In November of 2016 after a very exciting and hyper-partisan presidential election I was asked to join the non-partisan Presidential Transition Office (PTO) to work on the National Security Council team. If you have never heard of this mission, you are not alone. I didn’t know how a campaign transitioned from “politicos” to government leaders until I was asked to help the Trump team to make the leap.
The Presidential Transition Team’s mission is to prepare the new administration to take over the reins of government during the ~75 days between election day and inauguration day. According to the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) website:
“Presidential Transition” refers to the activities that support the orderly transfer of executive power in connection with the expiration of the term of office of a sitting President and the inauguration of a new President.”
I want to lay out a few lessons I think our nation can take away from the most recent transition and apply to future ones. As every member of the PTO signs a non-disclosure agreement, this is not a tell-all story of individuals on the team or the details of daily events or juicy conversations. This is simply a look at the overall process, in order to assist the next transition team. We will study what to focus on, what to avoid wasting time on, and how all Americans can help the next president that transitions into office.
There is a recent law updating the previous legislation (dating back to 1963) governing the transition process and the Obama-Trump transition was the first to occur under the 2015 guidelines. Another helpful resource for transitioning of the president is the non-profit and non-partisan organization The Center for Presidential Transition.
I am in no position to grade the Obama-Trump transition as compared to any others, but I do want to say up front that the volunteer members of this and any other transition team are patriots that work tirelessly (without pay) to make the presidential hand-off successful. If these volunteers did not step forward and carry this load 6-7 days per week for over 2 months…our nation would be in trouble.
One final note is that as much as you think you know about the GSA from various bad news stories, they provided top-notch support to every single person on the Trump-Pence team. I had worked with the GSA while in the military, but never this closely. They made everything happen that we asked for. They were on-hand working just as long every day and night to support the incoming president.
It was a truly non-partisan atmosphere in the “alternate White House” where we worked every day in D.C. I don’t think the transition volunteers and the GSA team are thanked enough for the effort they put in every 4 or 8 years on this critical project. I was humbled to play a small part on this team.
Focus is critical during the transition
I think the best thing a transition team can do is remain focused on its core tasks. In my view, listed below are the most important and the most difficult ones.
Develop and execute a hiring system that works for your administration and is compatible with the needs of the congress. There are many ways to hire new applicants and new administrations need to fill around 2-3000 appointed positions to lead the Executive Branch. You can rely on a consulting firm or you can build a HR team internally from your campaign volunteers. Whatever you do, make it more robust than you think it needs to be. You will not go wrong by having a large HR staff that can sort through the thousands of candidates and then get them into government service in such a short period of time. This team needs to control the whole process from receipt of the first resumes to handing out government badges to new appointees before inauguration day. No applicant should be left to wander on their own for a moment during such a short time period.
The most important part of the HR task will be interviewing candidates. You will need an interview team that is completely trusted by the president-elect. As the new president and vice president will be very busy, they will not be able to weigh-in on thousands of possible candidates. Trump had some great interview chiefs that tirelessly weeded through the candidates, but they were too few in number. The toll of interviewing people every day for 74 days was easy to see on the faces of those key individuals. Again, I would double or triple the number of screeners you think you will need and ensure each of them is fully empowered to make final decisions about hires. I saw a lot of the resumes and talked by phone with many candidates; have no doubt that there are plenty of top-notch people from across the political spectrum volunteering to join the government. That makes it even a tougher job to compare candidates and select the team.
Security clearances are the key to the castle. On the morning after the election every person you guaranteed a job to in the administration should be locked in a room with a seasoned security clearance holder and walked through the process. They should not be allowed to do any other tasks until the clearance request is submitted. It should be a full-time job for a large “security clearance task force” to ensure every question coming from investigators is cleared up the day it is asked. The Trump team especially stumbled on this task as so many had never been through the security clearance process. Maybe they did not believe it would be difficult to navigate, but the failure to take gaining a security clearance seriously is still evident today.
Gaining access to White House and other government facilities and setting up meetings with the permanent government employee team that is staying on in the next administration is not as easy as it sounds. During the transition period, as the incoming team is learning about their new roles and clearing various hurdles, the teams they will inherit after appointment are busy running the government. For example, if you are taking over the counter terrorism or hostage crisis portfolios, you just can’t walk into the middle of that existing team any time you like to chat. Getting cleared to even enter the White House compound is a struggle for full time government employees, never mind the transition team volunteers. So, prioritize this task as well if you are coming into power. The outgoing administration can also help the incoming team by scheduling a weekly session for incoming members to meet with their permanent team. If you are leaving the administration you owe that time to the incoming team and it will benefit the nation.
There is only one executive branch element that truly has to be ready to function on day-one of the administration. That is the National Security Council staff. I was brought in to help this team prepare so I have many insights into the task but I want to simply emphasize the importance of this team’s preparation. This team will actually form first and must start conducting shadow government activities during the transition. They will need a functioning communications team, a liaison team that is in constant contact with the current NSC staff, need access to classified information, and they will be helping the President and Vice President prepare to make a couple hundred phone calls with world leaders. All that while hiring, crafting new draft policies, restructuring the NSC staff, writing executive orders, and conducting required drills such as preparing for a WMD event. That’s the minimum list of tasks to accomplish in barely 75 days. Bottom line this team has to be assembled first, fast, and with finesse. The success or failure of the first few months in office can be tied to this team’s ability.
As mentioned above the president-elect and vice president-elect will be swamped with calls from world leaders during the transition. So will key members of their administration that have been named, like the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, commonly known as the National Security Advisor (NSA). They must be well prepared for these phone calls and they should avoid certain topics of conversation. I can vouch that the NSA-select was working very long hours with little rest and he was understaffed. I would provide the key leaders that are designated by the president-elect to make and take international communications with a robust staff that is only worried about this project. They should never be alone on the phone during this tense period of transition and their staff should be managing every call and topic list. While a quick examination of George H.W. Bush and his National Security Advisor’s activities with foreign dignitaries will show that many interesting things are said during transitions that you would not expect; it is best to take serious precautions for international communications.
What to Avoid during a transition
I will keep this advice shorter as I think most can understand the ramifications of getting this wrong.
Don’t let alternate and conflicting “foreign policy teams” pop up inside the transition team. There should only be one team in the NSC transition element crafting executive orders for inauguration day and detailed policy drafts for the president-elect. While the State and Defense department and other teams will be drafting their policy ideas for the incoming secretaries don’t let the president-elect get hammered on inauguration day by multiple uncoordinated and unvetted policies that you expect him to endorse and even enact. The NSC staff should be driving all urgent policies and orders.
Avoid changing your transition team plan right after the election. Have a basic plan that the president-elect has personally authorized and stick with it.
Don’t get stuck in the minutia of events swirling around in D.C. or elsewhere. You aren’t in power yet so enjoy the last bit of “free time” you are going to get and prepare your team and their families for the 4 years that are coming. The outgoing administration still has control over everything, so don’t worry about anything besides understanding the issues you will face and preparing to address them after inauguration.
Don’t bother being political anymore. The election is over, you won. Call-off your campaign staff and stop beating up the other party. Just focus on preparing to enter office.
Don’t let your staff have an unlimited pass to talk to the press. Focus on picking and hiring great communications teams and let them handle the press. You do not want various people, that aren’t officially in the government yet, twisting the president-elects’ words. The press actually took a while to start stalking the transition team members once they figured out where we were eating lunch every day, so if anyone is talking to the press it is because they are trying to. Enjoy the time away from the spotlight. That honeymoon period won’t last long.
How you can help
So, if this has intrigued you at all, I would urge you to volunteer to help the next presidential transition team in 2020 or 2024.
Contrary to popular belief it really is a non-partisan mission. One of the best assets we had on the NSC team was a gentleman that had helped numerous (I think 8 total) administrations over the decades. Having someone on the team that had seen every mistake in the book was a tremendous relief when we had questions that we didn’t want to bother the outgoing administration with. Also, contrary to rumors, the 2016-17 transition team was very balanced between men and women from the national security world. There were more women than men on any given day in the NSC shop and many of them held senior transition team positions, and went on to get positions in the administration at a higher rate than the men on the team.
All positions are voluntary so you just need to contact the team and get approved to join. Not everyone that joins the transition team will go on to work in the Administration so it isn’t a golden ticket to a political appointment. In many cases they simply need advisors that can be trusted to build a balanced team, to speak honestly about the D.C. process, and think through how to turn campaign ideas into workable policy.
Congress could help the executive branch to transition more smoothly by authorizing enough funds to pay the transition team a weekly salary. There were some great people who couldn’t help during the transition because they couldn’t afford to move to D.C. or travel back and forth from home. Remember this is 75 days long. I was lucky enough to have some friends with a spare bedroom and kitchen I could borrow for a couple months. Most members ended up in hotels and had to eat out for every meal. This is especially critical when a non-DC-based team like Trump had is coming to town; they were not just hanging around D.C., leftover from the Bush administration. Trump’s team came from all over the country out of many sectors like business, academia, diplomacy, military, the intel community, entertainment, non-profits etc. Despite all the hardships of working for no pay and putting in long hours 6-7 days a week, these teams of volunteers never complained about the workload. They just got on with it and volunteered to help other sections of the transition team with their tasks.
My big thought for the outgoing administration of this process, both permanent government employees and appointed members, is to be more proactive and roll-out the red carpet. Again, the election is done and you are not staying around, so help the incoming team with every issue and find a way to get to yes when asked a question, instead of simply saying no so you can ignore the request. There was a very negative feeling from White House during the transition period. Transitions are not personal, they are business, and it is the business of the American people. Just get on with it.
Finally, my advice for all permanent government employees, both civilian and military —get educated about the presidential transition process. You might come in direct contact with the transition team in your current role or you might be able to join the team and help them get on their feet faster. Put politics aside for this short moment and pitch in. Your nation will thank you and you will learn a lot about how D.C. works…and doesn’t.