Inside The Last-Minute Policy Shifts Of The Trump Administration

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President Donald Trump walks to speak with reporters before boarding Air Force One upon departure, Tuesday, Jan. 12, at Andrews Air Force Base. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump walks to speak with reporters before boarding Air Force One upon departure, Tuesday, Jan. 12, at Andrews Air Force Base. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In its final days of power, the Trump administration is making last minute policy changes on the environment, foreign policy and national security. How will these moves influence the first weeks of the Biden administration?


Karen DeYoung, senior national security correspondent and associate editor for the Washington Post. (@karendeyoung1)

Leon Panetta, former Secretary of Defense. Former director of the CIA. White House chief of staff under President Clinton from 1994 to 1997.

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Abdallah Fayyad, opinion writer and editorial board member at the Boston Globe. (@abdallah_fayyad)

Matt Mendelsohn, portrait photographer.

Interview Highlights

Do you think last-minute policy shifts by the Trump administration might hamper the Biden administration in its first days and weeks?

Leon Panetta: “I don't think there's any question that the combination of having a very poor transition where little information was provided to the new administration, and little guidance with regards to any of the policy changes that the administration was enacting, combined with last minute changes that are out there, and placement of individuals in places that really don't make a lot of sense other than to kind of place the Trump stamp on some of these agencies for a period of time, making them career people, as opposed to allowing them to move on. I think it's going to be difficult for the Biden administration to find out where all the bodies are buried.”

But is there too much concern being laid here?

Leon Panetta: “There's no question that one thing Joe Biden has done is appointed people who are experienced, and qualified and have been there; understand the departments in the agencies that they're going into, and understand what the policy should be. But the problem is this. You're walking into these departments. You've got to find out just exactly what policies have been changed, what policies have been put into place, what personnel are buried where.

"And that's going to take some time. And it doesn't mean that you can't walk and chew gum at the same time, but it does mean that you're going to be devoting time to trying to figure out just exactly what the hell is going on. And that's going to create a gap between your ability to do that, and at the same time enact new policies for the new administration.”

Is there any parallel to changes made in the transitional period in administrations that you previously worked for?

Leon Panetta: “The changes that sometimes have been made, obviously, are to try to place personnel who have been friendly to that particular administration, to be able to give them jobs that will give them some security in the future. And that's been pretty common, frankly, whether it's a Democratic administration or a Republican administration.

"The bigger challenge is whether in enacting new policies, have they buried issues that are going to explode on you within the first few months? That's the area that concerns me the most. I've seen some of that. Where an administration will directly place some policy issues into gear that are not going to take effect until about a month or two months into a new administration. And essentially plant land mines in a new administration that they're going to have to deal with."

What do you make of what we know that the Trump administration has already done in terms of foreign policy in these last few days?

Leon Panetta: “The obvious ones are ones that relate to Russia, and we're aware of what Russia has been doing using cyber-attacks. Probably the most, boldest cyber-attack against our country within the last few months. And yet very little was done to call out Russia on that. And if that's true, if this administration did very little to counter Russia, how much else was done by Russia that may have impacted our national security that we're not aware of? That's the one area that concerns me the most because of the strange relationship that Trump had with Putin, and the consequences of that. That we're going to have to find out — and have to deal with — the relationship with Russia.

"And that also applies, frankly, with China as well, in terms of statements that may have been made, particularly with regards to our trade relationship and sanctions, et cetera. … How tied are we to the policies that this administration put in place that's going to make it very difficult to begin to have any negotiations to try to resolve some of those issues with China? And, add to that Iran and North Korea and ISIS and dealing with terrorism. There are just a number of danger points out there in the world that this administration did not handle very well, that we're going to find additional mistakes that were made that have created security problems for our country.”

It was just a while ago that you and nine other former secretaries of defense wrote an open letter to the American people in the Washington Post saying that the military should not be involved in election disputes. But it turns out perhaps the military is not what we needed to worry about. What are your thoughts after the attack on the Capitol?

Leon Panetta: “I've been involved in public life over 50 years. I never in my life imagined that I would see a day when there would be an attack by our own citizens on the U.S. Capitol. And that they would lay siege to the Capitol and essentially halt our democracy from functioning. It told me how fragile our democracy truly is and how much in danger we are in terms of being able to hold our system of government together.

"The deep polarization in our society, the dysfunction in Washington, the inability to provide the security that was necessary for the Capitol. There's a degree of incompetence that we've seen in handling not just the COVID crisis, but in handling security, that makes you concerned about, again, whether or not our democracy can come together. Whether we can come together to truly ensure that we're able to deal with the challenges that we're facing in a very difficult time.”

Are you concerned for Joe Biden's safety?

Leon Panetta: “I believe we are dealing with serious domestic terrorism. We had to deal with foreign terrorism, we went to war against foreign terrorism after 9/11. I think the reality is the January 6th in many ways is a wake up call to make us understand that we are also dealing with serious domestic terrorism in the form of white supremacists, Nazis and groups of one kind or another that are willing to attack, and to kill and to undermine our democracy.

"And if that's true, what I'm saying is true, then I think the security of the president's security, the vice president, the security of people in Congress, senators and for that matter, the country, we have to be a hell of a lot more vigilant about our ability to deal with these kinds of concerns that make clear that our democracy remains very fragile. And if we don't react, if we don't take action to try to deal with this through arrests, and through security efforts by law enforcement, and the FBI and the police forces throughout the country, our democracy is not going to have the security essential to our freedom."

If you were to get on the phone with Biden right now, what advice would you give him?

Leon Panetta: “Reach out to the entire country and do what Trump never did. Which was, rather than dividing Americans, bring them together in the effort to try to deal with the large crises we're facing. Americans know that we're facing terrible crises. They want to see leadership from Washington. Joe Biden, I think, can provide that because he knows government and he knows what the country needs.”

From The Reading List

Washington Post: "Pompeo’s last-minute actions on foreign policy will complicate Biden’s plans for a new direction" — "While President Trump and many of his top aides seem to have left the nation’s business behind, largely disappearing from view in the days since Joe Biden’s election was formalized and Trump-inspired violence erupted, one corner of the administration has moved into overdrive."

Wall Street Journal: "Trump Weighs Many Pardons as Presidency Winds Down" — "President Trump is expected to issue as many as 100 pardons and commutations on his final day in office, but is leaning against some of the more controversial grants of clemency at the urging of his advisers, according to people familiar with the discussions."

New York Times: "N.S.A. Installs Trump Loyalist as Top Lawyer Days Before Biden Takes Office" — "The National Security Agency is moving forward with hiring a Trump administration loyalist, the agency said on Sunday, after the acting defense secretary ordered he be made the spy agency’s top lawyer."

Foreign Policy: "Trump Team Makes Last-Minute Moves to Box In Biden on Foreign Policy" — "In its final days of power, the Trump administration is launching a slew of major last-minute policy changes aimed at cementing its legacy and boxing in the incoming Biden administration on issues including China and Taiwan, Cuba, and the war in Yemen."

Boston Globe: "Biden must champion a new Civil Rights Act" — "Throughout the tumultuous years of the Trump administration — throughout the controversies, the investigations, the impeachments — there has always been at least one constant: a determination to dramatically roll back civil rights."

PBS NewsHour: "This week in the White House: Trump’s final days, pardons, Biden’s first exec. actions" — "President Donald Trump spent his final weekend in office in the White House. Reports are that he plans to leave Washington D.C. on Wednesday morning, just hours before President-elect Joe Biden takes office."

ProPublica: "Tracking the Trump Administration’s 'Midnight Regulations'" — "Even as President Donald Trump refuses to concede defeat, his White House and executive agencies are racing to finalize his policy priorities before President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20."

This program aired on January 19, 2021.


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