Dr. Martha Kumar, an expert on American presidential transitions, on the logistics of the handover from Barack Obama to Donald Trump
Author and historian Martha Kumar currently heads the non-partisan organisation White House Transition Project that assists with presidential transitions. She explains how different the transition process under way, wherein President Barack Obama’s team is handing over power to that of President-elect Donald Trump, is compared to the
Could you sketch the transition process briefly?
Well to do that we need to go back, we need to go back to when the transition started. Because the transition did not start with the elections, it started way earlier. There is a piece of legislation that President Obama signed in March  that provided a six-month mark by when the government would establish a framework for the transition by setting up two committees. First, the White House Transition Coordinating Council which has senior staff from the White House on it and establishes transition policy; second, the Agency Transition Directors Council – that has career staff people on it and there are fifteen departments represented on it plus five large agencies. So they are in charge of implementing the transition policy. And they meet on a very regular basis now. And so they thought through, at the direction of the White House, what kind of information people would need coming into the administration on January 20 . They would need information about how the agencies operate, what positions there are in the agencies, what the job descriptions of those positions are, the personnel that are in them now, budget, priority programmes and how those programmes are operating. And then what is the schedule for the coming months…weeks and months. Because the government is already in motion, it’s not going to stop for a new President. A new President just has to figure out how to make it work, to redirect that shift in the way that he wants. So to that end, on August 1, offices were open for the transition teams for the Clinton and Trump people.
It would be different for the Clinton and Trump teams because if Mr. Trump were to win it would be a “change of party transition” and a change of party transition works differently from a same-party transition , particularly in the area of appointments and in policy. If it’s a same-party transition, you have time on your side. Ms. Clinton was promising to carry on much of what Mr. Obama had already done so it’s not a big change but that was not the case with Mr. Trump. He wanted to see how immediately he could affect the operation of government through executive action and so that was one of the focuses of the group in Washington.
How do federal employees and bureaucrats work during the transition – do they start working on the new President’s agenda and tasks or finish up old business?
Well there are three things they [federal employees and bureaucrats] have to do. They have to keep active on the [current] President’s agenda – they want to work until the end of the administration. Then they want to prepare information for people who will be coming in as their successors and they may also have to help those who are leaving the administration – they will have to help them make their way out with the employment process, résumés, etc. The political appointees are the ones who are going to work on finishing the agenda, because they’re the leadership in the departments and agencies and they are the representatives of the President and his political priorities.
Mr. Trump is planning to rescind laws passed by Mr. Obama, such as through the Congressional Review Act. So will the career people have started working on this?
They would have already gone through it. That is the kind of thing they would be doing between August 1  and the election [November 8, 2016] is going through and finding out what the rules and regulations are that this administration issued and then what kind of executive orders the President issued and the kind of things that they want to change. That’s not part of the Congressional Review Act, that’s simply what they want to do when they come in, because they can redo an executive order.
The peaceful transition of power is a defining characteristic of a mature democracy. There have been attacks on individuals, verbal and physical, motivated by an emboldening due to Donald Trump’s election. Is this an aberration? Has this happened before in recent times?
I don’t know how many instances there are. In 2000 you didn’t have demonstrations on the streets. You might have had that in earlier time periods. The transitions between the elections and inauguration have generally been a fairly quiet time and ones where there was an interest on who the President [elect] nominated for particular positions. Occasionally there were issues related to the election. It did not happen in 2000, a year in which you think you might have had [trouble] because the election wasn’t decided till December 13th , there was not a lot of action. But you also did not have cable [television] fanning the flames and you did not have social media which makes organisation a lot easier. You had demonstrations against Nixon when he was inaugurated for the second time in ’73… well we’ll see how long these last, it seems to me that they’re settling down.
Is this transition significantly different from previous ones? How so?
On the government side it is very different because you have an established framework and councils that are directing the gathering of information and they have been in operation for over six months now. That is a significant difference. And on the candidate side, we have not had a candidate who did not have elective experience. So that is different. But his election came about because he promised to shake things up and not have ‘business as usual’ in Washington. So his focus was certainly different from [that of] Hillary Clinton who believed in government and wanted to see government work better. The kind of transition he has to make is different than [that for] others because other Presidents have had elective experience. They may have had elective experience of different branches of government or different levels such as George W. Bush or Bill Clinton at the State level, as Governors. Mr. Obama and George H.W. Bush had experience with Congress – Mr. Obama in the Senate and H.W in the House. Reagan was a Governor, Mr. Carter was a Governor. So they are used to what goes in to the decision-making process when you’re an elected official because there are so many different constituencies inside and outside of government you have to listen to. And when you’re a business leader you can decide who you want to listen to and you can decide the type of information that you want to make decisions. Although you obviously have to set up a decision-making structure and listen to various groups, it’s still different if you’re an elected official. So part of that transition is learning what goes in to elective office. And then you have to bring in a team, a team that is not just composed of campaign people. Presidents and President-elects are traditionally loyal to the people who got them there. You can see that in President Obama.
So many of the people they are going to bring into government are people who were on the campaign but they also have to reach beyond the campaign to get people who have experience in the particular policies you’re interested in and also in the relationship, the relationship between Congress and the President. So you have to make sure that you have done that. And that brings about hard choices. What do you do with those people who worked with you in this campaign a year-and-a-half ago and who have been eating cheeseburgers for a year-and-a-half and working seven days a week? What do you do with those people? You have to find ways of finding them jobs because you don’t want everybody in the White House. Everybody might want to be in the White House but you need a variety of people with different types of backgrounds in the White House and so that is a somewhat painful process. And that happens to every President.
Based on your research which transition has been the most challenging? Does any transition stand out?
I think the most challenging ones are the ones where a President has been assassinated. A challenging one was [that of] President [Harry] Truman who had come into the vice-presidency in January 1945 and in April that year, President Roosevelt died. Truman hadn’t even been Vice-President three months when Roosevelt died and he [Truman] didn’t know about the atomic bomb… the development of the atomic bomb. So he had to learn an enormous amount in a very short period of time because we were at war. I don’t think it can get more difficult than that. And Lyndon Johnson had to learn a lot about what was going on because he was not kept in the loop by President [John V.] Kennedy and his team. …Between ’61 and ’63 he [Vice-President Johnson ] was not really used by the administration very much. Assassinations and deaths, and we’ve had several of them, have been hard times. And then look at President Ford – when he came in after Nixon’s registration, the people had little faith in government.
During the [Great] Depression, in the ’20s and early ’30s, all the way through from the beginning of the country, the Inauguration was on March 4. That only changed to January 20 in 1937, so during that whole period from the November election of Roosevelt until March 4 , 1933, Roosevelt was not cooperating with Hoover and was not providing direction because he was not President. So having that long [a] period was very challenging and in a sense we are better off with a shorter period especially when you have a government that is willing to gather a lot of information for people.
A good transition was in 2008. I think it was a combination of things that made it work. One of them was that all the work the Bush administration did – President Bush directed his Chief of Staff, Joshua Bolten, to make their transition the best ever with a few words that are very important – to get an early start and to do a very complete job in the transition. He talked to Mr. Bolton in December 2007, almost a year before the election, and they started their work and the kind of work they did became the model for the 2015 congressional legislation – the Presidential Transition Improvements Act.
What prompted this transition legislation? Was there an event?
There was an event. September 11. When the attack came there were a substantial number of positions that were not filled in the government. They either had not put forward names or the Senate had not confirmed the people. When the 9/11 Commission looked back at the problems in our response to September 11 and how we were able to deal with the attacks, one of the recommendations they had was to get people in place much faster.
Is Mr. Trump controlling the current transition more than any President-elect has controlled his transition into the White House?
He has a lot of people around him. You know they’re working on the appointments process; they began with the White House and that’s how you have to begin because the White House is your decision-making structure. And then you move to Cabinet positions. That is the kind of sequencing that you want and during the earlier period, August 1 to elections, you had people working under [Chris] Christie in Washington, gathering information.
This is not the first time that a family has been involved, collectively, in a presidency. The Kennnedys and the Bushes come to mind. News reports suggest a lot of score-settling and meddling from the family. As undesirable as this is, is it unusual?
Well there is a settling that has to take place between the campaign and governing because there are different types of people that are appropriate for campaigning that may not be as appropriate for governing. In campaign you’re thinking about winning against one candidate and the time frame is everyday… when you’re governing you need different kinds of people ones that have a sense of how issues have been treated in the past in Washington and what compromises you need to make and also you don’t have a history of very sharp criticisms of people who may be in office whose support you are going to need. You need people with knowledge and people with experience. That’s the difference between governing and campaigning. Now when you look at the difference of having Chris Christie in as transition head and looking at having Mike Pence [as transition head], one of the things you have to think about is that the Republicans not only have gained the presidency but they also have both Houses of Congress. That means they have to deliver and they have to work together. Having Mike Pence in that position works very well – however it was that he got there, having him there is important because he was in the House leadership and knows Paul Ryan well and he was from a neighbouring state. And you have Mitch McConnell [the Senate Majority Leader], whom he would know as well. And he was a Governor, so he has a sense of who the other Governors are and what people they may have whom he could tap as appointees.
But what about family dynamics? Is this level of family involvement unusual?
One of the things we don’t know exactly is how they’re involved. I think that is yet to be seen. Whether they’re going to be actually involved in government – is he [Trump] actually going to bring them into office – that is very different from having them around. Remember, he [Trump] had a very small organisation and he believes in loyalty. So he’s always had a very loyal coterie of people around him for his business, who have been with him, and that was certainly true in his campaign.
Reports say that Mr. Trump has been dealing with foreign leaders without getting briefed by the State Department. There have also been reports of international lobbying too at this stage. What is the established process of foreign diplomacy for [an] incoming President before he has stepped into [the] office?
When they haven’t stepped into office they’re not government officials. One of the things you want to do if you’re speaking to a foreign leader where you need translation is to make sure you’re going to get translation that is accurate. So you’re going to want to work through the State Department. I’m not sure how that’s developing now.
But it’s not just translation…you need a political and strategic briefing from the State Department before speaking to foreign leaders.
Obama returned calls quickly – he was returning calls a couple of days later [after the elections]. You’re not settling policy in these calls. They’re making nice to one another in these calls…You hope you’re not making policy when you’re talking to them [foreign leaders]. With foreign leaders, you’re not in a position as President-elect to make commitments.