How To Swap Presidents Without an Insurrection

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Now that we’re a year into Joe Biden’s presidency, much of Official Washington is issuing its report cards. Biden should hope that the next years will be better. That said, it’s easy to forget the totally unprecedented time between 2020’s Election Day and Biden’s high-security Inauguration—and all of the ways that chaos laid bare the fragility of the American system.

A new report from Boston Consulting and the nonpartisan the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition, released today, summarizes just how much such transitions rely on the unofficial but sacrosanct commitment to a peaceful transition and how lawmakers could safeguard against a repeat of the messy 78 days in which then-President Donald Trump and his administration spent much of the time building roadblocks for Biden.
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The post-voting rallies, the denial of Trump’s loss, Biden having to demand for the keys to buildings and offices he needed to get into, Trump refusing to this day to concede or meet with Biden—none of it was anywhere close to normal. And that’s on top of the now-ex-President’s attempt to have Congress set aside the certified votes and give him four more years. Trump created a mob to urge them to march onto the Capitol. Then, he was arrested as only the second President to be impeached in US history.

It is not possible to make outgoing presidents acknowledge these facts in any obvious way. But there are ways to compel an outgoing team’s cooperation with the incoming one, so that they can get started on Jan. 20. While the transition of the presidency isn’t glamorous in any way, the process helps to build the infrastructure for the next administration.

Washington has been using a guidebook to help it transition from power since 1963. It appears that the cost of John F. Kennedy’s post-election ascension—$300,000, or about $2.6 million in today’s dollars—made an impression. The Presidential Transition Act was updated several times over the years in order to keep up with changes to what incoming teams require, and to allow for an incumbent President to take advantage of local planning teams to manage anticipated turnover if he is reelected. Today, Congress has set aside just $10 million. Biden paid $24 million to pay the remainder from private donors. This will cover approximately 10 months’ salaries and office space, as well as research, for a team of 1,500 members at its peak.

Some situations go smooth, such as when George W. Bush declared that his outgoing boat would not treat Barack Obama’s incoming team the same way they treated him eight years ago when White House staff took the letter W off keyboards. Bush v. GoreThe Supreme Court was notified. (On Day One of 43’s term, there was no phone book for the Bush West Wing and staffers were wandering around looking for each other. Later, government oversight personnel estimated that punked keyboards cost $5,000.

A 2004 update of the Presidential Transition Act was made to address the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. It allowed candidates to pre-vet staff who needed security clearances. Even the Sept. 11 Commission stated that confirmations must move at a faster pace. When the first plane smashed into the World Trade Center eight months into Bush’s presidency, only about 30% of his national security appointees were working.

While John McCain mocked then-rival Barack Obama in 2008 of measuring the drapes before Election Day, the Democrats’ scrupulous preparation helped Obama transition into power in the immediate wake of Wall Street’s meltdown. McCain was nominally working on his own transition but didn’t take it nearly as seriously as Obama, who availed himself of federal workspace in downtown D.C.—away from campaign headquarters in Chicago—to build out what would become his team.

Obama’s 2012 rival, Mitt Romney, also famously took transition planning incredibly seriously. The Romney Readiness Project—shorthanded to R2P—was ready with names for almost every one of the political positions scattered throughout the government. Tevi Troy, a veteran of the Bush Administration and two presidential transitions, has a fascinating behind-the-scenes history of Romney’s never-seen-but-excellent effort here, and it’s worth the read. (Ironically, the executive director of R2P later became Trump’s deputy chief of staff tasked with managing the transition to Biden. His boss—the President—didn’t make it easy on the newcomers. “To walk away when the very most important time was coming up—and then at a time where obviously tensions had gone through the roof—I just didn’t feel like that was my duty,” Chris Liddell told the transition scholars for the report.)

Trump, for his part did not consider his transition planning seriously. He basically ignored the work of Gov. Chris Christie was thrown into the fire. One person who was involved with Trump World said that only losers need to prepare. Trump instead treated the weeks of transition as a “shambolic” reality show, forcing contenders for Cabinet posts to show up for a red carpet at his Bedminster, N.J., golf club or in Manhattan for dinners to be embarrassed. Ask Romney if the “shambolic” weeks of transition were worth his trip to Jean-Georges at Trump International Hotel, New York for an audition to be Secretary of State.

Biden had been a Vice President under Obama’s government building rush and took these preparations more seriously. At its height, Biden’s transition preparations had 450 people vetting potential hires, including about three dozen tasked exclusively with scouring social-media accounts for red flags. Biden’s transition team had set a goal to get 2,800 non-Senate confirmed positions into place in the first 100 days. They got 1,500 according to the Partnership for Public Public Services report.

That’s partly because Trump signaled as early as May that he wasn’t willing to go politely, basically sabotaging the required transition planning process that should have been a signal of the standoff over resources that would come. Trump made it clear that he would not accept the results of his November 2020 election. (This, of course, pales compared to the resistance in sharing COVID-19 information, secure diplomatic lines to return foreign leaders’ calls and even a complete intelligence briefing for the President-elect documented in the new report.)

In the end, Biden ended up having access to the government resources—phones, background checks, travel budgets and office space required by law—for a little less than two months in total before starting his new job. Even then, the cooperation of incumbent officials depended on whether they had pledged their loyalty to Trump’s fictitious claims about his winning re-election bid.

The new report has a slate of useful suggestions on how to improve the transition process so this doesn’t happen again. The authors of the report suggest reducing Senate approval requirements for federal appointments and streamlining government operations to improve efficiency. An increased budget for the FBI in election years may help to speed up background checks on potential employees. This is also true for National Archives, Office of Presidential Personnel, and Office of Personnel Management. They are all buried in years that easily divide by 4. While Congress works on this, Congress should consider expanding security clearances for transition workers. It could help spot red flags not easily seen by people in the know. (See: Flynn, Michael.)

With Congress seemingly unable push any of its agenda through the finish line and technical solutions for next transition may be where D.C. can finally agree that government’s nuts and bolts really matter. That is because both sides stand to receive government money. However, Trump may return to Washington for a reverse takeover of his disastrous transition. It has both parties’ leaders watching with maxed-out anxiety.

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