Trump Has to Move Out of the White House: How Exactly Does the Transition of Presidential Power Work?

"What generally happens is somebody that has held a position will try to be helpful for the new person coming in," one expert says of this most-unusual transition

The transition of power between the outgoing administration of President Donald Trump and the incoming one of President-elect Joe Biden — whom The Associated Press and other news outlets projected Saturday will win the election — will soon kick into high gear.

The news of Biden's victory had his supporters cheering across the country, as scenes of celebration broke out in Washington, D.C., New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere.

President Trump and his campaign, meanwhile, have claimed without evidence that the race was stolen from him and vowed to fight in court – arguing "this election is far from over." Ahead of Election Day, Trump suggested he would not personally accept a loss because votes against him would have to be fraudulent.

That defiance underscores the contentious atmosphere leading up to the results, which made some nervous about the democratic transition that has taken place since George Washington first handed off the presidency to his successor, John Adams, in the late 1700s.

But one presidential historian tells PEOPLE that Trump's behavior may not, in fact, signal a bumpy road ahead.

“You can see acrimony at the top, but that doesn’t mean that everywhere there is going to be some sort of spiteful relationship between the incoming and outgoing staff,” says Martha Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Project. “What generally happens is somebody that has held a position will try to be helpful for the new person coming in.”

Sources around the president have reportedly conflicted on their view of how he would take a loss, though White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters on Friday he believed "there will be a peaceful transfer of power." While he noted the campaign had its own arguments to prosecute, Kudlow said: "We abide by the rule of law, and so will this president.”

Former President Barack Obama has described the Trump administration’s handling of the 2016 transition of power as being “unusual,” and Trump, 74, has signaled this year that he would be reluctant to accept a transition.

However, nonpartisan federal employees mediate the process and have been working at it for a long time.

“We start two and a half years out with our planning and our preparation,” Mary Gilbert, the General Services Administration coordinator in charge of overseeing the transition, told the Center for Presidential Transition in August.

“We take that role very, very seriously,” Gilbert said then. “I would say to the American public, the federal government is in good shape.”

Here’s how the nearly $10 million project typically plays out.

Joe Biden, Kamala Harris
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris during the 2020 campaign. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Donald Trump; Joe Biden
Former President Donald Trump (left) and President-elect Joe Biden. Shutterstock; Drew Angerer/Getty Images

When Does the Transition Process Begin?

Nonpartisan officials like Gilbert have been preparing for the transition for a while, but the Biden and Trump camps first became involved in May, as required by the Presidential Transition Act of 1963.

At that point, Biden, 77, named longtime friend Ted Kaufman, a former chief of staff and former Delaware senator, as the lead of his transition team.

The Democratic campaign also began raising millions of dollars to help the transition process, The New York Times reported in June.

“They put together their transition staff pretty early," Kumar tells PEOPLE. "I think one reason they talked about it was because they wanted to let people know they were serious about governing and they were going to assemble a team that knew how government operated and a team who believed in government."

kamala harris and joe biden
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Presdient-elect Joe Biden photographed for PEOPLE on Aug. 15 outside Wilmington, Delaware. Gioncarlo Valentine

Has the Trump Administration Willingly Participated in the Process?

Required by federal law, the Trump administration put together a “White House transition coordinating council” to aid the process.

That council, run by Trump assistant Chris Liddell, has so far met deadlines for updating Congress on its plans to potentially hand off power to a Biden administration.

While Kumar says the process is going "well" so far and that transitions generally go smoothly, “there is an atmosphere that’s established by a president" and “usually the outgoing president is very positive."

These two factors have left Trump's critics on edge, as the country gets set to witness an administrative change of hands.

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President Donald Trump. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/Getty Images

It’s unclear how willingly the Trump administration is going to play along with the actual transition process, following the president’s baseless allegations about the 2020 election results. (In 2016, there were reports of tension amid Trump's transition team.)

What Exactly Happens During a Presidential Transition?

Incoming transition teams typically focus on turning campaign promises into policy and crafting a “decision-making system,” Kumar says.

“What kind of information does the president want and in what forms,” she says. “In Trump’s case, he likes very short memos. Obama was much more of a reader than Trump, so you would present different types of information to him. These are things the chief of staff is involved in, as well as the staff secretary.”

Biden's camp will also begin identifying possible government appointees and take on logistical tasks, like getting office spaces set up.

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Sen. Kamala Harris and former Vice President Joe Biden. Getty Images

In September, the federal government gave Biden’s transition team access to office space in the Commerce Department building after the political conventions concluded, CNBC reported.

At that point, the Biden team was given access to government resources to begin preparing the logistics for potentially running the government. (The number of Biden staff working out of the Commerce building has been limited because of COVID-19, an official told CNBC then.)

The Biden campaign has since reportedly placed a heavy focus on fulfilling the president-elect’s vow to begin mitigating the novel coronavirus pandemic on “day one.”

Biden has already been putting together a COVID-19 task force, Politico reported last month, and on Thursday his campaign said he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris had meetings on the coronavirus and its increasing spread.

Joe Biden
President-elect Joe Biden. JIM WATSON/Getty Images

What Security Measures are in Place?

Security efforts are also taken to protect the incoming administration. In one example this week, the Federal Aviation Administration enacted temporary flight restrictions in the area surrounding Biden’s home in Delaware.

CNN has also reported that extra Secret Service agents were sent to Delaware to be with Biden, as the election results began to become clear with more states wrapping up their ballot counts.

Why Is a Smooth Transition of Power So Important?

The U.S. government has recognized the transition period between administrations is a vulnerable time for the country that needs to be carefully managed, Kumar says.

“For an effective transition, you have to have continuity of government,” she says. “You have a fragile situation because you have so many people that are leaving.”

This year, amid a pandemic and a tense campaign for the White House, the Biden team has signaled it is aware of how delicate the coming weeks will be as it prepares to officially take over the helm on Jan. 20, 2021.

“We are preparing for this transition amid the backdrop of a global health crisis and struggling economy,” Kaufman, the co-chair on the Biden transition team, told The Guardian. “This is a transition like no other, and the team being assembled will help Joe Biden meet the urgent challenges facing our country on day one.”

The Biden campaign has dismissed Trump's heel-digging on the matter.

“As we said on July 19th, the American people will decide this election," a campaign spokesman told reporters this week. "And the United States government is perfectly capable of escorting trespassers out of the White House."

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