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Why Trump’s National Security transition is off to a rocky start

A day before inauguration, the incoming Trump administration was forced to defend the pace of its staffing for important national security and diplomatic jobs. Judy Woodruff talks with Roger Cressey, a former National Security Council staff member, and Mark Landler of The New York Times about the factors behind the upheaval and what it says about the incoming administration and its challenges.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now to the national security and diplomatic transition from the Obama to the Trump administrations.

    Last week, I asked outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry how well the transition was proceeding. And he bluntly answered, "Smoothly, because there's not an enormous amount of it." He also said he had yet to meet his designated successor, Rex Tillerson.

    Today, with less than 24 hours left in his tenure, Kerry's spokesman was asked if the two men had met.

  • JOHN KIRBY, State Department Spokesman:

    The secretary made very clear that he was willing to met with Mr. Tillerson. And, as I understand it, they just weren't able to get it on the schedule.

    So — but he did speak to him on the phone. I think it was trying to work both men's schedules. As you know, the secretary also went on a weeklong trip. So, he — they worked to try to make it happen. And they just weren't able to get it on both men's schedule at a time that was mutually convenient for both of them.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Apart from Kerry and Tillerson, some Obama Cabinet secretaries have met their designated successors. But, as John Yang reported earlier, the incoming Trump administration was forced to defend the pace of its staffing of important national security and diplomatic jobs today after a series of reports detailed a disjointed transition.

    For that, we turn now to the author of one of those reports, New York Times White House correspondent Mark Landler, and to Roger Cressey. He was the deputy for counterterrorism on the National Security Council staff from 1999 to 2001. He was there during the transition from President Clinton to George W. Bush. He is now a security consultant.

    And we welcome both of you to the NewsHour.

    Mark Landler, to you first.

    In that story you wrote yesterday, you referred to the staff of president-elect Trump barely having engaged with the current National Security Council staff below the most senior levels. What is the level of contact between the two?

  • MARK LANDLER, The New York Times:

    Well, the incoming national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, has met four times with his predecessor, Susan Rice.

    And there has been significant meetings at the deputy level, K.T. McFarland with Admiral Haines, and at one level below that, General Keith Kellogg, who is going to be the incoming chief of staff of the NSC.

    But below that level, which is to say, all the senior directors that oversee departments in the National Security Council, there has been very little, if any contact. And this is for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that the Trump transition has been marked by a kind of a rotating cast.

    The NSC and the White House is now dealing with the third transition team since the election. And with that constant upheaval, it's been difficult for them to establish relationships, for the Trump people to get the security clearances they need to begin reading classified information.

    So, a process that would have unfolded pretty intensively starting on Nov. 10 or 11 has really only swung into gear really in the last two weeks.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Roger Cressey, what are you hearing about how it's going at the National Security Council?

  • ROGER CRESSEY, Former National Security County Staff:

    Well, they have definitely lost time.

    And I think there is some concern on the part of the career people that there is not enough communication with the incoming team, so that the new team is fully up on all the nuances of what they're inheriting.

    The reality, Judy, is, no matter who comes into office, they're always unprepared for what they're about to inherit. And I think there is some concern that there may not be enough preparation before the new team arrives tomorrow.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Roger Cressey, staying with you, how does this compare to previous transitions?

  • ROGER CRESSEY:

    Well, we have seen some where they have been very short.

    When I was there in 2000-2001 with — going from President Clinton to President Bush, that was very short. But, even then, we met with Condi Rice, with Steve Hadley, the national security adviser, the deputy. They went around to each office to meet the team that was there that they were inheriting and also to get a better perspective on what each office was doing.

    So, I think the challenge for General Flynn, for K.T. McFarland is to get up to speed as quickly as possible with the career people that are staying, so they can understand what the current state of affairs are and all the issues they are going to inherit tomorrow.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And we should say, General Flynn, of course, is the incoming national security adviser to the president. K.T. McFarland is his deputy.

    Mark Landler, give us a picture of the National Security Council staff. How many of those positions are going to be holdovers, if any, and how many are going to be empty when the Trump team comes in?

  • MARK LANDLER:

    Well, Roger knows more about this than I do, but at the level of the professional staff, you have a lot of directorates in the NSC.

    The senior directors, the people that run those departments, tend to be political appointees. And most, if not all of those jobs will be vacant and will be filled by the incoming administration. But below that, you have a cadre of professionals at the director level.

    Most of these people are seconded from other agencies, say, from the Pentagon or the State Department, and are at the White House for a set period of time. When the Obama administration came in, they basically held over people in those positions, which provided the important continuity.

    The Trump team has told me they plan to do the same thing. So it is not as though General Flynn will come in and find an empty building. He won't. He will find dozens of very well-briefed, experienced senior-level people. What he will have to do, though, very quickly is put in a layer of senior directors.

    Now, they say that they have identified and chosen many of these people, and they just haven't publicly announced them yet. So that will all unfold presumably in the opening days after the president is inaugurated.

    But, again, where they have lost time is in all of these people reading into the reams and reams of paper that lay out the administration's current policies, that lay out the major flash points they're going to face around the world. And that's time that they could well have used starting as early as late November and early December of last year.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, Roger Cressey, if you're part of this incoming Trump team, what are you worried that you may not know?

  • ROGER CRESSEY:

    Well, all special assistants to the president are typically political appointees of the first year of the new president.

    So, their job is to shape policy for the new president. The career people that Mark referred to are there to provide continuity of operations to ensure that balls are not dropped, but they are not going to make any new policy pronouncements.

    So, the new people come in to do two things to, to do a review of existing policy to see where they might want to change it, and then to put in place the actual new policy, a presidential review directive, to a presidential decision directive.

    So, these senior people that have to be appointed cleared at the top-secret codeword level, are going to come in to do that. So, General Flynn, K.T. McFarland can rely on their career people to provide up-to-date information on daily activities, but no new policy is going to happen until this new team comes in at the special assistant to the president level.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And that's where you're talking about a delay.

    So, I finally want to ask both of you, to Mark Landler again on this, as we look ahead to the Trump administration, its foreign policy, it's national security policy, do we read something into that by what's happened right now?

  • MARK LANDLER:

    Well, look, I think it's fair to say that this election brought a very unexpected outcome, that the Trump people were probably starting off from a standing start.

    There was a lot of upheaval in the early days. You remember that the original transition team was led by Governor Chris Christie, and that team was purged almost immediately after the election.

    I guess the one thing I would watch for is if this kind of upheaval, improvisation, frequent shifts either in personnel or in policy continue to be a hallmark of the new administration's style. If they do, as some people think they will, we could be in for a bumpy ride on national security.

    But it's also possible that once they get their team in place and they settle down on their key priorities, that we sort of return to regular order, and things begin unfolding.

    And I'm sure Roger will say, every administration faces a kind of a baptism by fire, so I don't think it's fair to necessarily assume that these people are going to be off the rails immediately.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Just 15 seconds.

    What do you think in terms of what this says about the future?

  • ROGER CRESSEY:

    The wheel of government will continue to work, even as these people come in and we wait for them, but the issue is, there's always one thing, as Mark says, that a new administration confronts.

    For the Bush administration, it was terrorism. For this administration, it's going to be cyber-security, not Russian hacking. That's a symptom of the bigger problem, but the bigger issue of cyber, how they deal with that. So, we may see something else we're not anticipating. That's going to be their challenge.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Roger Cressey, Mark Landler, thank you both.

  • MARK LANDLER:

    Thank you so much.

  • ROGER CRESSEY:

    Thanks, Judy.

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