President Trump’s refusal to allow President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his transition staff access to government offices, secure communications and classified briefings prompted growing warnings on Thursday, including from Republicans, that keeping Mr. Biden in the dark potentially endangers the country.
On Capitol Hill, several Senate Republicans insisted that Mr. Biden should at least be given access to the President’s Daily Brief, the compendium of the nation’s most closely guarded intelligence secrets and assessments of threats like terrorist plots and cyberattack vulnerabilities. Their call amounted to an acknowledgment that Mr. Biden will be declared the victor in the election.
“I don’t think they need to know everything,” Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a member of the Senate Republican leadership, said of Mr. Biden’s advisers. “I think they do need to know some things, and national security would be one of them.”
Democratic congressional leaders warned that Mr. Trump’s stonewalling is already doing damage to the country’s ability to deal with foreign leaders — Mr. Biden made his first contacts on unsecured telephone lines — and plans for how to handle the most high-risk period in the spread of the coronavirus and bolster the economic recovery. They added that Mr. Biden’s decades of experience in Washington will likely soften those consequences.
“It is most unfortunate that the Republicans have decided that they will not respect the will of the people, and let me just say: It’s like the house is burning down and they just refused to throw water on it,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said.
Deprived of access to secure government communications by the Trump administration, Mr. Biden’s team of more than 500 former officials and outside experts has embraced workarounds, talking over encrypted apps like Signal to shield their conversations from the Chinese, meeting in outdoor coffee shops with government officials they once worked alongside. The conversations are circumspect, both because of rules on both sides limiting how much information Mr. Biden’s team can seek and how much executive branch officials are allowed to say, participants said.
It may be weeks until Mr. Biden’s so-called agency review teams, made up of longtime government officials with deep roots in the bureaucracy, are let into the government departments that a Biden administration will run starting at noon on Jan. 20. Some issues can wait until a formal “ascertainment” is declared, giving them access to the offices and classified material.
But some cannot. Mr. Biden’s team is concerned that it is being shut out of planning for distribution of a coronavirus vaccine, a massive undertaking that the incoming administration expects to inherit the moment he is sworn in. Mr. Biden’s advisers say that they understand very little about the workings of Warp Speed, the project that has vaccine distribution planning well underway. The Biden team has not had access to the details.
For now, one senior adviser to the president-elect said, the coronavirus-related teams are focusing on logistical challenges and policy questions, like how to prioritize who gets a vaccine, and how to make distribution equitable along racial and socioeconomic lines — a priority of Mr. Biden’s, but one rarely discussed by Mr. Trump.
Access to the Trump distribution plan will become increasingly important “from an operational perspective,” so the Biden team can take over without any hiccups, said the senior adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal transition details.
The Biden team also hopes to implement a national testing strategy but will have to start from scratch, because the Trump administration does not have one. Biden advisers are seeking guidance from groups including the Rockefeller Foundation, which has drafted a national Covid-19 testing plan and is partnering with states and cities to expand testing efforts.
Mr. Biden’s aides say they have been warned not to get into detailed conversations with government officials, even career officials, until they receive the formal approval that transition has begun. But there is no prohibition on talking with officials who worked for the Trump administration and left — and there are many of them. And many informal conversations between former political officials and those career government officials who stayed on have been going on for four years — and never really stopped.
In many ways, what is happening now, officials said, is a reverse of four years ago — when President Barack Obama’s team was ready with detailed briefings and simulations of potential crises (including a pandemic flu), and Mr. Trump’s advisers were unwilling to receive them.