Two days after the November election, leaders of President Trump’s transition team presented his inner circle with more than 100 names of candidates for key Cabinet and other senior positions in the new administration. Missing from the list for the post of national security adviser was retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, according to two knowledgeable officials.
Flynn was a loyalist who had a close relationship with Trump. It was obvious to the transition team that Trump would give him a prominent appointment. But among some of those tasked with bringing forward prospective candidates, there was a belief that Flynn was ill-suited for the critically important job of coordinating national security policy in the new White House.
Trump, however, had his own list of candidates, and Flynn was at the top. Eleven days after winning the election, he announced Flynn as his choice. Twenty-four days after Trump was sworn in as president, Flynn was forced out for having misled Vice President Pence and others about communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn later acknowledged that he had worked on behalf of the Turkish government while serving as a campaign adviser. Last week, through his lawyer, he offered to testify, in exchange for immunity, in the ongoing investigations of Russian interference in the election.
Viewed through the lens of the first months of the new administration, Trump’s transition provided the template for what has unfolded since Inauguration Day on personnel and other matters. No transition goes exactly as planned, but Trump’s proved messier than most and that has carried over into the first months of his presidency.
Throughout the campaign, Trump took a hands-off approach to transition preparations. It was bad karma, he believed, to start planning a presidency before he won the election. Once elected, he decided to run things his own way. “It went off the rails almost immediately after the election,” said one knowledgeable person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment.
One effect was that the Trump team could not scale up quickly enough during the transition and, therefore, failed to maintain a full pipeline of appointees for the new administration. The Partnership for Public Service, in collaboration with The Washington Post, has been tracking 553 key administration positions that require Senate confirmation. To date, just 21 nominees have been confirmed, with 20 more formally nominated and an additional 25 awaiting nomination.
The pace of critical subcabinet appointments remains a serious problem, with many agencies sparsely populated at the top. An administration official said announcements generally have been held back until proper vetting can take place, which did not occur during the transition. The hope is that, once nominated, confirmations can be completed more quickly.
Trump’s management preferences, honed in his business, also overrode the recommendation of some transition planners for a White House structured with clear lines of authority and a strong chief of staff. That structure was meant to discipline the president’s mercurial style. Instead, Trump created a White House of multiple and competing power centers, personal rivalries and internal conflict.
Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, a nonpartisan organization that aids new administrations, said that course was set when Trump named Reince Priebus as chief of staff and in the same release named Stephen K. Bannon as senior counselor and chief strategist.
“You knew right there that was going to be a White House that was not going to be organized in a regular hierarchical fashion, as most Republicans develop them,” Kumar said. “You knew there that was going to be a White House where conflict was going to be something the president saw as positive.”
Kumar noted one other thing about the transition that has plagued the administration since Inauguration Day: The president’s habit of continuing to raise grievances about the campaign. “He couldn’t leave the election behind, and it’s still been difficult for him,” she said.
Trump’s transition was the first one conducted after passage of the Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 and the operation did much good work, both in the pre-election planning and in preparing for a new administration after the election. The team combed through almost 87,000 résumés, identified more than 500 people to go into agencies after Inauguration Day, conducted hundreds of interviews of prospective nominees and established new procedures from which future transitions could profit.
Those kinds of accomplishments led Ken Nahigian, who played a central role in both the pre-election and post-election phases, to say, “This transition was as smooth and well executed as we ever could have expected.”
But the transition operated as two units, one in Washington, where the bulk of the staff was based, and the other at Trump Tower, where the president-elect and his top campaign advisers were located. “The operation went forward, but it wasn’t connected to the decision-makers,” said Max Stier, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service. He added that, despite the planning done ahead of the election, Trump and his inner circle “created a decisional process that was opaque and held by a few people.”
On Election Day, Trump’s transition advisers presented the president-elect’s inner circle with 30 binders of materials. One binder provided the overview and outlined detailed recommendations for the 73-day presidential transition then commencing. This was to serve as a road map designed to assure, to the extent possible, an orderly start for the new administration. A copy of that transition planning material was provided to The Post.
The documents included proposed hour-by-hour schedules for the president-elect as he began the transition; week-by-week transition messaging themes aimed at highlighting Trump’s campaign promises; ambitious timetables for completing congressional action on those promises; drafts of executive orders; policy backgrounders; a lengthy memo analyzing a White House staff structure; and landing teams assigned to key executive branch agencies, most approved by members of Trump’s family.
The materials represented the fruits of months of work by Trump’s transition team. Then, days after the election, the transition took an unexpected turn. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the transition chairman, was removed from his position and replaced by the vice president-elect.
Christie friends say he was the victim of a power play by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and the husband of Ivanka Trump, and was told that when he was informed of the change. As U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Christie had been involved in the prosecution of Kushner’s father, which resulted in a jail sentence. At the time of Christie’s demotion in November, transition spokesman Jason Miller said reports that Kushner had pushed him aside “couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Some of Trump’s close advisers had concerns that pre-election convictions of former Christie allies Bill Baroni and Bridget Kelly in the 2013 George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal tarnished Christie and would reflect badly on Trump. Baroni and Kelly were sentenced to prison terms last week.
Some Trump loyalists simply didn’t trust Christie, whom they saw as still bitter that he had not been picked as Trump’s running mate. Another charge was that the work was not being done at the rate it needed to be, although a summary document presented to Trump’s inner circle the day before the election showed no area where the transition was behind schedule.
There also were reports that the transition staff and volunteers were stocked with Washington lobbyists. There were lobbyists among those recruited during the fall, but according to four knowledgeable officials, the transition moved to bar them after Trump delivered his “drain the swamp speech” in October. “When he put down the rule about lobbyists, we adjusted,” one of the officials said.
“I personally made a presentation on November 11th to 200 to 250 transition employees and volunteers, including potential members of landing teams,” said William Palatucci, who served as transition general counsel and was a longtime Christie confidant. “If you wanted to be part of the transition team and on a landing team, there was a lobbying ban.” There also were prohibitions against working for a foreign government, as it turned out Flynn had been doing.
Although Trump remained aloof from the transition team, his family provided oversight on his behalf. Transition leaders met weekly with an executive committee composed of Trump’s children Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric, as well as Kushner and other campaign officials.
The original transition blueprint was ambitious and detailed. “The day after Election Day — Day Next — the presidential transition will launch in the form of a shadow White House and will function through the 73-day period leading up to the Inauguration,” according to the overview briefing book. While acknowledging there could only be one president at a time, the transition document proposed “a strategic approach that departs from the historical precedent of ‘laying low’ during the presidential transition.”
At times, Trump simply ignored the recommendations. The transition team wanted Trump to observe Veterans Day by flying to Washington for a possible event at the National World War II Memorial. As one person with close knowledge of the transition put it, “You come with a plan and he modifies it. He’s the boss.”
The legislative timetable was hugely ambitious. One transition document, for example, called for Congress to complete work on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act by Feb. 24, or Day 36 of the administration. The GOP health-care bill wasn’t even introduced by that date and was pulled from a House vote last month after meeting fierce resistance, even from many Republicans.
The transition team had prepared lists of prospective candidates not only for the Cabinet but also for many of the other senior positions throughout the executive branch, about 300 in all. The sequencing was designed to provide a steady stream of personnel decisions to assure that the new administration would be able to populate the upper ranks of executive branch agencies as rapidly as possible.
Ahead of the election, transition leaders spent two full days culling longer lists of names to between four and six for each key position. Prospective candidates recommended for national security adviser included retired Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, who was selected for defense secretary; retired Marine Gen. Peter Pace, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; retired Adm. William H. McRaven, who oversaw the raid that killed Osama bin Laden and is now chancellor of the University of Texas System; and K.T. McFarland, the current deputy national security adviser.
Flynn was penciled in as a possible director of national intelligence, for which transition officials believed he was better suited than national security adviser.
Cabinet selections were to be made quickly after the election but withheld until at least Thanksgiving. “We wanted him to make [Cabinet] selections privately so we could do vetting privately before announcements,” said one official with knowledge of the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private information.
Instead of an orderly rollout, however, the process quickly went Trumpian. Candidates were called to meet with Trump at Trump Tower or at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J., in a process that critics likened to a reality-TV show. Announcements sometimes were made through press release rather than by the candidate in a public setting. The process rather than the announcements became the theater — and the narrative.