President Trump delivers his inauguration address on Jan. 20, 2017.

President Trump delivers his inauguration address on Jan. 20, 2017. Patrick Semansky/AP file photo

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White House Veterans: A Smooth Presidential Transition is Critical Even if the Incumbent is Reelected

"Premier Source" for transition resources launches its 2020 efforts.

As the country’s “premier source” for presidential transition information and resources launched its 2020 efforts, government veterans stressed the importance of having a smooth transition for management and national security purposes, regardless of who wins.

The nonprofit Partnership for Public Service launched its Center for Presidential Transition on Thursday. Former White House chiefs of staff Joshua Bolten and Denis McDonough spoke at the launch about the importance of the Partnership’s resources to ensure the government operates efficiently and foreign adversaries don’t take advantage of changeovers. This coincided with the release of the Partnership’s new data that show second term administrations have faced high turnover historically, which the nonprofit said highlights the need to fill positions with qualified candidates early.  

“Presidential transitions are major undertakings with a great deal at stake,” said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, in a press release. “If done well, an effective transition for a new president or to a second term can lead to an administration’s long-term success.” The transition center will be led by David Marchick, most recently the managing director and global head of external affairs at the Carlyle Group and a former government official during the Clinton administration.

When the presidential administration changes, “adversaries are interested in catching us with our eye off the ball or they also want to figure out what we’re up to,” McDonough said. This is one of the reasons why an effective and timely transition is important, he stated. McDonough and Bolten spoke about a credible threat against inauguration day festivities in January 2009 and how the Obama and George W. Bush teams worked together to mitigate any harm. 

If the president is re-elected, turnover can often be a challenge. “From about Election Day through the first six months of the second terms of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, 43% of their Cabinet secretaries, deputy secretaries and undersecretaries at 15 major agencies left their jobs,” according to the Partnership. “Only 11% of the individuals appointed to these positions during the first year in each of the three administrations stayed until the end of the eighth year.”

Bolten said an issue many two-term administrations have is “the president doesn’t think of it as a transition.” However, not having a second term transition is “a huge lost opportunity for an administration to relaunch itself, to refresh its personnel and to attack its policy agenda with the same vigor that the administration did in year one.” He encouraged the Trump administration to take advantage of the Partnership’s resources. 

The transition from Obama to Trump garnered a lot of attention for the Trump team’s unprecedented approach to this established process. According to a Government Business Council/GovExec.com survey released shortly before inauguration day in 2017, nearly 60% of the 745 federal employees surveyed disapproved of Trump’s transition. Also, 35% said they were at least somewhat confident Trump’s appointee to lead their agency would do so effectively, while 44% expressed little confidence.

Author Michael Lewis wrote in his book The Fifth Risk about how Trump appointees tossed out briefing books and made limited attempts to build on the knowledge of the Obama appointees. “Thousands of people inside the federal government had spent the better part of a year drawing a vivid picture of it for the benefit of a new administration,” wrote Lewis. Then shortly after Election Day in November 2016, “Across the federal government the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found. The few places they did turn up, they appeared confused and unprepared.”

However, Lewis wrote, “It was Max Stier who had persuaded Congress to pass the laws that made it so annoyingly difficult for Donald Trump to avoid preparing to be president.”