Don Gips' op-ed on the presidential transition

Advice for a presidential move to the White House

By Don Gips

On my first day as head of presidential personnel for Barack Obama, I woke to the surprising headline that Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota had withdrawn his nomination to be health secretary

What seemed like a relatively small tax issue was attracting too much media and he decided to bow out. Each day thereafter was filled with additional shocks and a schedule of back-to-back interviews, 400,000 CVs to review and background checks — all amid constant media predictions, which usually had no connection to reality. 

For a new US administration to begin work straight after inauguration day, a daunting number of decisions have to be made within the weeks following the election. This is particularly true in 2016, where policy differences with the outgoing administration are stark. Had Hillary Clinton won, it would have been a friendly process, with less pressure to replace people or policy. Yet even the most professionally managed transitions are chaotic. If Donald Trump hopes to avoid disruption to the work of government, he needs to organise quickly, starting with personnel.

More than 4,000 White House and executive branch positions need to be filled, including more than 1,000 that require Senate confirmation. Picking the appointee is merely the first stage and triggers Federal Bureau of Investigation security clearance, political vetting and a review by the Office of Government Ethics to avoid financial conflicts. For some individuals, it comes as a surprise that they must lay bare all of the activities from their adult lives and unwind financial holdings to remove conflicts. This takes weeks, where seemingly minor queries cripple the wider appointments process.

President-elect Trump’s transition team has to take some key decisions right now. First, they must be clear with nominees about their redlines on lobbying, representing foreign governments, employing illegal immigrants, infidelity or whether they have used marijuana (even in a state where it is legal). They will also need to consider the different standards of Senate committees; the banking committee has higher standards on tax issues for example. Being upfront will avoid future embarrassment, as the FBI uncovers everything.

Second, the transition team needs to decide the importance of diversity in its administration. Once one position is decided, it will dictate the make-up of other appointments. And third, they will need to decide the balance of power in picking appointees in the cabinet agencies: does the cabinet secretary or White House make the final call? 

Concerns have been expressed that the Trump transition is behind schedule and is struggling to get organised. During the Obama transition, by this stage we had detailed policy plans and agency review teams in place, as well as lists of pre-vetted appointees for the positions requiring Senate confirmation ready on election day. We still entered a world of organised chaos. Our best-laid plans did not survive very long. 

Given the apparent lack of planning, Mr Trump’s transition will encounter an exacerbated version of these challenges. The appointments and confirmation process may be messier, particularly at levels below the cabinet where it seems even fewer preparations have been made. This will have a knock-on effect: without these appointees in place, the administration will not be able to implement its policy and budget priorities.

Perhaps in the coming weeks, we will see a more organised personnel process from Mr Trump. Failure to do so will mean a less capable leadership and further confusion in Washington. Suspicion will increase in foreign capitals too about Mr Trump’s ability to lead the US.

Don Gips is a principal at the Albright Stonebridge Group.