Making sure presidential candidates are ready to take charge of the federal government became a priority after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the effort takes on new urgency because of the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic turmoil.
“The relevance of transition planning has intensified since it could be the first election since 1932 where we had more than 20% unemployment, more than twice as high as the unemployment rate in 2008,” said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. “You add to that a health crisis and the potential for a virtual transition. The degree of complexity has increased significantly.”
Under the act, Trump must name members of the transition council and a senior White House employee to chair it no later than six months before Election Day, which is Sunday. Trump is expected to tap Chris Liddell, deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, according to two senior administration officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal plans.
Liddell is already leading the administration’s preparations for a second term, itself effectively a mini-transition, as history shows vast turnover at that point in a presidency. Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, expressed skepticism to donors Tuesday that the Trump White House would work to provide a smooth transition.
“The Bush administration worked very closely with Barack and me, with our administration in terms of handing over power in the transition,” Biden recalled of the 2007-08 period ahead of Barack Obama’s inauguration. “I hope it’s as smooth as it was – and I doubt it, but I hope so.”
Biden has been discussing transition plans with former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman, a longtime top aide who was appointed to fill Biden’s Senate seat when he became vice president. Biden assured donors that he’s proceeding regardless of how Trump handles the matter.
The former vice president said he’s already considering his Cabinet secretaries and “sub-Cabinet” political appointees. Biden added that he has contemplated the unusual step of identifying some top Cabinet picks “even before we are able to win” so that voters will “have a better idea of what my administration will look like.”
The law requires presidential candidates and the General Services Administration to reach a memorandum of understanding that governs everything from the provision of federal office space to access to sensitive documents by Sept. 1, though generally it is reached sooner.
Transition teams begin vetting candidates for jobs in a future administration, including beginning the time-consuming security clearance process for likely appointees who need to be ready to take their posts on Inauguration Day.
Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, sent a directive Monday asking federal agencies to select transition coordinators by the end of the week. Some presidential hand-offs have been friendly, others more frostier, especially when the party in power shifts. In 2008, though, then-President George W. Bush and his chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, worked to develop a politically neutral process to prepare future presidents to take over. It was later written into law by Congress on a bipartisan basis.
Liddell has arguably more experience on presidential transitions than anyone in the administration, having served as executive director of Mitt Romney’s 2012 transition team before joining the Trump administration as a key ally of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Before Obama left office, Congress strengthened the transition process. The 2016 election was the first in which the incumbent had to designate a senior White House official to coordinate the whole-of-government transition.
Trump, though, rejected the detailed transition plans prepared for him. He dismissed his transition chief, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and his advisers trashed their transition plan days after the election. It created chaos and contributed to the administration’s difficulty vetting for senior jobs and staffing that persisted through much of Trump’s first term.
He is now the first incumbent president who must simultaneously run for another term while taking detailed steps to prepare for the prospect of defeat on Election Day. While Trump is moving to meet the statutory requirements, some Democrats have expressed doubts that the White House would be fully engaged in the process of preparing the president’s 2020 opponent.
“Given the many questions about the president’s commitment to governance, it is vital that he demonstrate his commitment to transition right out of the box,” said former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough.
He added, "I’m concerned that this late in an election year there are still no indications the President and his team are taking this responsibility seriously.” Administration officials insist they are complying with the law, though a key test of their commitment to the spirit of the transition act will come in how the White House council works with Biden's yet-to-be-announced staff.
The transition act was amended earlier this year, in part because of the Trump experience, to require that transition teams develop ethics plans before they get federal support. Congress also required that senior career officials, rather than political appointees, oversee agency transition plans.
Trump's transition was scrutinized for its wide use of current and former lobbyists and industry insiders on its agency teams. The 2020 law requires that transition team members sign an ethics agreement and that the transition disclose any conflicts of interest.
Michael Rigas, acting OMB deputy director, will run the Agency Transition Directors Council, along with Mary Gibert, a senior career General Services Administration official serving as the federal transition coordinator.
— Associated Press writers Bill Barrow and Alex Jaffe contributed.