Sealing The Deal: Imagining A Trump Transition

Howard Schweitzer | Managing Partner, Cozen O'Connor Public Strategies

After his latest string of victories, the GOP nomination is very much within Donald Trump’s grasp. And with Hillary Clinton’s laundry list of liabilities, her victory in November is hardly a given. Indeed a few recent polls have shown a potential Trump-Clinton race to be in the margin of error. That means it’s time to confront a question that many in Washington are only beginning to acknowledge: Trump could win the whole thing – and then what?

As Trump continues the unorthodox campaign that seems set to secure him the Republican nomination, he needs to be looking ahead to form a very orthodox pre-presidential transition team. Outsiders can be great at campaigning, but setting up a real-life presidential administration is very much an insider’s game.  And Trump is already falling dangerously far behind.  

Trump presents himself as someone who “tells it like it is,” and I will take the opportunity here to do the same for him: If only by necessity, if he has any interest in actually being an effective president, Trump needs to come to some sort of accord with the very Washington insider crowd he’s running to topple. And he needs to do it now.

Because of the challenges of switching gears from campaigning to governing, it’s common for candidates to begin ramping up their pre-transition efforts when they get to the point in the campaign that Trump has now reached. In my experience, gleaned from being part of presidential transitions between three different administrations, both as a career employee and political appointee, it takes four to six months for an administration to shift from campaign mode to governing in the best of circumstances. At the pace Trump is moving, we’re looking at more like a year. 

That’s a year for the entrenched interests – including a bureaucracy of 2.7 million federal employees, a Congress itching to assert itself, and the media, thinks tanks, and interest groups that are permanent Beltway fixtures – to dig themselves in.

The first task is to find someone to lead his transition effort – and who can also be part of the most urgent task: the vetting and selection of a running mate. (As with Dick Cheney in 2000, this could be the same person.) To that end, Trump needs someone who has operated in Washington’s corridors for decades and has the courage and standing to tell Trump when his bluster outmatches government’s reality. He needs an éminence grise. This could be a former White House chief of staff, like a Josh Bolten or Andy Card. Or it could be a longtime Beltway denizen like Newt Gingrich or Boyden Gray. (Though it’s not clear any of them would take the job.)

The next task will involve assembling resumes and vetting potential staff. As with all administrations, Trump’s early appointees will be mostly junior staff coming from campaign positions with little or no prior work experience, let alone government experience. I’ve seen the culture clash first hand as campaign staff shift to positions of government authority. You could almost hear the young guns as they swaggered into their new government offices, emboldened by President Trump’s bravado and bold pronouncements, barking: “President Trump wants this done.” The permanent bureaucrats will respond with a collective chuckle, and put their pencils down. When Trump’s appointees return, fed up with slow bureaucratic processes, their boss’ signature cry of “You’re fired!” will be met with another long laugh, and the loud thump of a book of HR regulations and union-written contracts that essentially forbid firing government workers.

President Trump also is going to face a Congress, fractured though it may be, that will surely assert its power. Candidate Trump keeps telling us that he is a deal maker and that legislating involves cutting deals. But Congress also has oversight power, and congressional oversight is invasive, time consuming, and at times belittling. Trump, in running his family’s business, has not even had to answer to a private sector board of directors, let alone the Congress. Trump has received a sprinkling of endorsements from the House, and touts as a key advisor his single endorser from the Senate, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who made the political calculation that aligning himself with Trump was in his own political interest. But talking to one Senator and a handful of Congressmen is not a transition strategy.

Trump has prided himself on the notion that his “self-funded” campaign will limit access to his future administration by industry insiders and lobbyists. The Obama Administration ran this play in 2008.  But what they didn’t realize then, and Trump doesn’t seem to realize now, is that whether people like it or not, these “insiders” know their issues and can provide valuable help during a transition. By barring people who knew how the trains ran, the Obama administration handicapped its own ability to gather information and make decisions early on, and forced its appointees to waste precious time gathering bits of information through clandestine meetings with industry representatives in coffee shops across Washington.

President Trump, like President Obama, will find that when you close off the government to the political class, you embolden the “permanent government” – and that will make things even worse. That only gives the bureaucracy more power, which means less change and greater advantage for those with a deep insiders’ perspective on how to manipulate the inner workings of government.

As a result, unless he starts taking steps now, he’s going to realize the hard way that the presidency is far more than performance art.

Howard Schweitzer is the Managing Partner of Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies in Washington DC and served as Chief Operating Officer of the TARP in the Bush and Obama Administrations and General Counsel of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. 

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