Architect of the U.S. Capitol

Trump’s Unorthodox Transition Leaves Government In Uncharted Territory

Critics fault the president-elect for focusing on Cabinet picks at expense of other critical positions.

Earlier this week, with 38 days to go until the inauguration, President-elect Donald Trump had named 10 individuals to his Cabinet, putting his transition “well ahead of any modern administration,” Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters on Tuesday.

Speaking just before Trump announced three additional Cabinet selections—ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry for Energy, and Rep. Ryan Zinke for Interior—Spicer said Trump’s team had talked with 74 world leaders and sent 240 individuals on specialized landing teams into federal agencies.

But viewed from less sensational heights—at the agency level, where deputies and undersecretary slots await a human face—Trump’s whirlwind Cabinet auditions at New York’s Trump Tower are unusual, if not chaotic.

Trump has “not only turned the playbook on its head, he is ripping it up,” Deputy Labor Secretary Christopher Lu, a leader of the 2008 Obama transition team who recalled daily conversations with incumbent officials during that 77-day handover. “There’s lots we have seen that could change on Jan. 20, but I suspect it will not,” he said Monday at a panel on the president’s first year at the Brookings Institution.

Trump’s team has drawn fire for focusing on high-profile Cabinet personalities but not naming a budget director—despite a fast approaching deadline for submitting the fiscal 2018 federal budget in February and an April deadline for raising the debt limit (that’s also when agency funding expires under the current budget).

Key White House officials, such as National Security Adviser Susan Rice and counter-terrorism and homeland security adviser Lisa Monaco, along with one staffer at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, have revealed that Trump landing teams were either late or have not visited. Trump’s team sent a controversial questionnaire to Energy Department employees seeking the name of climate change specialists. (The department on Tuesday said it would not provide the information).

And Trump himself has been spurning the daily intelligence briefings recommended by President Obama—his staff now says he’s getting three a week—but is making time for post-election victory rallies across the country.

“I wish Trump would spend a little less time running around the country and a little more time learning about this government,” for which he’ll have 800 key appointments and oversee 4 million military and civilian employees, said Brookings scholar Elaine Kamarck, a veteran of the Clinton White House who just published a book on how presidents fail. “It makes one nervous that he doesn’t have policy papers saying how much money to spend, what part of government is tasked, what the legislation looks like. We’re in uncharted territory.”

A Gallup Poll released Wednesday showed that only 48 percent of Americans approve of the transition process (far below previous administrations) while 48 percent disapprove of the first such handover being conducted under the 2015 law that formalized the process and structured White House and agency cooperation.

But the progress or lack thereof being displayed by Trump’s team is a complex picture. Despite a successful candidate’s style that keeps friends and foes guessing, numerous close Trump observers, transition veterans and the array of good-government groups set up to provide guidance during the transition remain officially upbeat about the degree of consultation both before and after the election, as expressed in interviews with Government Executive.

A Cooperative Bureaucracy

Josh Bolten, the chief of staff and budget director for President George W. Bush who led the well-regarded handover to Obama in 2008, told Monday’s Brookings panel that Bush came into office with a 450-page policy book and a commitment to govern like he had campaigned. “Trump is not in that position,” he said, and the indicators are that there are “not thick policy books nor a big campaign infrastructure ready to govern.”  

Bolten said “there is a tendency to focus on the bright shiny objects of the Cabinet.” But he is cautiously optimistic that Trump still has time to get organized. “The bureaucracy is resilient and capable of running itself,” he said. It needs focusing “only in areas where the president wants to take it in new directions.”

Trump’s transition team before the election, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, worked “quite well” in its effort to identify potential appointees and sketch out policy options, said a source close to that team who spoke on condition of anonymity. That’s in large part because of guidance from the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, the National Academy of Public Administration, the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, and individual consultants such as Harvard University government professor Carlos Diaz Rosillo and Towson University political science professor emeritus Martha Joynt Kumar.

The work of the 2012 Romney Readiness team was also helpful, though “we tried to be more streamlined,” the source said. There were weekly meetings to start developing Day 100 and Day 200 agendas both in Washington and in Trump Tower in Manhattan. The team mapped out an “implementation roadmap” for high priority issues, such as health care, trade, immigration, tax reform, and readied a set of executive actions Trump could take on Day One. “We actually drafted some of the legal instruments,” the source said.

For each of the top 25-30 agencies, the team had prepared “outside-in analysis” of the most important issues. The source also confirmed that the Trump pre-election team was in regular contact with the White House Transition Coordinating Council and the Agency Transition Directors Council.

Good-Government Groups

That positive rapport was confirmed in an interview with Bill Antholis, a White House veteran and now director and CEO of UVA’s Miller Center. The Trump team from the first day after the conventions “welcomed our advisers, after the election too,” he said. His staff encouraged the incoming team to think of the legislative path and to “structure the White House for executive action,” whether to appoint specialized “czars” and the role of the vice president (generalist or specialist on a couple of areas), he said.

But Antholis noted the Trump people have yet to appoint a deputy chief of staff, a communications director or domestic policy council chairman. The domestic umbrella, he added, encompasses such central Trump economic agenda issues as tax reform, immigration, infrastructure and “building the wall,” which is a homeland security issue.

“You need to build a White House team,” Antholis said.

A spokeswoman for the Partnership for Public Service said that the nonprofit’s advisory meetings with the Trump team continue, but declined to give details.

Kumar, who has written widely on transitions, said her White House Transition Project has “continued to provide information in the same way we did in the pre-election period. We furnish materials and information related to White House operations and issues without telling people what they should do. We give data and organization details with the goal of aiding people coming into office.”

Also confirming continued contact is Dan Blair, president and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration. Before the election, both the Clinton and Trump transition teams “were receptive and supportive of our work and expressed appreciation for the information” he said, citing several NAPA reports on transition and the top 40 management jobs.

“Post-election, we continue to work with the Trump team, which has been receptive and open to the academy’s work,” he said.

The Senior Executives Association has not heard from the Trump team but doesn’t expect to, said its President, Bill Valdez. “Their focus should rightly be on transition at agencies, so we’re observing and keeping contact with members.” SEA offers a transition guide and webinars.

“The landing teams appear to be more active at some agencies than others,” Valdez said. “One of the things we focus on is career-political interface, which is not something that typically was done in prior transitions,” he added. “It seems like there needs to be much more attention to the interface than there has been with other administrations.”

Valdez advises transition critics to remember that “the bureaucracy is incredibly resilient. We’ve seen this in the past when an incoming administration has an agenda that is markedly different than the current administration,” he added. “The bureaucracy responds in a very positive way and adapts the current mission to requirements of the new administration,” he said, “though this doesn’t come without a little bit of cognitive dissonance.”