Donald Trump could learn from Woodrow Wilson's transition

Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
President Woodrow Wilson, like Donald Trump, refused to acknowledge the pandemic of his day.  File Photo courtesy of  Library of Congress
President Woodrow Wilson, like Donald Trump, refused to acknowledge the pandemic of his day.  File Photo courtesy of  Library of Congress

Nov. 18 (UPI) -- At first, comparisons between Woodrow Wilson and Donald Trump as presidents a century apart would seem misplaced. The only commonality was that both were confronted with pandemics: the Spanish flu of 1918-20 and COVID-19 of 2020.

The first came at the end of World War I at a time of great disruption and civil unrest in America with massive arrests under the Sedition and Insurrection Acts used to repress all forms of dissent. By the time the Spanish flu dissipated, nearly 700,000 of 106 million Americans died.


Thus far, over 11 million Americans have been infected and a quarter-million have died in 2020. But vaccines are entering the distribution phase. The world is not at war. And Americans are not subject to deprivation of civil liberties for criticizing the government, the flag or men in uniform.

Wilson was an intellectual, college president, governor and an internationalist. Trump could never be considered an intellectual as a real estate developer and television celebrity. And his policy of "America first" and withdrawal from numerous international organizations and agreements put him in the company of isolationist Republican senators who rejected Wilson's League of Nations and the Versailles Peace Treaty.

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Yet, both Wilson and Trump had a great deal in common. Both were infected by their respective pandemics, Wilson far more seriously. Both were in denial. Wilson refused to acknowledge the Spanish flu pandemic. And possibly as an after effect of contracting it, suffered a debilitating stroke. For the last year of his term, his wife, Edith Wilson, was acting as the de facto president.

Trump also was in denial. He first chose to downplay the seriousness of the virus so as not to "alarm" the public. During the presidential campaign, he repeatedly claimed we were "turning the corner," even though record levels of infections and hospitalizations were being surpassed every day. Given monthly production rates for the most promising vaccine of 25 million to 30 million doses, with two doses required for over 300 million Americans, it could take nearly two years to complete the vaccination program, even if a second drug came on line.

So far, despite failed legal attempts to reverse the election results, the president has not accepted his defeat. Unlike Wilson, who had many months left in office, Trump has nine weeks. As Wilson could not accomplish anything, what might Trump decide to do before President Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20?

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Several positive actions could enhance the president's legacy. First and most importantly, he could authorize the transition process to start. Denying the president-elect intelligence briefings and the resources mandated by the Presidential Transition Act is childish, petty and dangerous. The lessons of the 2000 election in which five weeks were lost before the Supreme Court awarded George W. Bush Florida and the election are relevant. As the 9/11 Commission tartly concluded, that delay hurt the transition and the nation.

Second, in 2016 when Trump took office, the state of the union was sound. President Barack Obama extended the president-elect every courtesy. And, required by law, the new team was briefed on potential crises, including a pandemic. Trump could emulate that and especially refrain from taking any actions such as ordering a hasty, year's end exit from Afghanistan or signing executive orders that will complicate the next administration's agenda, possibly restricting its options.

Third, Trump could be gracious and begin the process of closing the huge political divides and animosities that divide America and both parties.

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The best outcome would be for Trump to emulate Woodrow Wilson and purposely incapacitate himself over the coming weeks by refraining from making decisions unless a crisis intervenes. That extends to firing senior appointees that his 30-year-old director of personnel believes are insufficiently loyal to the president or who need to be punished for past transgressions.


Biden has enough on his plate. Ironically, when he and Obama took office, both were dealt the worst hand of any president since FDR and the Great Depression. The financial meltdown of 2008 and two unwinnable wars topped the list of those challenges.

By comparison, 2009 seemed like the good old days.

COVID-19, economic distress, two endless wars still in progress, intractable political differences, a hostile Russia and China and America's international reputation in tatters are what a Biden administration faces. But will that make a difference? Or will Trump do his worst to ensure Biden fails by not following the example of Wilson and let someone else run the country for the coming weeks?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endanger, Infect and Engulf Us and the World."

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