In July, when Trump was asked if he’d accept the results of the election, he replied, “I’ll have to see,” then added, “I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election.” A few months later, from the podium in the East Room, Trump declared, “There won’t be a transfer; frankly, there’ll be a continuation.” Still, Liddell kept the train on the tracks.
By law, the sitting White House chief of staff, Meadows, and the transition chairman, Kaufman, were required to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding.” Fat chance, thought Kaufman. But he sent a draft to the West Wing anyway. “I figured that’s never going to happen,” he said. “This is totally against Trump’s interests. He’d kill people if he found out it happened.”
And yet, on September 30, Kaufman’s fax machine suddenly clanked to life and back came the memorandum—signed by Meadows. Trump’s chief of staff almost certainly never told his boss. “I have it here as one of my prized possessions,” Kaufman, who saved the memo, told me. “I never in a million years thought Meadows would sign it.”
November 3, 2020, Election Day, seemed remarkable for its lack of drama. Despite the pandemic—and predictions of outside meddling, chaos at the polls, and confusion over mail-in ballots—voting had been a model of fairness and efficiency. Though the final results weren’t immediately clear, Biden would win decisively: 306 to 232 in the Electoral College, and by a margin of seven million in the popular vote. But Trump, defying his closest advisers, declared himself the winner, and the victim of a grand conspiracy. The real drama was yet to come.
Traditionally, the day after a presidential election, the GSA anoints the apparent winner. The act, known as ascertainment, not only formally acknowledges the victor; it also makes available to the incoming administration office space, funding, access to federal agencies, intelligence briefings, and other vital governing infrastructure. But in a startling break with precedent, the GSA administrator, Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, refused to ascertain Biden’s victory.
This was no idle act. “Ascertainment is not a ceremonial process,” explained Mary Gibert. “It has potential life and death implications.” The Biden team was furious. Between the election and inauguration, they had just 78 days to ramp up their administration. They’d recruited 500 volunteers to visit every federal agency and report back on who was doing what. Now they were sitting on their hands.
Biden’s contingent had prepared for almost any eventuality. “We had 600 lawyers working long, long hours, producing thousands of pages of memos for all sorts of stuff,” said Bob Bauer, the campaign senior legal adviser. “This was a genuine national security issue: The fact that the president-elect of the United States would be denied access to the tools and the resources for an effective transition was literally, directly, every day, harmful to the country—and in the middle of a public health crisis.” Bauer and his team were prepared to sue Murphy and the GSA. But after a spirited debate, the campaign decided to stand down.
A few days later, Liddell called his confidants Marchick and Bolten. “Remember that dinner we had where we talked about ‘the nightmare scenario’?” Liddell asked. “That’s what we have.” The nightmare scenario was Trump losing the election, but not by enough to convince him that he’d lost. Marchick explained: “Clearly, Liddell was in meetings in the White House where Trump said, ‘We’re going to fight this and we’re going to overturn it.’” Marchick feared Liddell was near the end of his rope. “He thought about quitting many times—and we’d say, ‘Hey, you can’t quit.’”
Kaufman, Klain, and company were, in effect, designing an airplane in mid-flight. Barred by Trump from access to the agencies, they set up a “shadow agency” process, compiling lists of former officials—and tapped their expertise. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to call the Senate back in session—so they interviewed, vetted, and hired officials who didn’t require confirmation. “This was the Biden transition’s innovation,” explained Marchick. “They lined up thousands to go into the government in these non-confirmed positions so they could staff the government on Day One. They did 8,000 interviews in order to place 1,100.”
Finally, on November 23, GSA administrator Murphy declared Biden the winner. But the foot-dragging had been costly. Every day Biden’s team couldn’t access information about Trump’s vaccination program meant delays in getting shots into people’s arms. Every day Biden’s team was denied intelligence briefings meant less time to prepare for potential foreign crises. On January 20 at noon, all CIA covert operations ordered by Trump would immediately belong to Biden. During previous transitions, the major party nominees would receive the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) after their party conventions. Biden and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, didn’t get their first intelligence briefing until November 30.
Meanwhile, Trump, to many observers, appeared intent on staging a coup. He’d replaced the secretary of defense and reportedly installed apparatchiks in high places at the CIA. Some worried that he might start a war with Iran as a pretext to stay in power. In response, Liz Cheney, the Wyoming congresswoman, corralled every living former defense secretary, including her father, Dick Cheney, into signing a letter exhorting the military to follow the Constitution. And General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was preparing emergency contingencies. He suspected Trump might stage a domestic crisis to seize power—a favorite ploy of autocrats who want to stay in office by exploiting voters’ fears. In the event of an illegal presidential order, Milley and other top Pentagon officials reportedly made a secret pact to resign, one after another.
To avoid the appearance of a power grab, Biden’s camp didn’t speak directly with Milley. Instead, they communicated through an intermediary, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I asked Ted Kaufman if the speaker kept the president-elect informed of Milley’s contingency planning. “Oh, sure,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Outwardly, the Biden team projected equanimity. As Klain explained, “Our whole thing was basically a legal strategy to shut this down in the courts—and a political strategy based on the idea that we won, so we were going to act like we won. We played this out a step at a time: to first get the vote confirmed by the media, to build a sense of inevitability around that, to finally get the GSA to certify us.” An adviser to the Biden transition put it this way: “We don’t need to send up fighter jets to force Air Force One down. Let’s just let Trump throw his fit, pursue his legal theories. It’ll all fail and he’ll run short of fuel and come down for a landing.”
As far as Chris Liddell knew, January 6, 2021, promised to be a quiet day. Biden’s victory was to be certified by Vice President Mike Pence in a routine count of electoral votes at the U.S. Capitol. Liddell, who was doing his best to stay inconspicuous, could hardly wait. “I woke up in the morning in a good mood, thinking: Finally, we’re going to get some resolution,” he said. “The vote’s going to happen.” Liddell looked at the president’s schedule and noticed a rally on the Washington Ellipse at noon. But he thought little of it. His focus was on the 14 days between then and the inauguration.
Biden legal adviser Bob Bauer was on edge. The truth was that democracy hung by a thread. Bauer’s team had spent months preparing for this day—and for all the things that could go wrong. Legal scholars agreed that Pence’s role in the certification procedure was purely ceremonial. But that didn’t mean that the vice president couldn’t plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.
One option was for Pence to delay the certification. That was the goal of Trump’s lawyer John Eastman, Giuliani, and their co-conspirators. A delayed certification could give states an opportunity to try to replace slates of Biden electors with new ones pledged to Trump. Another option was to declare some Biden slates invalid, thereby denying him the required minimum: 270 votes. This would throw the whole process into the House or Representatives. Under the law, in the House’s election of a president, each state delegation would have one vote. And since Republicans in the 2021 House were the majority party in 26 states, Trump would have almost certainly prevailed.
If Pence tried to do Trump’s extra-legal bidding, Bauer and his team were poised to file for an injunction. The issue would probably wind up in the Supreme Court, now stacked with three Trump-appointed justices. Yet Bauer believed Biden had the upper hand. “If Pence had gone completely rogue, I think we had a very good chance of stopping it,” he told me. “I thought Trump and his legal team, such as it was, would be crazy to imagine that the court would somehow save him in these circumstances.”