Evan Vucci/AP

Trump Sets Timetable for Agency Meetings, but Transition Efforts Have Already Fallen Behind Schedule

Agencies are well prepared to guide the incoming administration but have not received any guidance from it.

President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team has yet to send personnel to embed with agencies to gather information and share priorities, setting that effort behind the anticipated schedule created by good government groups working in conjunction with the Obama administration.

Trump aides said the first batch of the so-called transition “landing teams” will arrive at “national security” agencies Friday, while the rest of the teams will deploy next week. The first tier of agencies includes the departments of Defense, State and Justice, as well as the National Security Council. The president-elect will announce teams joining six economic agencies on Monday, and the rest of federal government later in the week.

The transition effort is not as far along as it could have been at this point, according to individuals with instrumental roles in institutionalizing the process for the first time in 2016, and agencies are awaiting further guidance from Trump’s team. Major post-election shakeups and a delay in signing paperwork that allows federal agencies to share information with the incoming administration have reversed progress made before Trump’s victory.

While some turbulence is expected as transition and campaign staffs merge, personnel changes on Trump's team have amplified the problems and major agencies report they have had no contact with anyone connected to the incoming administration. Officials at the Veterans Affairs Department, for example, have not received any meeting requests from the Trump team, a spokeswoman said. Trump during his campaign promised significant reform at VA.

The lack of contact has not stopped the department from moving forward with its side of the equation.

“VA has worked diligently to put a robust transition plan in place,” said Victoria Glynn, the VA spokeswoman. “We will present the incoming administration transition team with a forward-looking plan so that VA can continue working effectively to provide uninterrupted, high-quality, timely, and effective care and benefits to our nation's veterans, their families and their survivors. We will provide a complete and candid assessment of VA’s issues and capabilities.”

The Education Department, which Trump has on various occasions threatened to eliminate entirely, has been similarly left wondering its fate. It is currently awaiting the names of individuals who will represent the president-elect’s transition efforts at the department, said Dorie Nolt, Education’s press secretary.

“Once we have received those names and related materials, those individuals will be able to receive the briefing materials we have prepared and begin to communicate with their Obama administration agency counterparts as we continue our work to facilitate the transition to the next administration,” she said. In the meantime, Education has prepared organizational charts, budget materials, briefings on key priorities and areas of responsibility, and other materials.

The Office of Personnel Management, which may have to oversee new civil service laws and a hiring freeze under the Trump administration, said it is still awaiting names of who will be involved in the transition and when they will arrive. OPM, like the General Services Administration and other agencies, has both internal and governmentwide transition responsibilities. The agency has hosted transition training initiatives through the Chief Human Capital Officers Council as well as online webinars, and provided guidance to agency heads, transition leaders and human resources personnel.

OPM has, as required by new transition laws signed by President Obama, already set aside office space for Trump’s transition team.

By comparison, former Gov. Mike Leavitt, R-Utah, who led Republican Mitt Romney's 2012 transition effort, had communication with agencies prior to the election to lay out a "full schedule" and so they understood "what we hoped to accomplish." He noted that all presidents-elect handle the process in their own way, but said his team had planned a meeting one week after Election Day with all the personnel who would be deployed to individual agencies that the president-elect would have attended. Those staff would have been sent off immediately following that meeting. 

“This is sad,” said Ted Kaufman, a former Democratic senator who helped pass the 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act and whose name is on the 2015 Edward “Ted” Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act that Obama signed in March. “It’s sad in terms of difficulties it’s going to provide for this administration."

Federal agencies, he said, “are waiting.”

“They’ve been spending months and months and months working on this thing,” said Kaufman, who spent 10 months in the Senate as a fill-in for Vice President Joe Biden. “It’s amazing to me how federal agencies have taken this law and really embraced it.”

Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, which assisted both the Clinton and Trump campaigns in their transition efforts through its Center for Presidential Transition, said the president-elect has fallen behind the timetable he helped to shape.

“They’re late,” he said, but added the Trump team can still turn it around. “It’s not too late.”

Stier said it's not surprising to “have some bumps in the road” when the campaign and transition apparatuses merge. As Vice President-elect Mike Pence has taken the reins of those efforts, he has purged many of the staff put into place by ousted transition leader Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. Trump’s team must determine how it responds to the disruptions.

“Do they derail you or do you get back up quick?” Stier asked. “That’s the question.”

Adding to the problem, Kaufman said, is the very few people in Trump’s orbit who have “real world experience with the nuts and bolts of the executive branch of government.” The goal of Kaufman’s 2010 bill was to expand the time presidents-elect had to prepare for taking office from the 70-something days between Election Day and inauguration to 170 days. By virtually starting from scratch this week, he said, Trump’s team “cut more than half of the time they have to get ready for this incredibly complex transfer of power.”

Kaufman and Leavitt met with both campaigns prior to election day, and the former senator said he was impressed with the time and attention Trump’s team was devoting to transition efforts. Romney won significant plaudits for the way he prepared to take over the federal government, including detailed timelines with deliverables and meetings with each agency both before and after Election Day. Some Romney veterans helped staff Trump’s team, and had been in contact with federal agencies, Kaufman said. Their work, however, was never properly coordinated with the campaign itself, and now agencies are left awaiting direction. 

“The key to the transition was not just what you write down on paper,” Kaufman said, “but what is in your head.”

"They’re obviously approaching it a bit differently," Leavitt said. "That doesn’t mean they are doing it poorly, but there is work to be done and at a certain point you have to go about it."