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Mass firings, frozen funding, and midnight rules: Inside the Democrats' operation to fight back against Trump going scorched-earth in a Biden transition

  • President Donald Trump's critics are preparing for a scenario in which he loses to Joe Biden and deploys a scorched-earth strategy to tarnish the transition.
  • Democrats are worried Trump will fire thousands of federal employees, hold up cash that the Biden team is supposed to get, destroy documents, and issue a spate of last-minute rules that would be a headache for the next administration to unravel.
  • "They can wreak a lot of havoc on their way out the door," said Beth Noveck, a professor at New York University and former US deputy chief technology officer in the Obama White House.
  • To prepare, Democrats are raising cash to bolster a Biden transition, introducing legislation to thwart the Republican president, and bracing themselves to circumvent the administration if officials don't cooperate.
  • Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor and ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told Democrats on a recent Zoom call that if Trump doesn't release funds for the transition, his allies will make sure that there's enough private money to run the government handover, according to a person on the call.
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Democrats are gaming out worst-case scenarios in which President Donald Trump loses the November election and deploys a scorched-earth strategy on his way out the door that significantly harms Joe Biden's ability to start governing immediately on Inauguration Day, Insider has learned.

They're plowing cash into Biden's transition effort, teeing up legislation to thwart the president's policies, and preparing to block or unravel last-minute rules he rolls out.

They aren't just being paranoid either.

Trump has already signed a controversial executive order that could lead to government-employee purges. He's begun moving the regulatory machinery that would allow him to sell off oil drilling leases in Alaska wilderness. And his repeated insistence that the November election will be rigged against him has Democrats concerned he'll withhold millions of dollars in federal funding for a Biden transition.

"Obviously the big hope is that it's a really significant [Biden] win … so that there's just no meaningful way that Trump can claim fraud or tie it up in the courts or something like that. That's our perfect world," said Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia Democrat who worked on President-elect Barack Obama's 2008 transition team.

Behind the scenes, Trump officials have been meeting legal deadlines for a possible Trump-to-Biden transition. They've been meeting to discuss their handover plans and beefing up staff to do background checks for a new president-elect's team, according to government documents.

But Trump's campaign-trail rhetoric and a new executive order targeting government workers has his critics worried that a lame-duck president who's known for shattering political norms won't be so cooperative. 

"They ask me, 'If you lose, will there be a friendly transition?' Well, when I won, did they give me a friendly transition? They spied on my campaign; they did all this stuff. That was not a friendly transition," Trump said Saturday at a speech in Ohio.

Fears of frozen transition funds

A White House spokesman told Insider in a statement Tuesday that the administration "will follow all statutory requirements."

But there remain big worries among Biden's allies. One of them: Trump won't release federal funding for the transition, even if he's legally required to do so.

If there's a "legitimate, convincing Biden win, the immediate concern is, 'Will Trump release the transition funds?' Beyer said.

That possibility came up during a Zoom call with Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic powerhouse who has served as Virginia's governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee. According to Beyer, McAuliffe told participants on the call, "If Trump doesn't release it, we'll make sure that there's enough private money there to run the transition.'"

Beyer said he cut the Biden transition team a check for $5,000. The outside fundraising has historically been "to supplement what came from the federal government," Beyer said. But Democrats are preparing for an event in which that federal cash doesn't come in time.

The Biden transition team is expected to receive about $6.3 million from the federal government if he beats Trump in November, according to government transition documents. That money would be released if and when Emily Murphy, the Trump-appointed director of the General Services Administration, determines that Biden has won.

But the money could be stalled if the results are delayed or legal challenges are playing out. Democrats are thinking about all those scenarios, and want to make sure Biden's coffers are stocked, regardless.

In the event that it takes a while for transition cash to be released to Biden's team, it appears that they could be reimbursed. After the drawn-out 2000 presidential election, the Justice Department issued a memo saying that the George W. Bush transition team could be reimbursed for expenses between the November 7 election that year and December 14, the date that GSA officially learned that Bush had beaten Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore.  

Purging Fauci and climate scientists?

Trump sent shockwaves through the federal government last week when he signed a broad executive order that makes it easier to fire government employees shielded by civil-service protections.

Democrats in Congress are already working to block the order. Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat who leads a federal workforce oversight subcommittee, is spearheading legislation to thwart the president.

"If put into effect, this EO could allow partisan loyalists, and not experienced scientists, to make decisions on when a vaccine should be released to the public. It could empower political appointees and not vetted climate scientists to determine where to send resources to fortify communities in need of protections against raging fires and hurricanes. It must be stopped," Connolly told Insider.

Trump's move could affect somewhere between tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of civil servants, government experts say, depending on how the administration defines certain "policy-determining" jobs that are affected. The White House says it will boost government flexibility and help to fire "poorly performing employees." 

The order was widely seen as the president setting himself up to weed out some of his critics within the federal government if he wins a second term. It was also a victory for conservatives who have long demonized what they view as a "deep state" in the federal government.

Anthony Fauci, a career civil servant who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and has frequently sparred with Trump over the coronavirus response, has been frequently cited as one possible target of the president's order.

Experts are still parsing the language of the new directive, but some are worried Trump might try to use it to oust veteran government workers before the inauguration if Biden wins.

"They can wreak a lot of havoc on their way out the door," said Beth Noveck, a professor at New York University and former US deputy chief technology officer in the Obama White House. 

There's a 90-day deadline in the executive order for agencies to review which jobs might be on the chopping block. That deadline falls on January 19, the day before the presidential inauguration. But some government experts are skeptical that the clunky federal bureaucracy could move quickly enough for Trump to enact a large-scale firing spree as he leaves.

Federal employees throughout the government have been freaking out since the order was issued.

"Right now, with everything else going on, this really sucks for people," a career scientist at the US Environmental Protection Agency told Insider.

That person warned that officials at regulatory agencies like EPA, the Interior Department, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Agriculture Department were likely to be hit the hardest.

The move could increase political pressure on officials like those who determine whether species should be listed under the Endangered Species Act, or deciding whether chemicals are safe or carcinogenic, the EPA scientist said. "That's not how it should go."

Biden could wipe out Trump's executive order on day one if he's the next president. But reversing any changes would take time and resources his team would rather spend elsewhere. The Biden campaign did not respond to a request for comment about whether Biden would rescind the order.

If Biden doesn't ax the Trump order, he would have more power to fire government employees, including any Trump political appointees who have "burrowed" into the federal government by converting from political appointments to civil service. Such a practice has been common in past administrations.

"It's a loaded gun he's putting on the table," said Bill Wiley, former chief counsel to the chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, an agency set up to safeguard civil servants' rights.

Last-minute oil leases, regs

On the policy front, there are a host of last-minute moves Trump could make that could complicate life for a Biden team.

Every outgoing presidential administration unleashes regulations known as "midnight rules" to complete policy priorities before they leave the White House. The Trump team is expected to be no different on that front. 

"There's still a lot going on," said James Goodwin, a senior policy analyst at the rule-tracking group Center for Progressive Reform. He expects the administration to hustle to complete EPA rules to limit ozone and fine particle air pollution before Inauguration Day, for example. He doesn't think the Trump rules are strong enough to protect public health.

Trump's critics are also expecting his administration to try to complete oil and gas lease sales of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska during a lame-duck session, if Biden is elected.

"If the administration is able to get over the legal hurdles and legal challenges, I think there's no question they'll try to rush ahead with a lease sale," said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Interior Department official during the Obama administration.

Selling those leases has been a top priority for Alaska lawmakers and for Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. Biden said on the campaign trail that he's "completely, totally opposed" to drilling in the high-profile refuge that's been at the center of a decades-long fight over energy development and environmental preservation. 

Other possible scenarios Democrats say they're worried about: another government shutdown, in December, if Trump loses and doesn't want to play ball with Congress on funding; a lame-duck military escalation somewhere in the world; or the Trump team breaking the law by destroying documents before they go.

Despite their concerns, many Democrats and good-government advocates say they're optimistic that the transition system will hold up. 

"There are safeguards in place and there is an Inauguration Day," said Laura Hatalsky, managing director of policy and research for the nonprofit Hub Project and a former Democratic Senate aide.

"And whether or not Trump likes it, there is no sore-loser exemption to the Constitution." 

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