25 November 2020

The transition from Trump to Biden: the Argentinean model

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

The US melodrama continues and the two political families are now distributing their roles. The scene must be occupied also after January 20th 2021, so the Democrats and the Republicans are fighting to get their hands on the best speeches and utter them as loud as possible for both the enemy and the audience to hear them clearly. This is similar to all temporary situations, when they go from an administration to another, but there were never as many breaches of the constitutional scenario, established 250 years ago, as today, uncertainties were never this close, shadowing the result of the American electoral process. The main actor, the current president, Donald Trump, seems to be so used to this role he had for four years that his departure seems to him like treason for this show that he gave so much color lately. Talent as well, of course.

Image source: AP

As the play is developing, in this final improvisations-act, what can president Trump still do for his removal to be delayed, contested, postponed or, who knows, even refused, and for the entrance of Joe Biden for the final line, including the “So help me God” one, to be ignored due to the background noise?

A transition scenario full of fireworks - the Argentinean model

I do not know if you recall, but, in 2015, Argentina faced a similar situation. A country that had many populist presidents, which regularly have provoked collateral economic crises and regular wars with the IMF, had to say goodbye to its president, the one who already had two mandates, Mrs. Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, also known as CFK.

Because she could not longer run for president, Mrs. Kirchner appointed a right-wing ally candidate from her party, Daniel Scioli, but his electoral performance did not convince the Argentineans to continue to watch the “kirchnerist” melodrama, so they have chosen the mayor of Buenos Aires, Mauricio Macri, as president.

As she ended up frustrated due to the results - as the Kirchner family had three presidential mandates – Mrs. Cristina was hardly removed from the Casa Rosada, the headquarter of the Argentinean presidency, organizing different constitutional and juridical ambushes, making controversial economic decisions, appointing and removing chiefs of institutions, all to make the transition to the new president extremely difficult to handle.

Among the decisions she made weeks before the new president took office, Mrs. Kirchner, still Argentina’s president, signed a series of decrees for the transfer of funds from government’s treasurer’s office  to institutions outside the executive, creating problems for the new president when organizing the future budget.

A series of officials appointed by Mrs. Kirchner, who, traditionally, were resigning to offer the new president the possibility to install his new team, have refused to do so. For example, that was the case of the director of the Argentinean Central Bank.

During the discussions on the planning and development of the transition, the effective president did not offer the president elect the necessary information about the significant developing or signed contracts lately, like the one with China for the construction of two new nuclear facilities. That was just a small detail, worth of 15 billion dollars!

Mrs. Kirchner continued to name chiefs of institutions and ambassadors during the transition period, making it difficult for the new president to remove them after taking office. It was even harder for him to lay off ambassadors, as he could have faced foreign reactions.

The details of the inauguration ceremony did not stay undisputed either, pushing the new president to issue a ruling to state the hour the mandate of the former president ends and that the ceremony will be managed by the president-elect staff.

In the last day of her mandate, it was organized a popular manifestation and supporters were asked to demonstrate against the election of president Macri.

President Kirchner refused to participate at the inauguration ceremony of her successor, being the first Argentinean president, since 1983, who did not officially handed over the sign of power, a presidential scepter made of wood, especially created for the occasion.

The icing on the cake was Cristina Kirchner’s refusal to transfer the date allowing the use of the official Twitter account of the Argentinean presidency.

During all this time, president Kirchner claimed that foreign forces are behind the election of Mauricio Macri, and the “agents” behind it being the US, as the “Kirchner dynasty” is, in terms of ideological and political orientation, similar to the left-wing presidents from Latin America.

“Learned lessons” and a “bad dog” at the White House

Thus, can the Trump Administration follow the “Argentinean model”? Of course, the current US president is creative enough to ignore the advices coming from outside the equator, but the paths followed before by others are the safest.

The first lesson is that of the possible new collaborators of the new Administration who think they can quickly start working, plan, develop strategies, and then they realize they are, at some point, forbidden the access to offices and funds, through an institutional veto.

The chief of the federal services administration, an administrative vetting structure, like RAPPS, which decides who and how can the federal structures resources be used, Mrs. Emily Webster Murphy, a new-generation Republican, has said “Niet” when the Biden team asked to access to resources necessary in the transition period.

Mrs. Murphy has previously made some controversial decisions as well, including in front of the Congress, so she will be looking out for a job starting with 2021. For now, the Biden team has been delayed.

The White House gate stays closed, with a visible “Warning. Bad Dog on Duty” sign.

Another lesson the Trump Administration is teaching even more seriously than the Argentinean teacher is the prohibition of contacts between different departments and federal agencies and awaiting representatives of the Biden Administration. The Argentinean ministers have ignored the call of Mrs. Kirchner and organized meetings with their successors. The American state secretaries of the current Trump Administration are not, because, as Mike Pompeo was saying: “there is no need for that. There will be a smooth transition from the Trump Administration to the Trump Administration”.

But maybe the Biden team and the democratic camp are also learning something from the Argentine experience. There is almost a consensus among political analysts who viewed the political scene in Buenos Aires that Cristina Kirchner's frond and refusal gestures were a plan for preparing the ground for a return to the political scene with a new term. The Argentine constitution, like the American one, does not forbid this. It is true that in the USA only once this was tried successfully, in the 19th century, otherwise the other attempts, and they were extremely few, have failed. It is the political common law and the public perception that accepts, as a principle, a single presence at the top of American policies, for a term or two. And that’s it.

But Trump has come up with a new way of doing politics, and based on the number of people who voted for him, it's a way that appeals to substantial parts of the American electorate.

If the Democrats learn the lesson, we will witness the Argentine model. Cristina Kirchner tried to return, she did it to a certain level, being elected senator in 2017, but her candidacy for the presidency of Argentina, in 2019, did not seem a winning lottery card for the political alliance she had previously led. The problems with the law, the accusations of corruption hung heavy. And yet, now she is vice president of the country. Only vice president.

Only vice president? Unacceptable for someone who has been to the West wing. That's why Trump's plan is to run again for president in 2024. If, in the meantime, at least some of the accusations for presidents to answer to Congress prove true, he could also get in Cristina Kirchner’ shoes, a something the American Republicans do not want.

But for now, the party Trump returned to quite recently (in 2012, between 2009 and 2011 being even a member of the Democratic Party, woops!), after about five different affiliations, seems to support him unconditionally. The most plausible explanation is found in the record number of those who voted with the effective president, which gives it undeniable legitimacy among Republicans.

But four years is more than an election campaign and no one knows what can happen.

That's why President Trump is trying to make Biden's mission as difficult as possible. He is doing that in the security field as well. The changes at the Pentagon aim, as we would say, those of us who keep our eyes on American democracy, at a "politicization" of the body that has tried to remain, including in this administration, out of political interferences. And decisions such as to withdraw forces from various theaters of operations will be difficult to fix once the process is underway.

Public actions to challenge Biden's victory are already underway, with MAGA (Make America Great Again) marches being just one form of protest.

The problem is that, although 48% of the electorate voted for Trump, 80% still believes that Biden won. This makes it almost impossible for Trump's mission to challenge the election result to actually work. And it could have negative effects, including on his plans to maintain broad legitimacy for a new term.

Will Trump admit defeat? He will not do it not directly, but in a way that conveys to his supporters that, for the good of the country, he overcomes the "illegality" of the majority vote obtained by his opponent. In Argentina, President Kirchner has admitted that her party's favorite lost and left the presidential residence. Until January 20, Trump is not even obliged to do so.

Will President Trump attend Biden's installation ceremony? Probably yes. His absence would be a blow to the spectacle and legitimacy of the American election.

But this ceremony, organized to that to embrace the future, the four years of a new administration, may be disturbed by the manifestations of the Republicans’ supported who are starting to mark the four years that have passed as well as the four years the effective unelected president from the White House is dreaming of.

If the US politics is a show, Trump definitely wants to make sure he has the stage.

The last information shows that Trump seems to have understood that he needs to make a compromise, at least a symbolic one, so, through a Twitter message, he asked Mrs. Murphy, the chief of the federal services administration, to start the collaboration with the Biden team. In fact, he recommended her to do that; Emily knows best what she has to do. In fact, he is not accepting the defeat, his messages suggesting that he will continue to challenge the results.

Because I have talked about the “Argentinean model”, another learned lesson used in the la Plata estuary: president Kirchner has refused to send her successor the access data for the presidency’s Twitter account. Trump will not have to do that, because his personal account is the actual virtual Oval Office he will use after January 20th 2020, no doubt.

Translated by Andreea Soare