Watchdog group points to “significant ethics problems” among some of the White House Transition Coordinating Council members.
The General Services Administration is preparing office space at the Commerce Department for the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee—presumed to be former Vice President Joe Biden—for use in planning to take the reins of power in the event of a November win. That’s one of the details the Trump administration reported to Congress on Wednesday outlining its plans to ensure a peaceful changeover of power if President Trump does not win re-election.
The transition documents are required by law six months prior to the presidential election on November 3. They include a report on transition activities and planning thus far, and letters from the transition coordinator to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Oversight and Reform Committee verifying the executive branch is complying with the law.
The nine-page report details two legally-required transition councils; GSA’s preparations to assist the incumbent and possible incoming administration before and after the election; funding allocations; and upcoming meetings and training sessions by various agencies.
The Federal Transition Coordinator and Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director for Management will co-chair the Agency Transition Directors Council that helps prepare briefing materials for a potential incoming administration.
The second council is the White House Transition Coordinating Council, which Trump’s chief-of-staff Mark Meadows will chair. Members will also include acting OMB Director Russell Vought, Deputy Chief of Staff for operations Tony Ornato, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, Presidential Personnel Office Director John McEntee, and Federal Transition Coordinator Mary Gibert, GSA's associate administrator.
In the near future, GSA will meet with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Justice Department and FBI to discuss the security clearance process and access to classified information for transition team members.
Additionally, the Office of Government Ethics is “training agency ethics officials and other stakeholders for a potential transition, emphasizing substantive government ethics and financial disclosure issues relevant to [positions requiring Senate confirmation nominees],” the report said.
This year is the first time the 2019 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act, which was enacted to amend the 1963 Presidential Transition Act, will be in effect. The law clarifies GSA’s responsibilities during administration changeovers, requires presidential candidates to publicly release ethics plans for their transitions before elections and mandates each agency create a succession plan for every senior non-career position by Sept. 15 of an election year.
“We are encouraged that the three critical stakeholders for transition planning—the White House, federal agencies and the Biden team—are all taking this planning seriously,” said Dave Marchick, director of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition. “At a time of economic and health crisis, effective and early transition planning—regardless of who wins—has never been more important.”
The Partnership, which serves as an information resource for presidential transitions, stresses that a transition occurs regardless of whether the sitting president wins or not. Transition planning is just as essential for an incumbent president’s successful second term as it is for a new president’s first term, the Partnership asserted in an April report.
Donald Sherman, deputy director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, expressed some skepticism about the Trump administration’s transition planning and noted that it was late in submitting the report, which was due May 3.
Sherman also pointed to reports of “significant ethics problems” among some of the White House Transition Coordinating Council members. “The administration is not off to a great start,” he told Government Executive. “The president has routinely undermined agencies like OGE and [the Office of Personnel Management] that are critical to that process … And there’s obviously significant questions about whether the president has corrupted the Department of Justice and GSA, which are also critical agencies in the transition process.”