Gotham Gazette

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Successful Presidential Transitions Rely on Attitudes, Organization and Law

trump obama from trump facebook

President-elect Trump & President Obama (photo: Trump on Facebook)

President-elect Donald Trump visited The White House Thursday to discuss transition planning with President Barack Obama. While the election was just decided and it was Trump’s first public move in shifting from the campaign toward governing, the transition process has been underway for months -- both in the Trump campaign and the Obama administration. The period from Election Day to Inauguration Day, January 20, is brief -- just 73 days this year -- and the next President must be able to move quickly during the transition period in order to smoothly take the reigns of the country’s vast government and military apparatuses.

Unlike the ideological and, to some extent, personnel continuity that a Hillary Clinton win may have afforded, the Obama to Trump transition will be drastic. But, there are protocols and practices in place, mandated by law and not, meant to make for a successful presidential transition. On both Wednesday and Thursday, President Obama sought to assure the country that his administration is doing everything it can to ensure a smooth transition of power, despite the differences between the president and his successor, whom Obama has called uniquely unfit for the position.

Speaking in the Rose Garden on Wednesday, the day after the election, Obama told the country, “I have instructed my team to…work as hard as possible to ensure that this is a successful transition for the president-elect.”

Obama reiterated the point on Thursday when he and Trump sat in the Oval Office, with the president saying that his team must do its best to make Trump successful, because if the president is successful, so is the country.

The task for Trump and his top advisors, including post-election transition chair and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, is immense -- many thousands of positions to fill, a daunting amount of information to absorb, and important policy and protocol decisions to make. President-elect Trump is under the microscope perhaps to a greater extent than others in his position might be because he heads to the presidency as the first in United States history with no prior government or military experience. Trump immediately set off alarm bells when his first two appointments included Steve Bannon, who has a history of anti-Semitic, white nationalist, and misogynistic behavior, as his top strategic advisor.

While all of Trump’s top cabinet posts will be deeply scrutinized, as they would with any president-elect, there is also the vast bureaucracy of both the White House and, to a larger degree, the federal government, that must be filled and managed. A sound presidential transition relies on the preparation and attitude of the outgoing administration, the organization and execution of the incoming administration, and the laws in place to aid in the effort.

Prior to September 11, 2001, a few laws were already in place to govern the transition process, and others have been added since. In 1963, recognizing the need for a formalized transition process in the face of a more technologically advanced and rapidly moving world, Congress enacted The Presidential Transitions Act of 1963, which set the precedent for transition funding, allocating $900,000 of federal funds per team. The 1988 Presidential Transitions Effectiveness Act increased funding, capped outside contributions to transition teams, and required that major donations be disclosed. Similar legislation, passed in 1998 and 2000, shortened Senate confirmation periods and addressed the digitalization of government records, but other than that, the scale and schedule of a transition was up to the two administrations.

"The national interest requires that such transitions in the office of President be accomplished so as to assure continuity in the faithful execution of the laws and in the conduct of the affairs of the Federal Government, both domestic and foreign,” reads the Presidential Transition Act of 1963. “Any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people."

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the transition period was identified as one of national vulnerability. This led to the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act. Comprehensive security briefings for incoming high-level personnel became mandated, as was extensive contingency planning, crisis management training, and background checks.

Under Obama, further attention was paid to transitions. In March of this year, he signed into law the 2015 Presidential Transitions Improvement Act, which requires the executive branch to establish two transition panels, one for the White House operation and one to oversee the process throughout federal agencies. The panels must be formed six months before the general election. Prior to that, the 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Act required the General Services Administration to provide each major party candidate’s transition team with office space, desks, computers, and phones within three business days of the candidate’s nomination for president.

With these laws in place, the Trump transition team has a lot of resources, but also a lot of work to do.

According to the president-elect’s transition website, the team is setting up Agency Review Teams for each federal agency, and has begun the vetting and hiring process for the approximately 4,100 presidential appointees. As reported by Politico in October, the Chris Christie-led pre-election transition team had compiled a list of 400 appointees to push through Senate confirmation after the election. Though few other details were made available by the Christie team, Politico also reported that the Trump operation was holding private explanatory meetings for big donors and financial services leaders. One such “look inside” charged $5,000 per person.

Shortly after winning the election, Trump announced that Vice President-elect Pence would replace Gov. Christie as the chair of the transition, and also named a larger transition committee. Top cabinet positions are expected to be filled soon, and other high-profile positions will also have to be determined. The policy focus, political orientation, government experience, and demographic diversity -- racial, gender, religious, and more -- of top-level appointments to key administration posts will give an indication of what type of presidency is being planned.

The team that will be overseeing this work, Trump’s Presidential Transition Executive Committee, has just been announced. Under Pence’s leadership, committee vice chairs are Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, Dr. Ben Carson, Christie, Senator Jeff Sessions, and retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn.

The committee will also include Rep. Marsha Blackburn, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, Rep. Chris Collins, Tom Marino, Lou Barletta, and Devin Nunes, Rebekah Mercer, Steven Mnuchin, Anthony Scaramucci, Peter Thiel, Trump’s children Donald Jr., Eric, and Ivanka, Ivanka’s husband, Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, who was RNC chair and has been named Trump’s White House chief of staff, and Bannon, who was the campaign CEO for the home stretch after having led Breitbart News.

Rumors have started to fly about possible appointments for different cabinet positions, including some of the names from the transition team.

Along with the Bannon hire, there are other red flags being raised about the Trump transition, including the effects of the shift from the Christie-led team to the Pence-led team. On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that “President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition operation plunged into disarray,” citing the resignation of key transition figures from the Christie team who had been integral to the process and a hold-up around Pence signing essential transition paperwork.

History, 2008, and Today
Smart, proactive transitions are the first step toward an effective presidency and begin long before the formal transition process that takes place between Election Day and Inauguration Day. Prepared candidates will often begin transition planning before the conclusion of their primary race, will have transition staffs in the hundreds, and can be expected to provide lists of presidential appointees as soon as they can be called president-elect. In 2008, the Obama transition operation consisted of 679 staffers and volunteers, and began before Obama had defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary. 

Well-run transitions are important for several reasons. First, national security concerns necessitate a smooth handoff, a process that requires vetting and apprising new defense and high-level personnel well before they succeed their predecessors. The next-in-line officials must be brought up to speed on a wide variety of threats and operations. The President-elect is immediately briefed on the same information as the President.

Transitions are seen as a weak point in national security regardless of the quality of the transition, so it is expected that incoming and outgoing administrations will be as diligent and cooperative as possible. Ever since Harry Truman learned of the Manhattan Project a month into his presidency (which was not even by election, but by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death while in office), national security has been a foremost transition priority. Still, the events of September 11, 2001 dramatically increased the level of attention paid to national security generally and in transitioning. In the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, comprehensive security briefings for incoming high-level personnel were mandated, as well as extensive contingency planning.

Second, it is in the political interests of both incoming and outgoing administrations to oversee a smooth transition. From the outgoing perspective, it is politically expedient for a president’s reputation to include a well-executed departure from office. From the incoming perspective, a president’s early success hinges on his or her preparedness to take office.

“President Bush was very gracious to us during the transition,” President Obama’s former advisor David Axelrod recently told the New York Times, echoing a point Axelrod has stressed publicly in a variety of forums over the years.

Preparedness includes having appointees for all high-level positions ready for Senate confirmation, a working policy agenda ready to implement, and a set of priorities to follow. If appointees are not ready, then the confirmation process cannot commence, and agencies take longer to fully assemble. While the 2008-09 transition is heralded as the most successful in U.S. history, there were still hiccups, especially given the surrounding circumstances: a global financial crisis.

Because it was such a success, the Bush-Obama transition essentially serves as a template for the successful modern transition -- and it’s one that Obama has said his administration is working to repeat. Two hallmarks stand out when analyzing that transition: early and proactive planning from both sides; and dedication to conquering partisan concerns for the greater good of the country’s security.

In “The 2008-2009 Presidential Transitions Through the Voices of Its Participants,” Martha Joynt Kumar, a professor of political science at Towson University, provides a retelling of the transition based on interviews with several important players.

Recognizing the biggest obstacle to a fast and seamless transition to be the Senate confirmation process, the Bush administration set about reducing the length of FBI investigations into presidential appointees from 60 to 30 days. It also tasked the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) with performing investigations, so as to have more hands on deck. Though successful in making these reforms, the administration’s attempt to eliminate Senate confirmations for non-policymaking positions failed, Kumar explains. Regardless, it succeeded in streamlining the Senate confirmation process for the Obama administration.

Kumar outlines how the Bush Administration focused further still on personnel turnover, requiring that the transition teams from each federal agency collaborate to create a list of 150 crucial positions that needed to be filled as soon as possible. The list was then handed over to the Obama team after the election.

As mandated by the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, the Bush administration began holding one-on-one meetings with the incoming Obama team as early as Election Day, Kumar explains. Incoming cabinet officers and agency heads sat down with their predecessors to go over contingency planning for each sector of government. By December 4, 2008, the core national security teams from the president and the president-elect had met several times, discussed the administration’s operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and had handed over most contingency and crisis planning.

The Bush team, Kumar writes, also made it a priority to leave behind a record of their work and experience to help guide their successors. Led by Steve Hadley, the National Security Advisor, the Bush White House compiled a total of 40 memoranda, divided into two sets; one addressing national security and foreign policy, and the other domestic policy. The memoranda contained difficulties that the Bush administration had faced, advice for avoiding such issues, information about particular countries of interest, and an account of all the interactions that had taken place between the U.S. and countries of interest.

To ensure that “midnight regulations” --  legislation passed in the last months of a presidency and which, intentionally or not, often burdens the incoming administration with tougher regulations and policy changes they oppose -- did not waylay the new Obama administration, Joshua Bolten, the Bush Chief of Staff at the time, declared that proposed regulations had to be submitted no later than June 1, 2008, and that regulations could not be issued after November 1, 2008.

Obama’s team has placed a similar level of emphasis on transition planning, something that the president has cited in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory, and at the meeting the two had at the White House on Thursday, November 10.

Taking advantage of the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which states that presidential nominees may begin submitting names of personnel for national security clearance before election results have been determined, the Obama team, in the summer of 2008, began submitting names. Republican nominee Senator John McCain’s team submitted zero names, Kumar reports.

Around the same time, in August of 2008, Rahm Emanuel was informally appointed as Chief of Staff. Working with John Podesta, Obama’s transition director, Emanuel established several agency review teams to evaluate the state of each agency, gather information, and recommend appointees. Emanuel also cooperated with the Bush transition team on the personnel process to expedite the hiring process for the White House staff. Podesta, as the founder of the Center for American Progress, was able to draw from a wealth of experts for transition help and resources. They formed a core part of the transition policy team that identified executive orders that would be less complicated to prepare and sign, such as removing restrictions around abortion and stem cell research.

One of the pressing matters for Trump’s team is which Obama executive orders he wants to immediately undo, and which others of his own he may want to issue.

Though Trump himself is unpredictable and there is little clarity about how he will approach the job, the country is in many ways in a more stable place today than it was eight years ago when Obama was succeeding George W. Bush. At the time, the U.S. was in the midst of two wars and a financial crisis -- coordination between the incoming and outgoing administrations was paramount. Obama is often commended for having met repeatedly with then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Henry Paulson, Bush’s secretary of the Treasury. On issues such as the auto bailout and The Recovery Act, policy teams from both administration were influential in shaping the resulting stimulus package of 2009.

In “Presidential Transition Voices,” Kumar asserts that Obama’s relative success early in his presidency is largely attributable to his “early attention…to the need for transition planning and his assignment of experienced and knowledgeable people to handle studies of White House staff structure, agency operations, policy development, and staff selection.”

Despite their opposing views and past hostilities, Obama and Trump must now lead their best imitation of the Bush-Obama transition, putting aside their differences and holding the country’s safety and prosperity in the highest regard. As Obama put it, “the presidency is bigger than all of us.”

The 2016-17 transition will provide interesting insight into the style of the Trump presidency and will foreshadow the approach the new administration will adopt over the next four years. In his first public remarks after the election results were in, President Obama addressed the 2016 transition, saying he reached out to Trump “at about 3:30 in the morning…I had a chance to invite him to come to the White talk about making sure there is a successful transition between our presidencies.”

Obama did not provide specifics, but he did reference the 2008 transition, saying he has instructed his team to emulate the “professional and gracious” approach taken by the Bush administration eight years ago.

by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

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