Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently

Chaotic Trump transition leaks: Debates must tackle how Democrats will govern differently
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The release of a trove of leaked documents dramatizes the total chaos of the Trump presidential transition and shows just how early in his presidency ethics had been thrown out the window. With Democratic debates beginning this week, candidates have an opportunity to explain how they would govern differently and how self-interest and self-dealing would be kept far from their White House.

On Monday, Axios reported on nearly 100 planning documents from the team at the Republican National Committee charged with vetting candidates for President TrumpDonald John TrumpRouhani says Iran will never seek nuclear weapons Trump downplays seriousness of injuries in Iran attack after US soldiers treated for concussions Trump says Bloomberg is 'wasting his money' on 2020 campaign MORE’s cabinet. Because this planning occurred prior to the inauguration, and much of the team was covered by Non-Disclosure Agreements, we’ve had little first-hand information before now about how the personnel process worked.

We now know the process was a complete mess.

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For one, the skeletal transition team raised serious questions about the business and lobbying ties of Sonny PerdueGeorge (Sonny) Ervin PerdueOvernight Health Care: Trump reportedly lashed out at health chief over polling | Justices to hear ObamaCare birth control case | Trump rolls back Michelle Obama school lunch rules Trump to roll back Michelle Obama's school lunch rules on vegetables, fruits Cities, states sue over planned Trump cuts to food stamps MORE, Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittEPA employees push 'bill of rights' to protect scientific integrity EPA's independent science board questions underpinnings of numerous agency rollbacks Overnight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses MORE, and Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceThe most expensive congressional races of the last decade Isakson talks up bipartisanship in Senate farewell speech Hundreds apply to fill Isakson's Senate seat in Georgia MORE, yet this did not dissuade the president. All were appointed to the cabinet, but soon resigned amid various allegations and federal investigations.

Others were barely vetted at all before surprise Trump announcements, frequently leaving the transition team scrambling and major problems undiscovered prior to a confirmation hearing. The hurried pace led the team to miss a domestic abuse allegation against Trump’s initial nominee to run the Department of Labor, Andrew Pudzer. Pudzer withdrew his nomination before he appeared before the Senate. 

This is not how the process is supposed to work.

Congress has given transition teams for both parties millions of dollars to begin preparing months before Election Day. In 2016, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had been doing just this, as had Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Trump on Clinton's Sanders comments: 'She's the one that people don't like' Hillary Clinton tears open wound with her attack on Sanders MORE’s team, but he was summarily fired as soon Trump won, relegating months of planning memos to the garbage can as untrustworthy. 

Moreover, ethics and comprehensive vetting of candidates were the signatures of the Obama transition in 2008, as they were for President Bush eight year earlier. Though far from perfect, previous presidents have strenuously avoided even the appearance of a conflict of interest during the transition period, fearing early accusations would stick for the next four years and hamstring an ambitious policy agenda.

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The Trump transition disregarded these practices, recklessly underfunding the careful planning for his administration.

This Wednesday, the Democratic debate moderators should push each candidate to clarify how they would do it differently in 2020. Each should be asked these three questions.

  1. Who would be qualified and disqualified from serving in your cabinet?
  2. Will lobbyists have a role to play in your administration?
  3. When will you begin planning your transition? 

Publicly discussing the transition period before Election Day has always been a taboo, and any candidate who mentions it runs the risk of accusations of overconfidence. But 2016 proved the real risk comes from under-planning, not over-planning. 

Voters should hear from the candidates with the best plans for governing — not just the best plans for policy and for defeating Trump.

Heath Brown is the author of “Lobbying the New President” and an associate professor at John Jay College and the CUNY Graduate Center at the City University of New York.