Trump’s Unusual Transition Keeps Good-Government Groups Guessing

President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump shake hands following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Nov. 10. President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump shake hands following their meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Nov. 10. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

The Trump transition team was scheduled to be represented on a panel at the fall meeting of the National Academy of Public Administration in Arlington, Va., on Thursday, but that didn’t happen.

At the last minute, Ado Machida, a lobbyist and former staff member for Vice President Dick Cheney during the George W. Bush administration, emailed his regrets to the meeting organizers. Machida, who since September has been the Trump campaign’s director of policy, was called to New York, NAPA president Dan Blair told Government Executive.

So his slot on the panel was filled by Towson University political scientist and transition expert Martha Joynt Kumar, who gave some detailed history and insider evaluations of a transition that has been marked by secrecy and unclear lines of authority. She suggested the current transition “is working differently” than expected, citing the delay in signing a key memorandum of understanding on confidentiality with the Obama White House that delayed progress toward appointments and newcomer orientations.

NAPA, one of several nonprofits that have labored for a year or more to help make the 2016 presidential transition the smoothest in history, soldiered on. “This is a lot more challenging transition coming off a tough campaign, with uncertainty,” said the NAPA meeting’s program chair Gary Glickman, a veteran of the Treasury Department and Office of Management and Budget.

During the meeting, NAPA released its long-planned collection of 25 Memos to National Leaders, addressed to the new administration and next Congress with proposals for action in managing government, strengthening policy leadership, managing across agency boundaries, sharpening government tools and increasing government’s capacity to manage complex policy.

Nearly simultaneously, however, the Trump transition team was holding the first of what will be regular morning press calls doling out details on developments that are a mystery to many students of transition in the good-government community.

Speaking on a NAPA panel was Linda Springer, a veteran of the White House budget office who was Office of Personnel Management director from 2005-2008. Though Springer’s name appeared last week on a Trump transition organization chart as a possibility to head Trump’s Office of Management and Budget, she declined to explain her position to Government Executive, confining her panel remarks to long-planned thoughts on a new book offering advice to new federal employees, The Presidential Appointee’s Handbook by G. Edward DeSeve.

The Trump press team, led by Sean Spicer and Jason Miller, on Thursday’s call announced the latest list of notables meeting with the president-elect, calling them “top-shelf people” of whom many will be Cabinet officials. “Only Donald Trump can bring these high-caliber, quality people” to Washington, they said.

In a move long-awaited by agency employees planning the transition, the Trump press team also  announced that the transition “landing teams” were being launched on Thursday, grouped into agency “buckets” for national security, economics and domestic issues. The national security landing team is set to begin meeting with agency employees on Friday, they said.

Also announced was greater detail on a long-promised ban on lobbyists joining the government, the press team explaining that all transition team members—many of whom are currently lobbyists—were asked to sign a no-lobbying pledge should they become federal employees in the future. A ban on newly hired federal employees representing foreign governments would endure for their lifetimes, the press team said: “That’s how Donald Trump is changing Washington.”

Good-government groups, though inhibited from speaking ill of the new power brokers, can look at their best-laid plans for the transition—galvanized by a March 2016 law that spells out requirements, along with strong support for a smooth handoff from President Obama—and see shortfalls.

Under timeline milestones recommended by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s “Presidential Transition Guide,” the landing teams were to be launched by early November. And by October, both the major party transition teams, before knowing the election results, were to have completed the task of vetting and finalizing short lists for top priority presidential appointments.

Before next week’s Thanksgiving holiday, the timeline says, the transition team should have selected the top 50 Cabinet appointees and key White House personnel.

In her pinch-hitting role to the NAPA members, Kumar said the Trump transition team “has to jump on a moving train—the government isn’t stopping,” she said. They have to adapt to existing schedules, she said, citing the example of the State Department’s next ASEAN meeting, a semi-annual gathering of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Kumar said her meetings with the Trump (and Clinton) teams in April and June “stressed to the campaigns what had to be done,” and “they came across as serious about governing.” One of the more receptive Trump representatives she mentioned, Rich Bagger, was recently dismissed from the Trump effort in an apparent purge of people loyal to demoted campaign chairman Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey.

The agency executives awaiting visits from the Trump delegates have a “heavy plate,” Kurmar said, citing the need to prepare current appointees for departure, continuing the outgoing president’s agenda, and performing the actual transition work. “The career people are very important” to the process, while the political appointees “try to knock off the rest of the president’s agenda” in just 70-odd days, Kumar said. She said she had provided the Trump team with a list of 26 transition-related books and White House org charts dating back to 1978.

Asked about appointments to key officials in a new administration that is “anti-establishment,”, Kumar noted that the 50 national security notables who signed a public letter disavowing the Trump candidacy last August “have counted themselves out.” But the Trump team may find that, in the case of some who’ve criticized the president-elect’s positions, the Trump team “will have to get over it because they need those people.”

The Trump transition team didn’t respond to queries about schedule delays in hitting the recommended milestones in a process that will involve selecting 4,000 government officials.

But Robert Shea, a White House budget office official under President George W. Bush who is now a principal with Grant Thornton and remains active with the good-government community, told Government Executive, “If experience shows that the diligent work to prepare for a more orderly transition is abandoned when the realities of governance are confronted, those organizations need to take a hard look at all this time and energy invested and ask, is it worth it?”

Good government groups, Shea added, “ought to have outcomes in mind.”

This story was updated to clarify a point by Martha Kumar and note that Ado Machida was called to New York, and thus unable to attend the NAPA meeting. 

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