By Monday evening, it must have been clear, even to Donald Trump, that the jig was up. During the previous forty-eight hours, the President’s campaign to overturn the 2020 election result and entrench himself in the White House for another four years had suffered a series of heavy blows. This past weekend, in yet another setback for his legal team, a conservative federal judge in Pennsylvania mockingly dismissed a voter-fraud case that had been filed days earlier. On Monday morning, more than a hundred Republican national-security officials published a public letter calling on Trump to “cease his anti-democratic assault on the integrity of the presidential election.” And, on Monday afternoon, Michigan’s Board of State Canvassers certified that Joe Biden had won the state by more than a hundred and fifty thousand votes.
Trump’s legal options were shrinking away, his political support was crumbling, and even some of his senior aides in the White House were telling him that it was time for a formal transition to a Biden Presidency. Finally, Trump gave in. In a letter to Biden that was leaked to CNN and other media outlets, Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee who heads the General Services Administration, an independent federal agency that, among other duties, provides financing and other forms of support to Presidential transitions, said that she was now ready “to make those resources and services available.” Immediately after Murphy’s letter emerged, Trump sent two tweets, in which he thanked her for “steadfast dedication” and said, “Our case “STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good … fight, and I believe we will prevail!” But then Trump went on, “Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”
Given Trump’s chronic aversion to being labelled a loser, and his clear intention to use the myth of a stolen election as a rallying cry for his supporters going forward, this pair of tweets may well be the closest he ever comes to issuing a formal concession. Indeed, later on Monday night, he said, in another tweet, “Will never concede to fake ballots & ‘Dominion’.” (“Dominion” refers to Dominion Voting Systems, a company that figures prominently in one of the Trumpian conspiracy theories about the election.) But in an administrative sense, the deed has been done. Trump’s tweets, together with Murphy’s letter, marked an official acknowledgement that Biden is now the President-elect and, as such, is entitled to all the perquisites that go with that status. The flip side of this recognition went unacknowledged by the White House, but it can no longer be denied: Trump is officially a lame duck.
Trump’s anti-democratic assault—it was refreshing to see even some Republicans using such plain language—isn’t over. In the days and weeks ahead, Rudy Giuliani and his colleagues will go on with their madcap legal efforts. And Trump will surely continue to insist that he won the election, probably to his dying day. But the official start of the transition has turned all that into a sideshow. For now, at least, the future belongs to the next President, who is already busy rolling out his Cabinet appointments.
No matter how you regard the specific prospect of a Biden Presidency, these developments are excellent news for American democracy. Four years ago, I wrote a column about the threat that Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton presented. While distancing myself from some historians and political scientists who were then comparing the President-elect to Hitler or Mussolini, I noted some of the serious dangers that lay ahead: “If anything, the isolation and pressures of the Oval Office might further warp his ego and exaggerate his dictatorial tendencies. Surrounded by yes-men, he could well be tempted to try to expand his powers, especially when things go wrong, as they inevitably do at some point in any Presidency.”