One year after the most chaotic presidential transition

One year after the most chaotic presidential transition
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Presidential transitions have always been the healthy protein between the amuse bouche of the campaign and decadent dessert of inaugural festivities. It's not a meal without it but it’s rarely savored, either by the media or the public.

One year out from the most chaotic presidential transition in recent history, we may need to rethink this culinary tradition. In 2016, the transition was as juicy as it was messy.


From the immediate dismissal of the head of transition to numerous undisclosed meetings with foreign officials to ongoing lobbying by a transition official for an international client, what we had come to expect from Presidents Bush and Obama was not to be. This chaotic transition will likely spawn dozens of big-budget movies and scathing documentaries; past transitions have rarely gotten the attention of a handful of academic books.


Recall some of the highlights of the 70 or so days between the election and inauguration. After planning for the transition since June, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was replaced immediately after Election Day by Vice President-Elect Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PenceIn midst of political violence, America greatly needs unity O'Rourke's rise raises hopes for Texas Dems down ballot The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Trump, Obama head to swing states with Senate majority in balance MORE, possibly because Christie had awkwardly offered his cell phone to the president-elect or maybe because he’d prosecuted the father of the new president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. It still isn’t clear. 

Meanwhile, despite promises by the transition team that lobbyists had to sever existing contracts, Michael Flynn continued to advocate for the interests of his Turkish clients. It’s unclear whether or not this was a problem for the transition team, reports suggest that the transition team was unsure of whom was in charge of background checks, but it didn’t hold Flynn back from the national security advisor job, even if his tenure was brief.

Then, violating decades of “one-president-at-a-time” conventions, Kushner began diplomatic meetings with foreign officials during the transition, but apparently failed to notify the White House or Departments of Defense or State. So eager to get started, Kushner appeared to have been too busy to accurately complete the routine transition paperwork, and has had to amend what his filing numerous times to account for meetings he failed to remember during the transition. 

The 2016 transition was defined by this type of disregard for convention, ethics and effective organization. All transition are frenzied, but no recent transition has resulted in the array of investigations into the usually commonplace transfer of power between administrations. This was not just an expression of what political scientist Julia Azari called Trump’s status as a disjunctive outsider — the 2016 transition was a real zoo.

The consequences of this chaos are obvious. The lax attitude toward ethics during the transition has transferred to many dubious practices of the White House, according to former Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub. The Trump White House remains slow in filling important federal openings; lagging behind Bush and Obama in appointments and confirmations by wide margins. And, ongoing federal investigations related to Russian interference in the 2016 election continue to focus attention on the transition period — the former campaign aide who recently pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, George Papadopoulos, claimed to have been advising senior officials throughout the transition.

The risks of this occurring again are too grave to put to chance. Whether there is a transition in 2020 or 2024, policy-makers in Washington should consider some common-sense solutions to return us to the practice of no-drama transitions. 

First, to the greatest extent possible, the transition period should be treated like pre-season basketball: just like for the Wizards, before and after the inauguration, the same rules of the game should apply on everything from public disclosure of meetings to official record keeping. A thorough commitment to transparency that was so lacking in 2016 should be a top priority in the future to reassure the American people that they have not been forgotten as soon as voting is over.

Second, the transition shouldn’t be viewed as the first opportunity to cash in campaign IOUs or a time to discretely advance pet projects. It’s been reported that at least nine Trump transition officials registered to lobby within a few months of the end of the transition, counter to the spirit of what the transition team pledged. Lobbyists also contributed millions to the transition team, many doubling-down on previous campaign contributions.

Stricter rules on disclosing financial conflicts of interest, especially those related to campaign donations and lobbying, and enforcing ethical promises, would go a long way to limiting the perverse influence of money. Allocating more federal funds for thorough transition planning would further limit the need to raise additional money from outside sources.

Third, the transition team should follow the sound advice offered to them by former presidents, the out-going administration and career government employee. In 1960, presidential scholar Richard Neustadt advised John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE, “The more career officials can look forward to January 20 with hopeful, interested, even excited anticipation, the better the new administration will be served in the weeks after.” 

This was not the practice in 2016. For example, it was recently reported that two senior state department officials were reprimanded for conferring — at her request — with Nikki HaleyNimrata (Nikki) HaleyIn midst of political violence, America greatly needs unity Trump prefers woman for UN post, interviewing 5 candidates Mary Kissel expected to join State Department MORE during the transition (Haley had just been nominated ambassador to the United Nations). Safe transitions depend upon this type of information exchange between careerists and appointees, especially for critical areas such of foreign affairs and defense.

Petty partisan intrigue must be left in the campaign or risk placing politics ahead of national security. What presidential transition scholar Martha Kumar called “a new level cooperation” between the Bush and Obama teams in 2008 should be promoted as the unquestioned model in the future. 

Who is to say what will happen three years from now. If we face another transition, the best we can do is institute a better set of rules that minimize the type of chaos and dubious ethical behavior we witnessed last year.

Heath Brown is an associate professor of public policy at John Jay College and CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of “Lobbying the New President” (Routledge, 2012).