There is an old adage that stands the test of time: You never get a second chance to make a good first impression. Until Donald Trump pulled off the most surprising presidential upset in several generations, being exiled to the Trump Presidential Transition Team was akin to being sent to a Siberian work camp. You went there and were never seen again. Nobody inside or outside of the campaign gave Donald Trump a chance in hell of winning the Electoral College.
But he won.
The skeletal thin Trump campaign soon realized that they now had to staff over 4,000 appointive positons government, something that is known as the “Plumb Book,” which covers everything from agency heads and their subordinates.
The peaceful transfer of power is an American hallmark that is a cherished—but often overlooked element of American democracy. People forget that when the one presidency wraps up at noon on Inauguration Day, a new cast of characters enters the White House. Considering that the United States remains as the preeminent power in the world, it is important that none of the functions of governing slips through the cracks.
A successful presidential transition is both an art and a science. Most do not realize that the complex choreography of a presidential transition often begins a year before the election as members of the GSA begin the process of preparing to turn the keys from one administration to the next. The central positons are announced first, followed by a chorography of cabinet and cabinet-level slots. At the end of the process, it culminates with the Presidential Inauguration.
Back in January 1981, in the closing moments of the Carter White House as everybody pulled an all-nighter to make one last attempt to free the hostages Iran, complex negotiations were being conducted as employees of the GSA were packing up the Carter Oval Office to make way for the Reagans. Once Reagan took the oath of office, all of the White House clearances for the Carters staff officially were retired.
Jimmy Carter used to say that if people wanted to see how he would behave as a president, they should see how he behaves as a candidate. He was quite correct because while running for office is different than running the government, how one behaves is usually “front and center.”
By the time Barack Obama entered the White House in 2009, the preparations for a successful transition were already in place and John Podesta and Valerie Jarrett could build a White House staff that would not only address the policy directives of a new administration but would also deploy a team that would highlight the president’s strengths but also shore up his weaknesses.
The meme of “No Drama Obama,” which permeated the campaign trail in 2008, was carried through to two successful terms in the White House. Organizing a successful transition allowed the new President and his staff to focus on the greatest dangers, including two foreign wars, an economy in turmoil, and the worst jobs losses since The Great Depression that awaited him on Day One. By Inauguration Day, he had the Right People in place. He was able to communicate domestically and internationally that professionals were in charge.
Now we get to the emerging and still-disorganized Administration of President-Elect Donald Trump. A week and a half after his surprise win, the process of filling these central positon is clouded in secrecy and confusion. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was demoted by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner as payback.
Back when Christie was a US Attorney, he successfully prosecuted Kushner’s father, which led to serious jail time. Everybody who had any connection with the New Jersey Governor was tossed out of the window or sent packing. This was a scene is right out of a Telenovela or “The Godfather” as opposed to any presidential transition.
The hiring of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as Trump’s Chief Strategist has dominated a week’s worth of news cycles. Instead of working toward a seamless transition, surrogates are trying to argue that he is not an anti-Semite or White Supremacist, even though there is ample evidence to the contrary. Even more disturbing are published reports President-Elect Trump did not understand the enormity of what awaited him. He seemed to think that the White House staff would somehow magically remain on the job after he took office.
Like it or not, the transition of the new Administration is mirroring the personality of Donald Trump. There are ongoing feuds with the press, reports of backstabbing, and long knives have emerged. This is an emerging presidential administration at war with itself.
Nearly two weeks after the election win, federal agencies are still waiting for the “landing parties” from the Trump campaign to arrive so that a seamless transition can take place.
Throughout the campaign, Donald Trump was an equal opportunity insulter, who went after a Gold Star family, John McCain’s courage, women in general, his primary opponents, and Hilary Clinton just to name a few. The New York Times published a two page insert on his Twitter insults alone.
If the people chosen thus far are an indication of what is to follow, the next four years will be one long Excedrin headache. Loyalty is placed way ahead of job knowledge and that the only person who is more unqualified to be Secretary of State than Rudy Giuliani is South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley. Both are under consideration. The guessing on cabinet choices and other high level administration appointees appear to point into a direction of a hard right administration never seen in American governance. There appears to be a gleeful desire to dismantle Medicare, Roe v. Wade, and certainly Obamacare. Fifty years of social progress is now on the table, ripe for repeal.
By failing his transition President-Elect Trump will signal— to friends and foes alike—that his administration is a disorganized mess. It suggests that a foreign power—one that appears to have already manipulated the election itself—might able to easily deceive and distract a new and an equally green President and White House staff with little effort because he is unable to get his own house in order. Failing to get the presidential transition correct also portends a nightmare of things yet unseen to come.