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As he begins transition planning, Trump turns to unlikely source: Romney-world

N.J. Gov. Chris Christie, (left), whom Donald Trump (right) has named as his transition chief (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill).

Just 11 weeks ago, Mitt Romney was denouncing Donald Trump as a “fraud” and a “phony”  and all but calling for a floor battle at the Republican convention to deny the businessman the nomination for president.

Yet today the man Romney tapped four years ago to draw up his blueprint for a new administration is in close talks with the Trump campaign, guiding the presumptive GOP nominee’s transition chief, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and other top officials on planning for actual governing should Trump win in November.

[Mitt Romney slams “phony" Trump: “He’s playing the American public for suckers."]

“They’ve had contact with me, and I’m doing whatever I can to pass along my experience,” said Mike Leavitt, the former Utah governor, top Romney adviser and evangelist for how to run an effective presidential transition (even if you lose the election).

The Romney camp’s open warfare with Trump (who fired back at Romney in March with his own expletives) has yielded to the higher goals of good government, both sides say, as the real-estate mogul and Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton take advantage of new laws designed to ease the takeover of power in the White House and federal agencies.

The legislation requires majorparty nominees for president to get access to federal resources sooner than ever to prepare to take over the Oval Office, and the outgoing administration is required to move into high gear to hand over the government, appointing transition officials at every agency.

Some of the new rules took effect in 2010, giving Romney the benefit of an early start. But this is the first time two campaigns are laying the groundwork to govern for an open seat.

Key moments from a speech in which former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said Donald Trump "is playing the members of the American public for suckers" (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: JIM URQUHART/The Washington Post)

Preparations for a transfer of power formally start three days after the Democratic convention ends on July 28. While the nominees crisscross the country meeting voters and donors, the General Services Administration will offer the transition teams for both campaigns office space, computers, technical and administrative support worth millions of dollars.

If they accept, Clinton and Trump staffs will ride the same elevators to their offices at 1717 Pennsylvania Ave., the marble-floored 13-story building owned by developer Tishman Speyer where GSA is renting space. It’s  just a block from the White House and not far from Trump’s new Pennsylvania Ave. hotel. Each campaign will get one floor, with space for about 100 people.

[Trump campaign appoints Chris Christie to chair White House transition team]

They’ll get coffee at the same Peet’s Coffee & Tea next door and meet with the same White House experts the Obama administration has assembled to share the basics of governing and the big issues that lie ahead — as the candidates make lists of potential cabinet members and other top posts and lay out plans for putting their campaign promises in action. If they win, that is.

A presidential transition is a lot of work. An incoming president has to make more than 4,000 political appointments and propose a budget for the $4 trillion federal government soon after taking office. And the task is sandwiched into 73 days between the election on Nov. 8 and Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, 2017.

Clinton’s campaign has not publicly named anyone to lead her transition team. But campaign chairman John Podesta, who was chief of staff in the Bill Clinton White House and led President Obama’s transition team, is widely expected to be named to the job.

Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson declined to comment on how far along the campaign is in transition planning.

Trump officials, meanwhile, said they are setting up a non-profit group to raise private donations to supplement what GSA provides and vetting candidates to run their transition’s day-to-day operation. The executive director post should be filled within the next few weeks, they said.

“We’re doing our due diligence,” campaign manager Corey Lewandowski said in an interview. “It’s massive, just setting this up. There are a whole series of timelines we need to meet.”

For guidance, the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service has set up up a presidential transition center with step-by-step advice on what needs to happen when.

In keeping with his unorthodox campaign, Trump may steer clear of Washington for transition planning. “You wouldn’t believe the amount of office space in New York,” Lewandowski said.

He said it’s “highly likely” the transition will use GSA space, but may seek it instead in New York, where the campaign is headquartered now. Christie is just 66 miles away from Manhattan in Trenton, N.J.

Obama had transition operations in both Washington and his hometown of Chicago.

This is the first year that Congress has approved money for pre-election transition support, a sum of $13.3 million Obama has requested another $7 million for post-election planning for the victor in November.

Fundraising committees for planning a new government used to be rolled out after Election Day. But under the new rules, the candidates can set them up months beforehand. In exchange for the government support and access to the outgoing administration this early, they must abide by $5,000 donation limits from individuals and corporations and disclose contributors by 30 days after the inauguration, said Max Stier, the Partnership’s president and chief executive.

[Talking presidential transitions and agency leadership: A conversation with Mike Leavitt]

Leavitt, who served the administration of George W. Bush as Health and Human Services secretary and chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, hired about 400 people to manage a potential Romney transition. The team devised a plan for how to enact the first 200 days of the candidate’s agenda. After Romney lost to President Obama, Leavitt wrote a book about his experience.

The Romney operation was known for its discipline and planning, which have not been hallmarks of Trump’s freewheeling campaign.

The Romney operation “seemed to be a model that worked very well,” Lewandowski said.

Leavitt, who endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich, says his priority now is to pass on what he learned to the Trump team.

“My job was to prepare a government,” he said. “I took it seriously, and I think they should. Donald Trump especially should. He needs to have help because he’s not been in government before.”

Clinton, with her long experience in government and in the Senate, is more likely to have a long list of people in mind for top jobs in a potential administration.

And “she’s running hard on continuity of the Obama agenda,” making transition planning easier, said Lisa Brown, a former top Obama administration official who is now general counsel for Georgetown University.

Matea Gold contributed to this story.