A drawn-out legal fight by President Donald Trump that triggers recounts of ballots in several US states could hold up many vital transition-related activities, as happened in 2000, when George W. Bush wasn't declared the victor until five weeks after the election.
"A long legal battle would delay the transition, and that could be dangerous on the foreign policy front," said one Republican congressional source. "The world isn't standing still while we're all focused on the election."
With Democrat Biden having secured enough electoral votes to claim the presidency, there is concern that norm-breaker Trump could limit cooperation and make the typically staid process a messy affair. On Saturday after major television networks called the election for Biden, Trump accused his rival of "rushing to falsely pose as the winner" but he did not provide evidence of anything inappropriate.
Foreign diplomats and other observers are girding for possible abrupt policy moves by the Republican president between now and Jan. 20 inauguration day - from trade decisions to troop withdrawals to presidential pardons - that could undercut the incoming administration when it will need to grapple quickly with the coronavirus pandemic and concurrent economic crisis.
"We worry about the unpredictable," said a government official of a US ally in Washington. "This kind of infighting is bad for America’s credibility."
The Presidential Transition Act, first passed in 1964, gives career civil servants significant power over the transfer of data and expertise to incoming officials, an arrangement meant to limit the risk of politicization.
Biden's aides will watch closely for any sign of Trump or his loyalists taking action on domestic or foreign policy to sabotage the new president before he assumes office, according to a person close to Biden’s camp. There had been no sign so far of any drastic moves planned.
The Biden campaign had no immediate comment.
It is also unclear whether Trump, who has refused to concede defeat, will abide by historic protocol and meet personally with his successor, as President Barack Obama did with Trump shortly after the 2016 election.
The transition process cannot shift into high gear until the government's General Services Administration (GSA) certifies the winner, and it said on Saturday it had not yet made a determination. Until then, the GSA can continue providing Biden's team with offices, computers and background checks for security clearances, but they cannot yet enter federal agencies.
The Biden transition website - buildbackbetter.com - went live on Wednesday and even after declarations of his victory there was just a single page and no explanation of plans.
Jordan Strauss, a former White House official and now managing director of business intelligence at Kroll, a division of Duff & Phelps financial consultancy, said some 200 Biden people had been working for months to craft plans for the new administration.
Biden is expected to deploy hundreds of representatives across dozens of agencies in coming weeks to lay the groundwork for him to replace more than 4,000 Trump political appointees, the nucleus of a federal bureaucracy that controls an annual budget of more than $4.5 trillion.
COOPERATION IS KEY
White House officials say they are abiding by statutory requirements but declined to provide details.
Since Trump took office, he has openly attacked civil servants and Democrats and it remains to be seen whether his outgoing administration maintains that tone in its final weeks.
Incumbent officials have leeway over how helpful they want to be, people involved in previous transitions said.
In 2016, then-President Obama directed his staff to "be professional" and cooperate with Trump's team. But turnover on Trump's transition staff and a reluctance to take materials prepared by Obama's aides marred the effort, multiple sources involved in the process said.
Political scientist Martha Joynt Kumar, author of a 2015 book on White House transitions, was upbeat about the resilience of the process this time. Trump officials so far have adhered to rules such as facilitating security clearances, Kumar said.
Chris Liddell, White House deputy chief of staff, and others involved in the transition, take their reputations seriously, she said, and a peaceful transfer of power remains a central tenet of the US system.
"To what extent are people going to want to participate at the end of the administration in blowing up relationships and institutions?" Kumar asked.
Biden's team is headed by Ted Kaufman, a longtime adviser appointed to fill out his term in the Senate after he was elected as Obama's vice president in 2008.
The legal framework, however, can't avert potential acrimony between the transition teams or prevent Trump from issuing executive orders and rules that Biden might oppose.
Kate Shaw and Michael Herz, law professors at Yeshiva University in New York, said the participation of career officials should limit the damage, but the handoff of intelligence and security data remains a concern since briefings are overseen by the director of national intelligence, John Ratcliffe, a Trump loyalist.Shaw and Herz wrote in an essay in The Atlantic: "Plenty of things could still go wrong before noon on January 20."