US President Donald Trump, who is refusing to concede election defeat, injected new volatility into US politics Monday by firing his defence secretary, while President-elect Joe Biden made good on a promise to focus on leading the country out of the Covid-19 crisis.
With construction already starting in central Washington for the January 20 inauguration ceremony, an awkward and potentially chaotic transition period is underway.
Trump, in a move unprecedented for a US president, insists that the November 3 election was stolen from him. However, his lawyers have so far produced only flimsy evidence to support their court challenges alleging irregularities.
Official election results released Saturday demonstrate Biden has a convincing and insurmountable lead with almost all votes counted, making him the president in waiting. Certified final results are still weeks away but are not expected to change in a meaningful way.
The Trump administration is also refusing traditional cooperation with Biden's team, so far denying him the normal transition package that includes office space, a budget and expertise to prepare for the takeover.
In another twist, Trump announced on Twitter that he had "terminated" defense secretary Mark Esper – a notable shuffling of such an important position so close to the end of a presidency. Trump and Esper had clashed in public over Esper's opposition to suggestions that military personnel be used to quell civil unrest.
In a small new crack in the Trump-dominated Republican Party, Senator Susan Collins broke ranks to recognise Biden's win, saying she wanted to "offer my congratulations to President-elect Biden on his apparent victory – he loves this country, and I wish him every success."
Dual Covid taskforces
Biden meanwhile forged ahead with his agenda, starting with his number one campaign promise of trying to get the raging coronavirus pandemic under control.
He held a first meeting of his own coronavirus taskforce, just hours before the White House version headed by Vice-President Mike Pence was due to gather.
Biden then gave a televised speech on the crisis that signalled a dramatic departure from Trump's erratic style.
Where Trump has repeatedly mocked people wearing masks and claimed the virus would go away by itself, Biden told the nation that face coverings are the single best way to get the situation under control.
"I implore you, wear a mask," he said. "A mask is not a political statement, but it is a good way to start putting the country together."
The speech and the announcement of Biden's new taskforce came as US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech announced that a jointly developed vaccine had so far proven 90 percent effective in preventing infections in trials.
Biden welcomed this in a statement, while cautioning it would be "many more months" before mass vaccination was possible and urging Americans to wear masks – something he says he wants to mandate nationally once in office.
Trump, whose handling of the pandemic has often run contrary to scientific advice, also welcomed the news, which gave an immediate boost to stock prices on Wall Street.
"STOCK MARKET UP BIG, VACCINE COMING SOON. REPORT 90% EFFECTIVE. SUCH GREAT NEWS!" Trump tweeted.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus struck again inside the White House with ABC News reporting that the housing and urban development secretary, Ben Carson, had tested positive.
This comes after Trump's Chief-of-Staff, Mark Meadows, reportedly came down with the virus – as have numerous other staff and Trump himself over the last weeks.
Lost in transition?
Beyond Covid, the Biden team said the president-elect and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris "will hold briefings with transition advisors" in the afternoon.
However, with Trump digging in his feet, it is far from clear how much the incoming administration will be able to do as the clock ticks down to inauguration day.
Trump, backed for now by a significant number of senior Republicans, is insisting on multiple court challenges to vote counts and allegations of fraud. While no credible proof had been put forward of any incident that could have changed the result, the legal wrangles could take days if not weeks to sort out.
In the meantime, Biden's team is being blocked from tax-payer funded transition assistance by the Trump-appointed head of the General Services Administration, which manages government buildings.
The GSA's freeze on cooperation rippled through to the US Department of Defense, which said it was holding off from contact with Biden's team.
"DOD has had no contact with transition teams from either campaign and will not until notified by the GSA Administrator," a Pentagon official said.
by Sebastian Smith, with Angela Weiss, AFP