Biden Picks Denis McDonough, Another Longtime Ally, to Lead V.A.

Gun Rights
Denis McDonough was the White House chief of staff in the Obama administration.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday tapped several members of former President Barack Obama’s administration — including Mr. Obama’s chief of staff and national security adviser — to serve in the White House and his cabinet, adding to the ranks of advisers with whom he has longstanding relationships.

Mr. Biden announced that Denis McDonough, who was Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, will be his nominee for the secretary of Veterans Affairs. Susan Rice, who was the national security adviser when Mr. Biden was vice president, will become the director of his Domestic Policy Council, overseeing a large part of the new president’s agenda.

Officials with the transition also formally announced that Tom Vilsack, who was Secretary of Agriculture during all eight years of Mr. Obama’s presidency, will return to the role in Mr. Biden’s administration. Mr. Biden’s friendship goes back decades with Mr. Vilsack, who endorsed his first presidential bid more than 30 years ago.

The transition also confirmed that Mr. Biden will nominate Katherine Tai to become the U.S. trade representative and Representative Marcia Fudge to serve as secretary of housing and urban development.

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The selections underscore an unmistakable theme that has emerged in the past several weeks: For all the talk that Mr. Biden is abiding by a complicated formula of ethnicity, gender and experience as he builds his administration — and he is — perhaps the most important criteria for landing a cabinet post or a top White House job appears to be having a longstanding relationship with the president-elect himself.

Mr. Biden has worked with the former aide he wants to be secretary of state since their time at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s. He knows his choice for Pentagon chief from the retired general’s time in Iraq, where Mr. Biden’s son Beau, a military lawyer, also served on the general’s staff. John Kerry, his climate envoy, is an old Senate buddy.

It is a sharp contrast to President Trump, who assembled a dysfunctional collection of cabinet members he barely knew. After an initial honeymoon, they spent their time constantly at risk of being fired. With nearly half of Mr. Biden’s cabinet and many key White House jobs announced, his administration looks more like a close-knit family.

Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

But there are risks in Mr. Biden’s approach, which departs sharply from Abraham Lincoln’s famous desire for a “team of rivals” in his cabinet who could challenge one another — and the president. And while every president brings in a coterie of longtime advisers, few have had the longevity of Mr. Biden’s nearly five decades in Washington, and prized so much the relationships he developed along the way.

Relying on advisers and cabinet officials steeped in old Washington — and Mr. Biden’s own worldview — lends an air of insularity to his still-forming presidency at a time when many Americans are expecting fresh ideas to confront a world that is very different from the one that the president-elect and his friends got to know when they were younger.

Mr. McDonough is a comfortable choice for Mr. Biden at the scandal-plagued V.A. Mr. McDonough has a background in national security affairs, having served at the White House as the deputy national security adviser before becoming Mr. Obama’s chief of staff. In both roles, he worked closely with Vice President Biden.

Part of those responsibilities included Mr. McDonough working on behalf of military families, a role that helped convince Mr. Biden that he was the right person to run the sprawling agency that manages health care and other benefits for veterans. Politico reported earlier on his selection.

As a member of the national security staff, Mr. McDonough made frequent trips to meet with members of the military, according to a person familiar with the discussions who requested anonymity to speak about private conversations. Mr. McDonough also worked with Robert A. McDonald, the former Veterans Affairs secretary, on improving care for veterans in the wake of devastating reports of long waits to see doctors.

Ms. Rice is well known for coordinating Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, first as ambassador to the United Nations and later as national security adviser, a period when she clashed with the Republican-led Congress over the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

Those clashes may have doomed her hopes of being able to be confirmed as secretary of state, a position for which she was considered by Mr. Biden. Her position at the White House Domestic Policy Council does not require Senate confirmation. (Ms. Rice was also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times for three years. Her last column for The Times was published Dec. 1, 2020.)

In a statement announcing her appointment, Mr. Biden’s transition team said that she “knows government inside and out and will carry through the president-elect’s vision of a newly empowered Domestic Policy Council and turbocharge the effort to build back better.”

Michael Bloomberg during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in February. The Bloomberg-backed Everytown for Gun Safety group is asking President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. to issue executive orders on gun safety.
Credit…Brittainy Newman/The New York Times

Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control organization backed by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, called on the Biden administration on Thursday to swiftly enact executive orders that would regulate the tracking of homemade firearms, require background checks for virtually all gun sales and mandate dealers notify the F.B.I. when they complete gun sales before completing a background check.

Mr. Bloomberg’s group has for years been the largest player in gun control politics, outspending the gun rights powerhouse, the National Rifle Association, in both the 2018 and 2020 elections.

John Feinblatt, Everytown’s president, worked closely with President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. when Mr. Biden, while vice president, was deputized to address gun violence after the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

But the Obama administration waited months before a Senate vote to put in effect universal background checks failed. Much of the rest of President Barack Obama’s gun control agenda fell by the wayside.

But Mr. Feinblatt said gun safety politics has shifted since Mr. Biden was vice president.

“There’s an entirely different environment where people know that gun safety is a public health crisis,” Mr. Feinblatt said this week during an interview.

Everytown’s suite of proposed executive actions leans heavily on bolstering the federal regulation of gun transactions. But like the Obama administration proposals, any executive actions that Mr. Biden takes are likely to face steep opposition and legal challenges from gun rights activists.

So-called ghost guns, purchased in parts and later assembled by their owners, are not tracked by federal law enforcement agencies. Everytown proposes Mr. Biden’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives reclassify ghost guns as firearms, requiring them to carry serial numbers and be traced like other guns — essentially eliminating their appeal as untraceable weapons.

The group is also requesting that the agency tighten its definition of what constitutes a firearms dealer who is required to comply with federal background checks. President Trump and previous administrations have left it to sellers to determine for themselves if they are full-time dealers, leaving untold thousands of guns to be sold at gun shows and online without federal checks. The Everytown proposal would have the agency set the limit at five guns sold per year to be required to conduct background checks before sales.

Everytown is also asking the Justice Department to require gun dealers to notify the government before a gun is delivered to a buyer when a background check has yet to be completed. Currently, guns can be transferred if a federal background check is not completed within three business days. The group is also asking the Biden administration to create a gun violence task force to put in effect gun control measures across federal departments.

Other liberal groups, including the Human Rights Campaign, have released their own proposals for executive actions they would like Mr. Biden to take once in office.

In his final days in office, President Trump and his surrogates are continuing to try to force legal challenges to the election.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump and his proxies continue to apply political pressure across multiple channels, challenging the results of the election and placing roadblocks in the way of the incoming administration, even as all 50 states and Washington, D.C., have certified the results of the presidential election.

With almost no available legal path for the Trump campaign to contest the outcome of the election, the president took to Twitter again on Thursday to malign the 2020 election in no uncertain terms. There is no evidence of widespread fraud, a conclusion shared even by Mr. Trump’s own Justice Department.

Another tweet echoed comments from Wednesday that directed the Supreme Court to “overturn” the election results even after the court, in a one-sentence order, declined a request by Pennsylvania Republicans to do so. On Thursday Mr. Trump said the court “has a chance to save our Country from the greatest Election abuse in the history of the United States.”

Despite the top court’s disinclination to help him, Mr. Trump has enjoyed the support of a host of influential Republicans who have continued to entertain his challenges.

Republican attorneys general in 17 states joined in a brief filed to the Supreme Court on Wednesday, supporting a lawsuit to delay the certification of the presidential electors in four battleground states the president lost.

A day earlier, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who argued several cases before the Supreme Court before he was senator, agreed to take up the president’s cause in any remaining cases aimed at invalidating election results should the court agree to hear them.

While surrogates of the president forge ahead with what legal experts have described as an increasingly desperate strategy in the courts, officials loyal to the president have sought to stonewall the transition of power in other contexts.

Across several agencies, transition meetings have been held up or limited by Trump appointees who have reportedly inserted themselves between career civil servants and President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s transition teams in ways that several federal officials said had hampered the transition process.

President Trump has been critical of Attorney General William P. Barr for his refusal to try to overturn the results of the election.
Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times

Attorney General William P. Barr has told others that he plans to remain in his post through the end of the Trump administration, setting aside his deliberations about stepping down by the end of the year, according to a person told of his decision.

Mr. Barr had been weighing whether to leave this month, but President Trump — already angry over Mr. Barr’s refusal to help overturn the election’s results — was said to be irritated with Mr. Barr’s contemplation of an early departure, according to the person.

People close to Mr. Barr had said that he wanted to step down because he felt that he accomplished the work he had set out to complete during his tenure, and that his plans were unrelated to Mr. Trump’s push to overturn the election outcome. They also said that Mr. Barr was wary of the tensions and problems that can pop up when one administration hands off to the next.

Last week, Mr. Barr broke weeks of public silence in the wake of the election when he acknowledged that the Justice Department had found no evidence of widespread voter fraud that could have changed the result of the election. Mr. Barr’s comments were a striking repudiation of Mr. Trump’s increasingly specious claims of voter fraud and a departure for the attorney general, whose tenure has been marked by a willingness to implement the president’s political agenda at the typically independent Justice Department.

If Mr. Barr were to step down, the deputy attorney general, Jeffrey A. Rosen, would be in line to take over as the head of the department.

Representative Deb Haaland in 2018 became one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress.
Credit…Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call, via Getty Images

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is facing intensifying pressure from Democratic lawmakers, progressives and tribal leaders to select Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico as interior secretary.

On Thursday, a group of more than 100 female leaders, including Native women, activists and celebrities, released a letter asking Mr. Biden to choose Ms. Haaland, who would be the first Native American cabinet secretary.

“We strongly urge you to appoint Congresswoman Deb Haaland to lead the department of the interior,” the letter said. “Representative Haaland will be a strong steward of our precious natural resources and will return to the practice of science-based decision-making. Additionally, she will work to honor the treaties between the federal government and tribal nations.”

The president-elect, the letter said, has a “historic opportunity to appoint a Native woman of integrity, vision and of true public service.”

The letter — which was organized by the actress Marisa Tomei, the progressive advocacy group We Stand United and Allie Young, a Native American activist with the group Protect the Sacred — is the latest attempt to sway Mr. Biden’s choice for secretary of the interior, which oversees public lands and controls the federal agencies most responsible for the government’s relationship with the nation’s Indigenous people.

Already, more than 50 House Democrats have implored Mr. Biden in a separate letter to select the congresswoman, a Democrat. Tribal leaders and environmental activists have also voiced their support for Ms. Haaland.

More broadly, Ms. Haaland is a favorite for the position among progressive groups, including the Sunrise Movement, which was created by young climate activists and has championed the Green New Deal.

Julia Walsh, the campaign director for We Stand United, said her group helped organize the letter alongside Native women to show that “there is a lot of support for Deb, and it’s not just Indian country.”

“We really think she could be a transformative force in that department,” she said.

In addition to Native American leaders and activists, celebrities including Mandy Moore, Amy Schumer, Rosario Dawson and Cher also signed the letter. The letter will be delivered to the Biden transition team, Ms. Walsh said.

Ms. Haaland, a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo, made history in 2018 when she and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first two Native American women elected to Congress.

But Ms. Haaland’s relative lack of policy experience has given some Biden advisers pause. Other names that have been floated for the post include Michael L. Connor, who was a deputy interior secretary under the Obama administration and is also Native American, and Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who is retiring from Congress.

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy advised the N.C.A.A. Board of Governors in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.
Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times

President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s choice for surgeon general, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, had a central role in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s decision in March to cancel this year’s national basketball tournaments — one of the earliest and most culturally significant signs that the virus would upend ordinary life in America.

The work of Dr. Murthy, a member of the association’s powerful Board of Governors who was surgeon general during part of the Obama administration, offers a view into how he approached the pandemic’s initial threat in the United States, and how he might help shape the federal government’s response under Mr. Biden.

A newcomer to the insular world of college athletics, Dr. Murthy proved a cautious, deliberate expert who was wary of making drastic decisions prematurely, interviews with more than a dozen people who participated in the N.C.A.A.’s meetings suggest. But they said that as the tournaments approached and more data and scientific research emerged, Dr. Murthy was a forceful and effective champion of measures that had been unthinkable to most of society only days or weeks earlier.

Indeed, it was Dr. Murthy who urgently told board members that they risked fueling a deadly crisis if they allowed the tournaments to proceed as scheduled.

“He was instrumental in convincing the board that the time to act was now,” said Kenneth I. Chenault, a former chairman of American Express who sits on the N.C.A.A. board.

But board members like Mr. Chenault said that it was plain that Dr. Murthy understood the cultural and financial repercussions of a decision like canceling the basketball tournaments, which generate hundreds of millions of dollars.

Absentee ballots constituted nearly half of the votes cast in the 2020 election.
Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Republicans are shifting their focus from legal challenges to overturn election results in battleground states to efforts that would limit or undermine the future use of the vote-by-mail ballots that so infuriated President Trump.

Absentee ballots constituted nearly half the votes cast in the 2020 election. And registered Democrats cast nearly eight million more mail ballots than Republicans in states that record voters’ party affiliation, according to the United States Election Project. The experiment in mass voting by mail has been viewed by election experts as a remarkable success, one that was less prone to errors than expected and had almost no documented fraud.

And yet the specter of imagined voter fraud is the stated rationale for efforts to curb voting-by-mail.

This week in Georgia, Republican state senators promised to make getting and casting mail ballots far more difficult. On Tuesday, they pledged to eliminate no-excuse absentee voting, require a photo ID to obtain a ballot, outlaw drop boxes and scrap a court agreement to quickly tell voters about signature problems on ballots so that they could be fixed.

Michigan Republicans have signaled that they want to review a 2018 ballot initiative —approved by two-thirds of voters — that authorized no-excuse absentee balloting as well as same-day registration and straight-ticket voting.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans are preparing for the legislative session that convenes on Jan. 11 and are seeking co-sponsors for bills to stiffen identification requirements for mail ballots, tighten standards for signature matching and, in one case, to repeal the law that allows anyone to vote absentee without an excuse.

And Republicans in Texas, which already has some of the nation’s toughest restrictions on voting by mail, have filed bills in advance of next month’s state legislative session that would crimp officials’ ability to distribute absentee ballot applications and even make it a felony to offer to help a voter fill out a ballot.

The Twitter account of the Chinese Embassy in the United States on Wednesday shared a post by President Trump falsely claiming that the Democrats “cheated” in the election and that the results should be overturned — only to undo the retweet hours later and claim that its account had been hacked.

The disputes and legal battles in the aftermath of the election have been a fixation for Chinese state news outlets, who have heralded the polarization as evidence of American decline. But the initial retweet on Wednesday appeared to be the first time that an official Chinese social media account had directly amplified Mr. Trump’s inaccurate claims about election fraud.

The embassy’s subsequent attempts to distance itself from the post showed the precarious position that China has tried to occupy during the transition: not provoking Mr. Trump, who has continued to try to punish China during his final weeks in office, while hoping for a reset with president-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Chinese officials did not acknowledge Mr. Biden’s victory for several days after the election was called, and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, did not send his congratulations to him until more than two weeks afterward.

Mr. Trump has introduced a slew of new measures against China recently, including sanctions and a travel ban on Chinese officials this week. On Thursday, China struck back by announcing that U.S. diplomatic passport holders would no longer be able to enter Hong Kong and Macau without visas.

Mr. Trump’s tweet was the latest in the president’s long string of false claims about the election. After claiming that the Democrats had acted inappropriately, Mr. Trump wrote, “How can a Country be run like this?”

Chinese state-backed newspapers have gleefully asked similar questions. “So-called US-style democracy has descended into a joke,” a front-page headline in one paper read after the election.

But hours after the embassy shared the post, it disappeared from the account. Shortly after, the embassy tweeted that it had been hacked, adding, “For clarification, the Embassy didn’t do any retweeting on Dec. 9.”

It was not the first time that official Chinese Twitter accounts had stepped back after appearing to revel in the American electoral chaos. Last month, People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, mocked a tweet from Mr. Trump falsely claiming that he had won the election, adding “HaHa” and a laughing face emoji. The tweet was later deleted.

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