Transitions

Transitions

By

Leonard Zwelling

It is said that the only person who likes change is an infant with a wet diaper. Yet change is inevitable. Even had Mr. Trump won the 2020 presidential race, it was likely that many people in leadership roles in his Cabinet and throughout the executive branch would turnover. It happens every four years. Thus, the current members of the Trump Administration should have already been planning for change and the fact that Mr. Biden won should not really affect what happens at the various agencies between November 3 and January 20. Shouldn’t. But yet…

It is quite clear that each agency, as well as Republican members of Congress, is taking its cues from the president, as both the executive and legislative branches have for the past four years, and each is seeking to obstruct the difficult work of a transition from the old to the new. Perhaps no one is better positioned to withstand this attack on normalcy than Joe Biden given his deep experience on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, but, nonetheless, it is an embarrassment to the country not to have the Trump people cooperating with the Biden people in the delicate handoff as soon as Biden’s victory was sure (like November 7). At least the transition has begun finally.

I have been on both ends of handoffs like these. They are difficult. Invariably, when taking over a new position, you are dealing with people who resent your new authority. When leaving, it is you who feel aggrieved. Either way, grace and modesty demand that the transition be smooth and as few loose ends as possible be left for the new crew to tighten. It never works out that way, but that’s the good news. The new people can blame the old people for everything that isn’t working for the initial six months or so. Then it all belongs to the new folks.

This actually saved me as a new Associate VP when the FDA hit MD Anderson with a warning letter for the behavior of a faculty member during the first six months of my tenure. Most of the bad stuff had occurred on the last guy’s watch (even if he never knew about it), but I got the benefit of the doubt from the FDA during a heated face-to-face meeting with its leadership in Bethesda at which I was castigated, but MD Anderson was spared being shut down from performing clinical research. I think my newness gained me some sympathy. At least I like to think it was my naiveté as well as my short tenure that saved me. It wasn’t my administrative ability which was virtually nil at that point.

It is, however, unconscionable that Mr. Trump insists that he won the election and block the General Services Administration (GSA) from declaring Mr. Biden the likely winner, which would free up important government resources for the in-coming administration and allow Trump to gracefully step away as has finally occurred. Instead Mr. Trump and his minions were trying to lock in the changes they have made (Israel, Iran, the Senate) and inhibit the Biden team from hitting the ground running. Biden, to his credit, is largely ignoring Trump and moving expeditiously to name his Cabinet and staff.

It is hard to be the out-going guy. You had all of this power and then—in a flash—it was gone. One can make the transition with grace as most presidents have done over the years, but not Donald Trump. Even in his leaving he will break the mold of presidential decorum and societal norms to throw a tantrum and make everyone around him miserable.

The only really just reward for Mr. Trump would be to be forgotten. I am sure he will fight like the dickens to stay relevant, but I am not sure how he can, nor am I sure that the younger members of the GOP will tolerate this. The line of future presidential pretenders on the Republican side is long and nothing Mr. Trump does will make his path back to the White House an easy one at his age.

Mr. Trump would be better off starting a new reality TV show or maybe a game show, Over the Hill. He could even start his own network to try to wreak vengeance on Fox for calling Arizona early. Who is to know?

Change is difficult for everyone. When you are one of the players you can shuffle off as I did in 2004 when I stopped overseeing clinical research as my unpopularity had risen to new heights or you can do it Trump’s way. I think I did it better than he is doing. It’s never easy, but how you do it is part of your legacy. For sure Trump will be remembered for how he lost and how he left.

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