The United States recently completed its 59th presidential election. We have never postponed one, even in times of war or depression. A few weeks ago we witnessed the 25th transfer of power. The departing president was of one political party, the incoming president of another party.
Leadership transitions can be, aside from war, the most trying time for any nation — and there are many nations that have a sad, if not dismal, record in this regard. Part of the notion of American exceptionalism is that we have conducted reasonably fair elections and that we can peacefully transfer power in response to election results.
The 2021 transfer of power, which eventually was “peaceful,” was the most contentious in U.S. history. We will come back to that after a brief look at history.
John Adams established the first peaceful transfer of power in 1801. Four years earlier, Adams had narrowly defeated Jefferson for the presidency. But in the 1800 election Adams was in turn defeated by Thomas Jefferson. The two men, who had once been friends, had become bitter rivals.
And on the day of Jefferson’s inauguration, March 4, 1801, Adams departed from Washington D.C. (the new capital) in the early hours of the morning, deliberately avoiding Jefferson’s inauguration later that day.
A few other presidents, such as Andrew Johnson, also refused to attend their successor’s inauguration. In 1837, however, Andrew Jackson and his successor, Martin Van Buren, began a respectful tradition by riding together to Van Buren’s inauguration. This custom has not always been practiced, as for example, in 2021.
There has often been considerable bitterness during presidential transitions. Truman, for example, was upset with how Eisenhower had campaigned against him. Nixon in 1960 and Al Gore in 2000 both believed they were the winners.
The challenge in every presidential transition is the need, especially in national security matters, for continuity of ongoing negotiations and policy implementation, yet also the need to honor the wishes of those who voted for change.
Presidential transition planning has generally improved in recent generations. President Dwight Eisenhower met with John F. Kennedy and established liaisons between the incoming and outgoing administrations. Congress passed a Presidential Transition Act of 1963 to provide for expenses and staffing for the incoming and outgoing administrations.
New presidents have the best chance for achieving policy change during their first months in office, making smooth transitions all the more important for them.
The 2021 transfer of power may have eventually been peaceful, yet it was the most unseemly and contested transition in the history of the American republic.
After losing the election, President Trump refused to concede, and instead, waged a long public relations campaign to try to prove falsely that the election had been rigged and that he had won by a landslide. He faulted Republican governors and state election officials for not finding fraud, and not finding him enough votes to win their states. He also irresponsibly refused national security briefings for a month and a half for the Biden team.
Finally, on January 6. 2021, an angry mob, directed by Trump to march to the U.S. Capitol, attacked the Capitol, attempting to stop Congress from certifying the electoral votes sent in from the states.
In the days preceding the insurrection, a rumor had surfaced that one of Trump’s advisers had recommended he declare martial law — presumably to stop the transfer of power. This rumor may or may not have been true. But it was enough to encourage ten former Secretaries of Defense to issue a remarkable public statement affirming that the U.S. military should not be involved in U.S. elections.
Two former Secretaries of Defense for Trump, James Mattis and Mark Esper, were among the signers.
“The time for questioning the results has passed,” the statement read, “the time for the formal counting of the electoral votes, as prescribed in the Constitution and by statute, has arrived.” Efforts to involve the U.S. military in resolving election disputes would take the country “into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory.”
Two days after this warning, after a rally that Trump had publicized and inspired, an angry mob of his supporters rampaged through the U.S. Capitol and threatened the lives of Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There were several deaths and scores of wounded. And the vice president and members of Congress were forced to halt their official business and go into hiding.
How responsible was President Trump for the mob attack that stopped Congressional operations on January 6?
Republican Congresswoman and long-time Trump supporter Liz Cheney of Wyoming said, “The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing.” Cheney added this historical note: “There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”
Liz Cheney (Colorado College ’88) met with students in two political science classes at Colorado College in 2016. Among other things she explained why she was supporting Trump for President in the 2016 elections.
Trump, as we know, was impeached in the House but not convicted in the Senate, though the final vote was 57 to 43 against him. An ABC poll that weekend found 58 percent saying he should be convicted. A bipartisan commission will investigate exactly what happened in the insurrection.
Minority Leader U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell wrote in a February 16, 2021 Wall Street Journal opinion piece that there is no question “former President Trump bears moral responsibility. His supporters stormed the Capitol because of the unhinged falsehoods he shouted into the world’s largest megaphone.” His behavior, McConnell added, “during and after the chaos was also unconscionable, from attacking Vice President Mike Pence during the riot to praising the criminals after it ended.”
Republican U.S. Senator Pat Toomey spoke for many, yet apparently not a majority of Republicans when he said that he had voted for Trump and did not want Biden elected, but “there’s something more important to me than having my preferred candidate sworn in as the next president. And that’s to have the American people’s chosen candidate sworn in as the next president.”
After the national guard and other officials had secured the Capitol, President Trump told his supporters to “Remember this day forever,” apparently suggesting they should view themselves as patriots in Trump’s America First brigade.
Americans, we hope and trust, will indeed forever remember January 6, 2021— as a reminder that the peaceful transfer of power, from a president of one party to a president of another party, is the exceptional standard we insist on and cherish in our democratic republic.
• Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy write regularly on national and Colorado politics.