An Inside Look at the Presidential Transition Process

After Donald Trump bucked conventional wisdom and won the election, President Barack Obama has repeatedly emphasized that America’s democracy is great and unique because of the peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next.

Much of that transition happens behind the scenes, with scores of staffers working to prepare Trump’s administration for the myriad issues of national and global significance.

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So what exactly are the transition teams doing in the next 66 days to prepare for those consequential decisions including national security?

Joining us with their perspectives are two men who worked on the transition between President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. They are Mike Scudder, who served on President Bush’s national security transition team and then as general counsel of the National Security Council; and Ivo Daalder, who worked on President Obama’s National Security Policy transition team and then as ambassador to NATO.

Below, an edited Q&A with our guests.

President George W. Bush pressed his staff to make a smooth transition to the Obama administration. You both were part of that transition. What did that look like?

Mike Scudder: President Bush provided that direction and then the senior staff got together to structure the transition. We identified areas active in the country and the world and assembled information that the new team was going to need. That information took the form of meetings between existing teams and incoming teams.

Ivo Daalder: In a bunch of ways, the Bush administration recognized that a smooth transition was critical and that directive came from the top. The Obama transition team could see whoever they wanted to see. The transition was focused on making sure the government would continue to function as smoothly as possible. Background papers were prepared looking at the short term, medium term, and long term. What happened and why that decision was made. The entire team leaves office and then the other team comes on board. That’s very hard and the Bush administration did everything to make it a smooth transition.

President Bush’s transition team prepared transition packages. What are those and will President Obama’s administration do the same for President-elect Trump’s transition team? 

Scudder: There were probably 25 or more topical areas. Each package had a common template and thought that a unified structure would be helpful. So the transition package presented the issue/challenge when Bush took office. How they worked on it and whether it was a success or failure. It also outlined the ongoing challenges with that particular issue. Where do things stand right now?  Everything we wrote was intended to be as objective and descriptive as possible. The papers did not say do it X way. Instead it was a pro vs. con, success vs. failure. The transition packages are meant for to help the next administration take the baton and run in whatever direction the president thinks is best.

Daalder: These were the papers that laid out how we made the decisions, the rationales. They were short papers, a couple of pages. The background pages went much deeper. I was recently consulted by President Obama’s administration, but I’m not part of the transition team. They wanted to know, What did you learn from the transition you worked on? What was useful?

We found what was most useful was learning about the issues that you’ll face on day one. The Bush papers read like justifications of policies and decisions. What was really helpful was: what was critical, what was on deck and what were the promises that had been made? For example, there was an agreement signed in late November by the Bush administration about Iraq, a decision made by the sitting president but then the Obama team was told everything about it.

Do differing policies make the transition more complicated?

Daalder: Elections are for changing policies. Transition teams are trying to help them move into power and understand what’s before them. There’s a clear line. The president of the U.S. is Barack Obama until noon January 20, 2017. The entire government is responsive to him and him alone. So for example, George H.W. Bush having lost to Bill Clinton decided to deploy 30,000 troops to Somalia. He told Clinton about it, but the president is going to do what he’s going to do. Donald Trump will have a team to execute his policies. Transition teams are about learning to understand what’s going on, not why my policies are better than yours.

Scudder: I think not. President Obama gave clear direction after the election: Donald Trump won the election. We owe him a robust transition. He expects his staff to deliver. We knew in the Bush White House that there were policies that would change on day one with President Obama. But you owe the President and his team a substantial effort.

We know that President-elect Trump met with President Obama. But have staff started transition meetings?

Daalder: The Federal Government was closed on Friday for Veterans Day. On Thursday, the State Department said they hadn’t heard from anybody yet from the Trump team. Don’t know, but think this week transition teams would presumably start to have conversations.

Scudder: The president-elect gets the same intelligence briefings as the president and they are starting to set up meetings to start transitioning. They start at high level then work its way down to detailed levels. Chiefs of staff meet then right down the line. How many people do you need? What lessons have you learned on staffing? Structures and policy-making processes differ between administrations. 

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