiming he’s won a second term, still deploying Rudy Giuliani to go on TV and defend all those lawsuits he’s filed against election administrators all over the country. But then the president will have these little moments where reality seems to creep in almost to the subliminal level, it started on Friday with a coronavirus press conference where Trump almost nearly acknowledged the incoming administration.

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S2: Ideally, we won’t go to a lockdown. I will not go. This administration will not be going to a lockdown. Hopefully the the whatever happens in the future, who knows which administration will be. I guess time will tell. But I can tell you, this administration will not go to a lockdown.

S1: There won’t be. Then on Sunday, Trump tweeted that Joe Biden won the election, which seemed like breaking news until he went on to claim the election was rigged. Right now, I feel like we’re in this like in between. I can’t tell. Are we in a crisis? Are we not? I don’t know yet. Real. See, this is Rosa Brooks, professor at Georgetown Law. I wanted to talk to her about all this because she spent the last few months thinking about all the ways the president could play out his final weeks in office. And I thought she’d know better than anyone how this back and forth could resolve itself. How does one become an expert in presidential transitions?

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S3: I don’t know, because not one.

S1: But you’re the one we’re all calling. I know. I don’t know why you’re calling me.

S3: To be fair, Rosa did found something called the Transition Integrity Project because, I mean, this is a people keep saying to me, well, you predicted this and I didn’t predict anything. I’m not an expert on on transitions or anything else. What I am an expert on is being paranoid. I’m usually more paranoid than everybody else.

S1: Rosa might not have predicted what’s happening now, but she did game it out. And when I say that, I mean, she literally conducted a war game this summer. Plotting out with the aftermath of the 2020 election could look like we looked at a decisive Trump win scenario.

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S3: We looked at a extended uncertainty scenario like the election of 2000. We looked at a narrow Biden win scenario and we looked at a big Biden win scenario. And the the reality that we happened to be in is closest, I think, to that big Biden win scenario. And that was the one exercise that didn’t go really, really badly. Even so, in that exercise, there was sporadic street level violence. There were legal battles.

S1: Was it a happy ending in night?

S3: No, I don’t think there’s a completely happy ending in any of this today on the show.

S1: It turns out Rosa Brooks has been pretty spot on about this election. So where does she think the process goes from here? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. Before she worked at Georgetown, Rosa Brooks worked at the Department of Defense for her setting up these war games, looking to anticipate how the presidential election and transition might go.

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S3: It was just practical, you know, that this kind of gaming exercise is a way to explore what ifs and it’s a way to actually push people to test their own biases and assumptions. Actually, you know, if let’s I mean, let’s hypothetically imagine that, you know, the US military says we can fight three major wars simultaneously. Sounds ambitious. And everybody’s. Yeah. Who are you know, we’ve got the world’s strongest military. We can do it. So the reason you do some gaming exercises is you say, OK, let’s test these assumptions. So we’re already involved in Iraq and Afghanistan. Let’s say it’s twenty six or something. Let’s imagine China invades Taiwan and Russia invade Ukraine at the same time. What are you going to do? What the gaming shows you is the risks, gaps, places where you’ve made some rosy assumption that you go, oops, maybe that rosy assumption is not merited with Roses Transition Integrity Project.

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S1: She was testing the rosy assumptions about American democracy. She’s grown to hate this metaphor. You’ve probably heard that there are guardrails. Protecting America’s political process is if the country could be saved from careening off course by a feat of structural engineering, something built in.

S3: The reason the metaphor is misleading is you think of guardrails as like there you are. You’re on the roller coaster at the amusement park and you’re zipping along on the sort of, you know, unchallenging bits. And then you get to the the crazy parts and these metal guardrails literally kind of pop up next to your little coaster. And you don’t have to do anything. It just happens automatically. They’re mechanical things that just pop up at the right moment to keep you from going literally off the rails. And people assume that institutions and laws and norms are like that, too, that they just sort of automatically pop up and save you, that they kind of it’s a mechanical process. And and the reason the metaphor is so misleading is that the guardrails are us. You know, there’s nothing automatic about it.

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S1: I wonder if part of what you wanted to do by gaming out what happens now is show people the possibilities, like, oh, hey, you over there in the DOJ, you’re actually a guardrail. This is how you pop up.

S3: If that’s that. That’s a great way to put it.

S4: And that’s exactly that’s exactly right. That the the purpose of the is not to predict the future, but to identify risks. Our hope was that it would motivate people to take some of the actions that we thought would would mitigate those risks, reduce those risks, so that the worst case scenarios we we mapped out in some of our exercises would never, ever, ever come to pass.

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S1: I feel like we should be really concrete about exactly what you did in these games, because my understanding is you’ve got like a hundred people into a Zoome room and with all kinds of people like Michael Steele, the former chair of the Republican Party, and Bill Kristol, the journalist, and Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic governor of Michigan, former Democratic governor of Michigan. And you put these scenarios in front of them. And I even heard that you had like a ten sided die, that you were rolling to introduce some randomness. So can you explain quickly what you did?

S4: So this is we used a type of game that’s referred to as a Matrix game. And there are people whose careers are spent designing this kind of exercise. And the way it works is you you devise your participants into teams. We had a team representing playing the Trump campaign team, playing the Biden campaign teams, playing both Republican and Democratic elected officials. We had a media team. We had a sort of career officials team, etc. The game had very strict rules. And the rules were that when it was your team’s turn to make moves, you could we had three rounds in each game. You could make no more than three moves or counter moves per round. And your moves had to take a very specific form.

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S3: You had to articulate them by saying, we are going to do X in order to achieve Y, and we believe it will be successful because Z, like Trump campaign, say, you know, we’re going to go to court in Michigan to seek to stop the vote count because we think that if the mail in ballots are counted, we won’t win and we want to get them suppressed. And we think we’re going to be successful in court because the judge is a Republican appointee who we think loves us or something, and that that would be a move. And then everybody kind of go out of. Roll for a few minutes and discuss this and talk about, well, is this likely to succeed? And they’d come to some consensus either. Yeah, that’s probably going to work or doubtful. And then our game master and these were professional exercise designers, would assign a somewhat arbitrarily, but based on this discussion of probability to the success of that move and the 10 sided die would be rolled if we thought it was an 80 percent chance of success, then, you know, the game master might say something like eight or under on the ten sided die means that that move succeeded. And then if if the Deyrolle roll meant that it succeeded, then other players had to assume that that legal challenge was successful. The recount in Michigan has been stopped.

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S1: Now, what your move when you recruited people to do this was everyone like, oh, yeah, this is a great idea. We got to do this. Was it hard? Was it easy?

S3: It was easier than I expected. There were people said no. They were like, no, I think that’s crazy. But but more people than I expected said, yes, it was really important to us to recruit participants who were as close to the real thing for the teams as possible. So the people playing the Biden and Trump campaigns for people who had held very senior positions on Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns and so on, I was pleasantly surprised at how many very senior people were willing to very generously give up their time. I mean, there were you know, each game took about five hours plus advance preparation.

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S1: Who do you most wish was there? Who wasn’t? Because I looked at the group of people who was there and there are a lot of different people, but it did seem like a lot of never Trump Trumpeter’s. And I wonder if you look back and think, I wish some of the folks who are now speaking out in favor in support of Trump would have been there to help us see what happens now.

S3: Um, no, I don’t wish that at all. The purpose of these games was not to help the Trump side figure out how to further destroy American institutions. You know, if you’re in the military and you’re trying to figure out what would happen if China invaded Taiwan, you don’t invite the Chinese to be part of the game. We were very clear from the beginning that although this was a bipartisan exercise and that we all believe very firmly that the American people get to vote for whoever the hell they want, even if we disagree. You know, we wanted people who shared the view that there were some real threats to the rule of law and norms relating to free, fair and peaceful elections and transition. So, no, that was it would have it would have defeated the whole purpose to have the actual pro Trump people who like the idea of undermining the free, fair and peaceful elections and transitions be part of it for games was the starting point.

S1: With four different spring boarding scenarios, the teams looked at what would happen if there was a clear Biden win, a clear Trump win, a narrow Biden win or no election winner at all. Rosea thought they might do more, but those four were so sobering there wasn’t a lot of appetite to keep playing.

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S3: I think people were a little shocked by how bad things got and how quickly they got bad and a little shaken by that. We would do the back and forth of the game and then we would do a debrief at the end. And after all, four, we also did a whole series of Zoome additional debrief with small groups just to say, what were your takeaways from this? What do you think are the the key risks, what can be done to mitigate those risks? And there was a lot of woe that was bad. I wasn’t expecting that that was bad.

S1: So I think there was a lot of anxiety in the clear Biden victory scenario. What happened looked a lot like what’s going on now. There were claims of voter fraud lawsuits over election tallies, a disputed transition and violent clashes between Trump and Biden supporters. All this stuff we’re seeing now, Rosie would like to take some credit for telling the future, but she kind of thinks anyone could have told you this would happen.

S3: Trump is predictable. It’s not like we’re seeing new behavior from him. So I think with or without our exercises, the Python team would have been thinking, this guy is not going to go gently into that good night.

S4: He’s going to kick and scream all the way. We have to be prepared for that as a as a possibility.

S1: But I wonder if you see I wonder if you see the Biden administration as acting as forcefully as they need to because, you know, I look and I see, you know, already with the coronavirus incoming task force saying, listen, we’re not getting the data we need from the White House. You know, we’re seeing that Biden is not getting those security briefs. Things that he should be getting by this point?

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S3: Well, there’s you know, I’m not quite sure what you mean by forcefully, right, because I think they’re doing what they can do. And there’s actually a lot that they can do even without Trump’s cooperation. They can prepare the day one executive orders. They can prepare nationwide guidance that says here are the indicators at which point you should close bars, even giving a really clear message that says here is what here is what the science says you should do, that’s clear and consistent could make a big difference. So I think there is a lot of planning that can and will and is taking place already by the transition teams. They’re not sitting around kind of, you know, weeping into their coffee mugs because the Trump agency people won’t meet with them. I think it’s more dangerous on the national security side, right. I mean, the covid stuff, it’s not classified information. You know, it’s just obnoxious that the Trump folks won’t let them meet with them. On the national security side, it’s a little bit more dangerous. Right. Trump has made some done some last minute purging at the Defense Department. And one one hypothesis would be that that’s because he intends to do some things, maybe covert things involving aggressive action against Iran that are potentially escalatory and could lead to a conflict. And that, too, is the kind of thing not only would you like him not to do that, but if you’re if you’re the incoming Biden team, you kind of want to know what you’re going to be inheriting.

S1: The purging Rosa’s referring to. Begin with the firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper last week. It’s been rumored Trump may also want to get rid of top officials at the CIA and the FBI. And in the meantime, the president has installed loyalists and top civil service positions at the Pentagon where they could continue to have influence no matter what happens after January 20th. The news about what’s happening with these defense officials to me has been a little difficult to pass. It’s just a little unclear to me what’s going on, what is the motivation between putting these people in place right now? And my mind can go to all sorts of paranoid places. I’m sure yours can, too, but I just don’t know how much to let myself go there and what the options are.

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S4: So there are benign theories and there are really paranoid theories. And I’m inclined to think the relatively benign theories are correct. The benign theories are not great, by the way. They’re just not as apocalyptic as the paranoid theories. What are the benign theories? That this is a combination of spite? You know, it’s been clear that Espers head was on the chopping block, that former Secretary of Defense Espers just fired ever since he after Lafayette Square in June. Ever since he said publicly, I’m opposed to any invocation of the Insurrection Act or use of active duty military troops to restore order during protests. That’s a bad idea. And Trump had floated that. And when Espera publicly came out against it, it was clear it was just a matter of time. Everybody was just surprised he wasn’t fired sooner. So the benign theory says this is partly despite, you know, Trump is in a rage. He is lashing out. He’s looking for people who haven’t been obsequious enough for was one of them, despite his rather unkind nickname of Jasper for always saying yes to Trump.

S3: He did say no on that one important occasion and that it’s also, incidentally, a way to quote unquote burrow. The process is known as burrowing. When you get political folks appointed to career positions where they have civil service job protections and making it harder for an incoming administration to fire them. I mean, political appointees are done the minute on January 20th, the minute the new president sworn in. But if you can embed someone in a career position, you know, they have all the standard job protections of any civil servant.

S1: Yeah, that’s the theory that my colleague Fred Kaplan sort of put forward when he wrote about all this, where he talked about how, you know, in some ways he looked at this as planning for the future, putting in place Trump’s own deep state.

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S4: That’s entirely possible. That’s still more benign than the really paranoid theories and the really paranoid theories are. You got a guy who’s unwilling to use active duty military to suppress peaceful protest in the United States. You replace them with a bunch of people who won’t stand in your way if you want to do that. And it’s an indicator that Trump does intend to do that and or you get out of the way, people who are going to oppose some kind of really crazy military adventurism are really foolish strategic moves. And then you can perhaps in the covert sphere, you know, make them against Iran or whatever. And those are the darker theories. I think the burrowing on some level, every outgoing administration does that to some extent.

S5: I’m no longer that worried that Biden’s January 20th inauguration is going to be somehow prevented. I’m I’m still a little bit worried because I’m always a little bit worried about everything. But I am quite concerned about what happens not just the day after inauguration, but the next couple of years, because we have seen some pretty dark forces that have been unleashed and empowered by Trump and his allies, and they’re not going anywhere more. What next? After a short break.

S1: Rosa Brooks, who organized the war game exercises called the Transition Integrity Project, she continues to have questions about how we’ll assert ourselves as the guardrails of democracy and the big revelation. For her, it came up after the project was over and its report was put up online.

S4: Our little Transition Integrity Project exercises became part of the extremist right wing narrative about stolen elections. So we we issued this public report saying, hey, here’s what we’re worried about. Know we see these risks. Here’s what we think people should do to mitigate these risks, to ensure a free, fair, peaceful election transition. And then far right conspiracy theorists started saying, aha, this is the democratic deep state. They’re planning to steal the election from Donald Trump and here is their game plan for how they’re going to do it.

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S6: And of course, we were sort of like what they want to cause a street fight after the election.

S3: That’s a quote from the Transition Integrity Project, this group of never trump lunatics and Democrats, people like Dan Bongino, who’s a far right commentator, who mostly does sort of YouTube and Facebook videos, but is apparently consistently one of the most watched people on Facebook, were denouncing the Transition Integrity Project, coup planning.

S6: Again, Joe, you noticed the interesting wording of the group, the Transition Integrity Project. It should be called the transition project. That’s really what it is.

S3: And it’s spread all the way to Ted Cruz and Matt Getz and Devon Newnes saying, oh, this is their blueprint for election theft. And it was so crazy. You know, it was just like so, so alternate reality, like nuts, you know, that that they would hold up a piece of paper in which we said nonviolent. Any resistance must be nonviolent. But then they’d be like, they’re planning an insurrection and a civil war. And you’d think, what? How can you say that with a straight face? But I think that that’s the kind of most ominous thing about the future, is that there is this a very well orchestrated, far right disinformation campaign that has been going on in this country for years now. And I think the Democrats were very slow to even notice it. And I count myself among the people who was a little slow to notice that because, you know, what do I do? Every morning I scan the front page of The New York Times and The Post and maybe look at the Atlantic and Slate and and, you know, I’m in my bubble. Right. And I do look at Fox News from time to time to see what Fox is up to. But these really, really extremist sites, some of them violent extremist sites, I don’t look at them. I don’t know that. I didn’t even know that many of them existed. And yet it turns out that of the 70 million people voted for Trump, quite a lot of those people, those are their only news sources.

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S1: Do you have thoughts on that now, now that the election’s over? Because what you’re talking about, you can see it everywhere, like the headline in the Times. Biden talks about healing divides and Republicans don’t want to hear it, something like that.

S3: Republicans talk about deepening divides. Yeah, I mean. I don’t know why you would asked me earlier, actually, let me go back to a question you asked me earlier, which relates to this. You would ask, you know, are there any kinds of people you wish had been part of the exercises who weren’t? I wish we’d had more historians, even as observers who could be part of the debriefs. I wish we had had more experts on political conflicts and violence, comparative experts who study this in other countries and so on. We don’t know whether the kind of sporadic clashes we saw in Washington, D.C., for instance, where 20 people were arrested, one guy was stabbed, four people with guns were arrested. We don’t know who they are yet. We don’t know what their politics are. So we don’t know whether that’s kind of the last gasp. And now people are just going to go home and sulk for a while or whether every night from now on it gets worse and worse and worse. I think we have to recognize that in a sense, we have been in this country dealing with a right wing information warfare for several years and that the the left didn’t even notice while this infrastructure was built up. And now it’s there. And and we have to figure out what to what do you do? One of the things that I actually find quite ominous, as much as I dislike Fox News and the role it has played in the last few years, I saw Fox as kind of the one point of intersection between these increasingly parallel worlds of information. Right. The sort of right wing conspiracy world and the world that you and I inhabit because you had the news division and then you had the opinion. Yeah. And it was sort of a point of intersection. And my fear, which is now seems to be being realized, is that the minute Fox called the election for Biden or showed any signs of not being one hundred percent in with the conspiracy theorists, that rather than them saying, oh, gee, maybe there is no conspiracy, that they would go, aha, FOX is part of the conspiracy and abandon it. And that is what we are beginning to see, which is bad because then I think there are no points of intersection. If you still have half the people being fed a steady diet of lies, I think it is the cynical preying on the gullible.

S7: You’re still going to have a problem. Rosa Brooks, thank you so much for joining me. My pleasure. Rosa Brooks is a professor at Georgetown Law and a co-founder of the Transition Integrity Project. And that’s the show What Next is produced by Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Alan Ashworth’s with an assist from Frannie Kelley. We are led by Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. I’m Mary Harris. You can find me during the day over on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk and I will catch you back here tomorrow.