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Don't Worry About the Trump Transition

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Good for Donald Trump for getting an early start on his presidential transition team. Though Chris Christie may not be ideal for this particular job, it is a vital task, especially since Trump's challenges will be unusually difficult, should he actually win the election.

This is in part because, as Politico reported on Monday before the Christie announcement, Republican governing professionals are skeptical at best of serving in a Trump administration. Several who have served in previous Republican administrations rejected the idea flat out. 

Presidential candidates working on filling some 3,000 appointed jobs in the White House and in the various executive-branch departments and agencies have several goals. First, the transition planning that begins before the general election is about unifying the party after the nomination fight.  It's also about finding people who will be loyal ambassadors of the new president (and the party) in the vast bureaucracy of the executive branch. And third, it’s about ensuring competence, since the costs of failure can be severe for the nation and the presidency.

Both Barack Obama and George W. Bush had well-regarded transitions. Obama’s team was headed by John Podesta, Valerie Jarrett and Peter Rouse. Podesta, a former chief of staff for Bill Clinton, helped unify the party after the long primary fight between Obama and Hillary Clinton, and he knew how the presidency and the bureaucracy worked. Rouse had been a top congressional staffer (for Tom Daschle when he was Senate majority leader) who had governing experience and served as a bridge to Democrats in Congress. And Jarrett was a close Obama ally who could look out for the president’s interests.

George W. Bush chose a Texas friend, Clay Johnson, as executive director for his transition effort, but incoming Vice President Dick Cheney, who had White House, executive branch and congressional experience, played a major role. 

Trump needs more help than most. He has less information about how to run a White House and what the executive branch does than any modern presidential nominee, and his ties to the party are probably the weakest of any nominee ever. 

On the face of it, Christie isn’t a terrible choice. He has executive experience and was active in Republican national politics before he ran for president. George W. Bush liked him. But he’s not one to inspire a lot of confidence that Trump is moving in the right direction. Like Jarrett and Johnson, he’s from outside Washington, but so far he's on his own. And he does not represent outreach to the rest of the party since he was quick to endorse Trump after he ended his own presidential bid. 

At least for now, Trump just doesn’t have a lot of top-quality people to choose from. This means he’ll have to try to squeeze those top people who are willing to be associated with him into jobs that aren’t necessarily good fits for them, or settle for second- or third-tier candidates. 

This may alarm a lot of people but look at it this way: The problem will either solve itself or go away. It will go away if more Republicans abandon their nominee, making it less likely there will be any Trump administration jobs to fill. It will solve itself if Trump actually wins, because it will mean the #NeverTrump group will have accepted him and he found a way to unify the party after all. 

Then all we'll have to worry about is whether Trump's apparent ignorance of government and public policy and his erratic actions will mean poor personnel choices and governing chaos. But at least he'll have started the transition on time. 

  1. It’s not clear at this point what role Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was previously reported to be heading the transition, will have. Or for that matter exactly what Christie will be doing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net