The Electoral College votes on December 14, 2020. Until that day, there is formally no president-elect. Traditionally, when an election’s outcome is not disputed and the losing candidate has conceded, the winner on Election Day is treated as the president-elect well before then. That includes receiving daily intelligence briefings and being granted the designation as president-elect by the General Services Administration to begin conducting an official transition.
Nothing is normal or uncontested in 2020. But it now seems all but certain that the initial state vote counts will conclude with Joe Biden having enough votes in enough states to claim well over the required 270 electoral votes. Donald Trump contests the legitimacy of these vote totals, but even taking the view most favorable to the president’s position, it would require an event unprecedented in American history to overturn them. As a matter of simple prudence, it is wise for everyone to plan as if Biden has a significant likelihood of being inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States at noon on January 20, 2021.
The most essential step to plan for that possibility is to begin giving Biden daily intelligence briefings, so he can be up-to-speed and ready to assume the role of commander in chief on January 20. There is precedent for this. In 2000, as the recount dragged on, the Clinton administration resisted treating George W. Bush as president-elect. Al Gore, then the vice president, was already receiving regular intelligence briefings. In early December — a month after the election, but a week before the Supreme Court brought the legal challenges to an end — the Clinton administration relented and began giving Bush the regular briefings being received by Gore and Bill Clinton. This was not a concession of the recount fight, but a responsible, if belated, recognition of reality. The 9/11 Commission later noted that the delayed transition as a whole “hampered the new administration in identifying, recruiting, clearing, and obtaining Senate confirmation of key appointees.”
The president undoubtedly fears any public step that may confer legitimacy on a Biden victory, and there are valid reasons that Trump is still bitter at the use of the transition period in 2016 to set in motion investigations that would hamper his own presidency for years. But giving Biden daily intelligence briefings does not require him to admit defeat. Moreover, from a standpoint of raw politics, it would be wise for Trump to avoid giving Biden any excuse to blame his own later failures on a delayed transition. More importantly, the national security of the United States requires the commander in chief to sometimes rise above his personal grievances. This is one of those times.