WILMINGTON, Del.— President-elect Joe Biden is locked out of the machinery of the federal government and has so far been denied funds to launch his own administration. Most congressional Republicans are refusing to acknowledge his victory, and his personal staff is scheduling calls with world leaders because the State Department won’t help.
But inside The Queen, a live-music venue located near a pawn shop and a courthouse in downtown Wilmington, all those obstacles seemed to fall away on Thursday as Biden held a sober, virtual discussion about the ongoing pandemic with a bipartisan group of governors.
“I want you to know I will be your partner in the White House,” Biden told the governors — whose faces were shown on the theater’s giant screen — from behind an official-looking desk perched on the theater’s stage.
As President Trump stews in the White House and actively blocks Biden’s transition team from preparing to take over the reins of government, Biden is publicly acting out the process of the transition about 100 miles northeast of Washington, D.C. Seals declaring him the “president elect” are plastered over The Queen’s stage and American flags flank the desk where he sits for the near-daily Zoom meetings with first responders, national security advisers, and others.
The theater is one place where this very strange transition looks and feels almost normal, where the president-elect already looks very much like the president.
“It sort of looks like they re-created the Situation Room: the big screen and all these different people on it with him being at a presidential desk,” said Joe Trippi, a Democratic strategist. “He’s exuding confidence and at the same time demonstrating what you’d want in your president.”
The deliberate, staged orderliness of Biden’s transition — being run close to his suburban Wilmington home — is intentional. It’s meant to project calm and confidence as American democracy faces the test of Trump’s attempts to subvert the election results, a test Biden’s team is sure it will pass.
“You’ve seen over the last several days Donald Trump holed up in the White House, consulting with people like Rudy Giuliani and hatching conspiracy theories about Venezuela and China,” said Bob Bauer, the Biden campaign’s top lawyer, “and you’ve seen President-elect Biden meeting on a bipartisan basis with governors, addressing the public health emergency, and acting like the president he is and the president he soon will be.”
But step outside of that theater, and the patina of normalcy fades quickly, replaced by the unsettling spectacle of a defeated president who is making increasingly bold attempts to hold onto power. Just a few hours’ drive away, at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, President Trump’s legal team, led by Giuliani, told a roomful of reporters on Thursday that “massive fraud” had taken place during the election, offering only a potpourri of conspiracy theories as evidence.
At one point, Giuliani suggested that long-deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was part of a conspiracy to make Trump lose. “President Trump won by a landslide,” declared Trump legal team member Sidney Powell. (In the real world, Trump lost by nearly 6 million votes.)
As the courts continue to rebuke them, the Trump team’s strategy now openly revolves around attempting to subvert the election results through the use of raw political power. The president summoned Michigan’s Republican leaders to the White House on Friday as his team floated the idea of getting GOP lawmakers in battleground states to steal the election by appointing their own slates of electors.
But even with this undemocratic maneuvering in the background, Biden has remained cautious in how he speaks about Trump.
“Let me choose my words,” Biden said on Thursday, pausing for a moment when asked by reporters to describe what Americans are seeing with the president’s refusal to concede. “I think they’re witnessing incredible irresponsibility.”
Despite Biden’s measured response, the resistance he faces from Trump is unprecedented in a country that has prized the peaceful transition of power for generations. There have been strained transitions in the past, for sure: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover clashed in 1932, leading to a stonily silent car ride to Roosevelt’s Inauguration at the Capitol. And George W. Bush and Al Gore duked it out in court when the election hung on Florida. But this one far surpasses that.
“I would just use the technical term ‘nuts,’ ” said Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, of the situation.
The federal government has so far denied Biden the nearly $10 million in funds provided to prepare the ground for an incoming administration, a gargantuan task which involves hiring more than 4,000 new employees and transferring a mountain of knowledge about the agencies to the newcomers. With no access to the information or money it needs, Biden’s transition team has found creative ways around their predicament, raising millions of dollars of their own and setting up their own meetings with drug makers and pharmacy chains to try to prepare for the massive coronavirus vaccine campaign it will have to lead in January.
On Friday, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris held a rare in-person meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, who journeyed to The Queen to plot out the Democratic agenda for next year. “In my Oval Office, me casa, you casa,” Biden joked. “I hope we’re going to spend a lot of time together.”
Biden, who only sees a handful of close aides in person due to the risk of COVID-19, has been sharply critical of Trump’s decision to deny him access to federal agencies to coordinate his pandemic response, warning that lives will be lost over the delay. But he has largely avoided dwelling on the president’s moves, instead focusing his public remarks and transition events on the economy and public health.
Many in the Democratic Party support that approach, believing it’s wise for Biden to largely ignore Trump’s amateurish bid to contest the election results. That’s led to a presidential split-screen contrast, where Biden is busily staffing his incoming administration and refining his COVID-19 response while Trump mopes in the White House.
“They’ve been smart to not overreact to the craziness of Trump,” said Mark Longabaugh, a Democratic strategist who advised Senator Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run. “They’ve been resolute, measured, and moving ahead with the transition.”
Taking a more vocal stance against Trump’s antics might serve only to bring more attention to an effort that seems doomed to fail anyway, Biden’s team says. States are continuing to certify their vote totals, and the Electoral College will vote on the final result Dec. 14, which would bring an end to the already incredibly small potential for Trump’s maneuverings to disrupt the results.
“While the president and his allies are ripping at the fabric of democracy any way they can, the fabric is not tearing,” Bauer told reporters on Friday. “It is holding firm.” He said there was no way for Trump to overturn the results by persuading GOP legislators: “Not possible, not legal, not constitutional, cannot happen.”
So far, Biden’s team also has declined to pursue legal action to force the Trump administration to acknowledge his win and give his transition team access to federal agencies, a suit that some legal experts say would be hard to win at this point.
But Biden’s “keep calm and carry on” strategy does not appeal to everyone. David Gergen, an adviser to several former presidents including Ronald Reagan, pointed out that Trump’s rhetoric could do lasting damage to Biden’s attempts to govern, and urged him and his team to deliver a stronger rebuttal to Trump.
“This is the first time I’ve seen an attempt to essentially bring down a president, to de-legitimize him before he takes the oath of office,” said Gergen. “It’s far more ominous. Biden needs to come to grips with it soon and he needs to have some people who are tougher.”
Biden, who ran on a promise of restoring bipartisan normalcy after the bare-knuckled partisanship of the Trump years, has not yet received much public support from congressional Republicans. Few have spoken out against Trump’s wild claims or acknowledged Biden’s victory.
But asked whether he was concerned that some Americans would not accept his win as legitimate due to Trump’s campaign to hold onto power, Biden said he wasn’t, citing a Reuters poll that showed 79 percent of Americans believed he won.
“I think most of the Republicans I’ve spoken to… think this is debilitating,” Biden said from the stage of The Queen on Thursday. “It sends a horrible message about who we are as a country.”