Trump Campaign Upends the Science of Presidential Transition

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President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk across the South Lawn before departing the White House on May 5, 2016, in Washington.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  • Experts in Washington worry about Trump's preparations
  • New presidents face 4,000 appointments and $4 trillion budget

Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign is a challenge for people managing the transition to the next president, a process that has been reduced to a near-science in Washington and that in turn will test a candidate known for his throw-out-the-playbook style.

A law signed in March requires the White House to start preparing for a new president six months before the November election, and at least three outside groups help to smooth the transition. The effect is a veritable blueprint for running the federal government -- but Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, has made a point of eschewing the rules for both politics and governance.

“When the election’s over and suddenly you have to put a government together, you’d like to not start with a blank sheet of paper in filling the hundreds and hundreds of appointments you have to make,” former congressman Vin Weber said in an interview. “In Donald Trump’s case, he just hasn’t chosen to do that, which is something that worries me.”

New presidents have to make about 4,000 political appointments and promptly issue a budget for the $4 trillion federal government, on top of figuring out how to enact their campaign promises. The stakes are especially high for national security, where any raw seam in the transition could leave the U.S. vulnerable to terrorists or other attackers. Even the most innocuous proposals can trip up new presidents and their administrations, said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the nonprofit White House Transition Project.

“The only time they come into play is when you break your pledge,” Joynt Kumar said.

In 2012, Republican challenger Mitt Romney began laying groundwork for his hypothetical administration in April, said former Utah governor Mike Leavitt, who managed Romney’s transition planning and wrote a book on the experience. Trump, who only cleared the Republican field this week, has just begun such work, his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said in an interview.

New York Meeting

Weber, a veteran of three Republican presidential transition teams who supported Ohio Governor John Kasich this year, said traditional campaigns by this point have sizable policy shops staffed by people qualified to plan a transition and work in the administration.

Trump’s outsider persona “may be appealing to people, but it also means he hasn’t met a lot of people who should go into the lower levels of government,” Weber said. “He might think he knows who should be secretary of defense, but he might not know a lot of people who should go in at the undersecretary level.”

Representatives of the five campaigns still active at the time met quietly last month at a posh New York retreat with transition-planning veterans convened by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. None of the campaigns would discuss the event, and the partnership wouldn’t say who represented Trump’s campaign or any of the others.

“By early April, these teams need to be standing up their transition efforts,” said David Eagles, director of the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition, which coordinates with the White House and campaigns. The candidates are “at varying levels of maturity” on transition planning, he said, declining to discuss anyone specifically.

“It was like herding cats out there,” he said of getting representatives from all the campaigns to the two-day meeting.

The Trump campaign is heeding advice gleaned from the retreat, Lewandowski said.

“We attended the meeting and we are in the process of putting assets in place,” he said. “We look to be following their advice.”

Like the campaigns of Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, Trump’s campaign hasn’t publicly named someone to head its transition team. One transition veteran in Washington, who asked not to be identified to protect relationships with campaign officials, said he was worried that Trump’s campaign may have to quickly gear up a transition operation and that Clinton’s campaign may be overconfident about managing a transition given her experience in two presidential administrations.

The Clinton and Sanders campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.

There is some hope that Trump’s experience as a businessman will help mitigate a late start in his transition planning.

"You don’t get to be successful running a business like he’s done without having managerial skills,” said Mack McLarty, who ran Bill Clinton’s presidential transition in 1992 and is now chairman of McLarty Associates and a Hillary Clinton supporter. “It’ll be disruptive. Will it be disruptive in a good way or in a bad way? What it would be is a big risk.”

It’s not just government veterans urging campaigns to think early about transition. Business leaders including Doug Conant, a former CEO of Campbell Soup Co. who now works with the Partnership and is head of ConantLeadership, are helping too.

As a veteran of multiple corporate takeovers, Conant expects that Trump and Clinton would approach a transition very differently.

“He would approach it in an entrepreneurial way,” Conant said of Trump. “I suspect the Democratic candidate, if it were to be Hillary would approach it in a more traditional way.”

Romney’s Plan

Leavitt’s work on behalf of Romney is viewed as a model by people on both sides of the political aisle, even though it was for naught. Beginning more than six months before the election, Leavitt and his team built a computer system to handle an expected 400,000 resumes from people seeking jobs in Romney’s administration. They wrote a 200-day plan to enact the new president’s agenda, complete with drafts of regulations and more than 50 executive orders. In effect, they built a federal government in miniature.

“I hadn’t really thought about all the things that were involved in this,” Leavitt said in an interview. “I literally started by getting all the books I could find."

The law that Obama signed in March to further smooth presidential transitions was named after Leavitt and former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who served on the advisory board for Obama’s transition in 2008. The new law creates a federal overseer for the presidential transition and requires each agency to name a person to manage the process.

Obama on Friday signed an executive order establishing a transition coordinating council, including the White House chief of staff, the director of intelligence and the head of the budget office, along with a panel to carry out the council’s guidance at the agency level.

“A president is at his or her most potent moment when he or she takes office,” said Lisa Brown, Georgetown University’s general counsel and a top official in Obama’s 2008 transition. “You don’t want to squander that opportunity. Congress is often at its most receptive. You start to have fights, and then everything gets harder.”

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