Democratic congressional leaders warned that President Trump’s stonewalling is already doing damage to the country’s ability to deal with foreign leaders — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. made his first contacts on unsecured telephone lines — and plans for how to handle the most high-risk period in the spread of the coronavirus and bolster the economic recovery.
“It is most unfortunate that the Republicans have decided that they will not respect the will of the people, and let me just say: It’s like the house is burning down and they just refused to throw water on it,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said.
Mr. Biden’s decades of experience in Washington will likely soften those consequences, the Democrats said.
Deprived of access to secure government communications by the Trump administration, Mr. Biden’s team of more than 500 former officials and outside experts has embraced workarounds, talking over encrypted apps like Signal to shield their conversations from the Chinese, meeting in outdoor coffee shops with government officials they once worked alongside. The conversations are circumspect, both because of rules on both sides limiting how much information Mr. Biden’s team can seek and how much executive branch officials are allowed to say, participants said.
Mr. Biden was forced to use open lines when foreign leaders call to congratulate him, as the Japanese prime minister and South Korean president did on Wednesday. With Mr. Trump unwilling to recognize the election result and authorize the “ascertainment” that allows formal transition to begin, the White House Communications Agency is forbidden to run secure lines to Mr. Biden’s house in Delaware.
It may be weeks until Mr. Biden’s so-called agency review teams, made up of longtime government officials with deep roots in the bureaucracy, are let into the government departments that a Biden administration will run starting at noon on Jan. 20. Some issues can wait until a formal ascertainment is declared, giving them access to the offices and classified material.
Mr. Biden’s aides say they have been warned not to get into detailed conversations with government officials, even career officials, until they receive the formal approval that transition has begun. But there is no prohibition on talking with officials who worked for the Trump administration and left. And many informal conversations between former political officials and those career government officials who stayed on have been going on for four years — and never really stopped.
The last remaining arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, called New START, expires days after the inauguration. Mr. Biden has expressed a willingness to renew it, but his national security staff has had no access to the detailed discussions between the national security adviser, Robert C. O’Brien, and his Kremlin counterpart, or a team of State Department negotiators who have dealt with Russia on questions like inspections and verification.
In many ways, what is happening now, officials said, is a reverse of four years ago — when President Barack Obama’s team was ready with detailed briefings and simulations of potential crises (including a pandemic flu), and Mr. Trump’s advisers were unwilling to receive them.
Now, Mr. Biden has loaded his transition team with many of the same officials who were ready to brief the Trump appointees.