Trump’s 2016 transition defined his presidency. Biden’s might, too.November 28, 2020
One of the first things Donald Trump’s team did after winning the 2016 election was fire its transition staff and toss the binders of prepared materials into the trash.
In the coming weeks, the new transition team would name Cabinet picks without vetting them, knife each other over senior White House roles and not-so-privately spar over Trump’s agenda. It quickly became apparent that the only process for decision making was the incoming president dishing out impromptu directives on Twitter or from the Trump Tower lobby, the de facto transition offices.
In other words, it was exactly what the next four years would be like.
And it’s exactly the opposite of how President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team has operated thus far — with longtime aides picking predictable officials for top jobs and working to tamp down potential tensions between the moderate and progressive wings of the Democratic Party.
The lessons gleaned from Trump’s transition ended up providing a road map for the way his presidency would unfold — the off-the-cuff decision-making, the high turnover and the bitter internal battles over policy areas like immigration, trade and foreign policy. America saw previews of all of it during the period between his upset win and January 2017 inauguration.
So if Trump’s example is any guide, Biden’s approach could also be a blueprint for what to expect over the next four years.
“Trump famously thinks preparation is for losers, and the Biden team appears to be the opposite,” said one former Trump transition official. “Trump never wanted to prepare for a meeting because he thought he could wing it and that you only have to prepare if you are not naturally good or can’t think on your feet.”
Four years later, those around the outgoing president are still split over whether he set the right tone during the 2016 transition.
Many of his supporters argue Trump was right to eschew traditions, like worrying about quickly confirming every mid-level staffer at every agency, and focus instead on major policies like the 2017 Republican tax bill, the confirmation of a raft of conservative judges and nixing international agreements like the Paris climate deal or the Iran nuclear accord.
Yet to critics and even some allies, Trump’s failures to run a meaningful transition hurt his ability to govern in the first year and beyond.
“They still haven’t recovered,” said former Gov. Chris Christie, in a podcast released over the summer by the Partnership for Public Service, a non-partisan group. Christie was the original head of the Trump transition team, before being ousted after Trump’s win.
“The first year was almost over, and they still hadn’t recovered because you cannot recover from the loss of all of that work,” he said. “As you can see, in the beginning of the Trump White House there were either lots of empty seats or ones that were filled out with lots of Obama holdovers.”
The ramifications, he argued, were extensive.
“It just has impacted this administration in every substantive way you can imagine since they did that,” Christie said.
Trump’s transition out of office has been just as messy as his transition into the presidency. The president is still falsely proclaiming he won and spent several weeks barring his staff from having any contact with Biden’s incoming team, a long-held tradition.
“His transition in was marked as the same chaos as his transition out,” said one source familiar with the White House’s transition planning.
Part of the problem, said former Trump transition officials, originated with the different factions that were competing for dominance: Trump’s New York associates, the campaign, the conservative movement and the more establishment Republicans associated with the Republican National Committee. All of them converged during the transition.
“Trump had never held elected office. Even in his business, he did not have shareholders to report to, so he could run things as he wanted and hold information as he wanted,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, which studies past presidential transitions and offers information to incoming administrations. “He was not used to a situation where power is shared.”
Close Trump aides like Hope Hicks, John McEntee, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway spent most of their time in New York after the 2016 election working alongside the president. Meanwhile, the more policy-oriented or experienced D.C. staffers worked out of Washington.
The two crews often did not communicate with one another, foreshadowing a pattern that would come to plague the White House.
These factions “spent a lot of time vying for power, office space and appointments, which was facilitated by a weak chief of staff,” said a second Trump transition official, referencing Reince Priebus. “So I can’t say there was a unified, obvious agenda to be fulfilled. There were lots of competing agendas.”
Policy or agency expertise was downplayed in favor of looking for splashy hires the Trump team could parade before reporters in the gilded lobby of Trump Tower.
And the early fissures among Trump’s team were apparent to everyone, thanks to ubiquitous leaks from the Oval Office and closed-door meetings.
“One of the problems with Trump’s Cabinet when he first became president is that it did not reflect a worldview, because he did not have one,” said David Axelrod, the former senior adviser to President Barack Obama. “He had some taglines and some impulses, with a secretary of State and defense Secretary who really did not embrace what he was thinking or saying.”
Axelrod said Biden is already showing the world a different style of governing. He is being advised by aides who have been in the Biden orbit for decades and prioritizing officials for top jobs with conventional resumes. And the picks to this point have mostly satisfied moderates while not overly angering progressives.
“Biden believes by dint of half a century of experience that diplomacy is important, alliances are critical and he has appointed a bunch of people who believe it,” Axelrod added. “The ‘boring is beautiful’ line is real.”
Part of having a functional transition is knowing what a president wants to achieve policy-wise even before the inauguration, and then hiring the people to do it, said Clay Johnson, who ran the George W. Bush transition team before becoming the Bush administration’s head of presidential personnel.
“I don’t know what Biden’s plans are, but it does appear as if the Biden people are familiar with the appointments process and are familiar with how government works,” Johnson said. “They seem to have prior experience of this sort.”
The Trump transition did not have an ideologically aligned Cabinet, in part due to Trump’s decision to hire top people like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a whim. As a longtime senior Exxon executive, Tillerson believed in foreign cooperation and alliances — something Trump criticized early in his presidency. And all of Trump’s focus on hiring people who looked like they had come from “central casting,” as he put it, came at the expense of being able to unleash well-developed plans and policies on Day One in the White House.
“No one had done any of the substantive work during the transition and in the White House, they largely started from scratch,” said one of the transition officials. “It is indicative of the way Trump and his friends approached the presidency.”