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Ensuring a smooth transfer of power: How presidential transition works



By Joan Greve

Washington Week Fellow

President-elect Donald J. Trump met with President Barack Obama at the White House on Thursday to address next steps in this historic presidential handoff. Trump said in his victory speech that it is time for the whole country to “come together as one united people,” and Obama pledged Wednesday that he would not allow his ideological differences with the Republican business mogul to interfere with a “smooth transition so that [Trump] can hit the ground running” on January 20.  

This transfer of power has been an inevitability since George Washington passed off the presidential baton to John Adams, but it only became formalized in more recent years. Political parties carried the burden of transition costs for their winning nominees up until the 1960’s, when Congress began to consider federally funding the presidential power shift. Florida Rep. Dante Fascell argued on the House floor in 1963 that it was improper and unnecessary to have the winning presidential ticket “going around begging for money to pay for the cost of what ought to be legitimate costs of government.”

The Presidential Transition Act thus became law in 1964 to “promote the orderly transfer of the executive power” and allow Congress to appropriate $900,000 for the operation. Following the general election, that money could then be used by the president-elect to pay the salaries of transition operatives, hire outside consultants and rent necessary office space, among other, more minor costs.   

The act received little review in the coming decades except to increase the necessary funding, which rose from $900,000 to $3 million in 1974 and to $5 million in 1988. Most recently, in advance of the 2012 presidential election, Obama’s administration requested $8.95 million for the potential Obama-Romney transition, but that money was later returned to the Department of the Treasury when the president won re-election.

Enforcement of the Presidential Transition Act has been somewhat less consistent, though, with the 2000 election creating many headaches for Congress in distributing the transition funds. Because the final results of the race were scrutinized and contested for weeks, President-Elect George W. Bush had to wait until mid-December to receive the money, costing him crucial time in the lead-up to his inauguration.

And Bush had more than just stalled funding to complicate his White House welcome. Some of the departing Bill Clinton staffers decided to register their displeasure with Bush’s narrow electoral victory by removing the W’s from their office keyboards. An investigation by the General Accounting Office also found evidence of obscene voicemails left by Clinton’s staff, phone cords ripped from their outlets and vandalized bathrooms.

In total, the GAO calculated $15,000 worth of damage done by the departing administration. Republican Rep. Bob Barr, who had requested that the GAO look into the possible property destruction, memorably said that Clinton’s team had “treated the White House worse than college freshmen checking out of their dorm rooms.''

The university-level antics that Bush endured during his presidential transition may have inspired him to do better by Obama. The Atlantic’s Russell Berman wrote in April that many consider the Bush-Obama power shift to be “the most successful transition of the modern era.”

Obama’s team thought so highly of the transition Bush led that they used it as a “template” when drafting a memorandum of understanding with Mitt Romney’s transition team. That memorandum, which covered how Romney’s team would smoothly enter the White House as Obama’s exited, never needed to be enforced, since the president won a second term. However, it acted as somewhat of a practice run for Obama’s eventual departure from the Oval Office.

That brings us to 2016--and the sprint that will now happen between Election Day and Inauguration Day. On the part of the Obama administration, they have been preparing for this moment since at least May, when the president signed an executive order to establish two transition coordinating councils, as recommended by a Senate bill passed in March. The White House Transition Coordinating Council consists of top Obama advisors and focuses on communicating with and preparing their potential successors, while the Agency Transition Directors Council works to ensure that government agencies do not experience turbulence between the current president and the next.

Since Obama issued that executive order in May, both Clinton and Trump have won their parties’ nominations, allowing them to receive security briefings and send their transition teams to the two councils’ meetings in preparation for the January handoff. The candidates’ transition teams, led by Republican Chris Christie and Democrat Ken Salazar, have been working to determine key roles in their potential administrations, as well as legislative agendas.

On the Trump side, his transition team has focused on how Trump could utilize executive action to quickly overturn many of Obama’s policy initiatives, while Clinton’s team had focused more on specific staff decisions. They had floated former Gore and Biden operative Ron Klain as a possible chief of staff, while Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta had suggested interest in becoming the secretary of energy. But Clinton’s team has of course now become essentially obsolete following Tuesday’s result. “It’s a grave disappointment,” said Mike Leavitt, who led Romney’s 2012 transition team. “But somebody has that experience every four years.”

As Clinton’s operation comes to an abrupt end, Trump’s ramps up in order to approve a new cabinet and propose landmark legislation within his first 100 days in office. The president-elect's team has already set up a website and social media accounts to keep the public up-to-date on their policy proposals and staffing decisions.  Most of Trump's internal White House advisors—which could include campaign players like Rudy Guiliani or Newt Gingrich—would not need congressional approval, but each member of Trump’s cabinet would need the green light from the Republican-leaning Senate, as would any major legislation. Trump will now race to prepare for those daunting tasks by the time the inauguration arrives in 71 days—and counting.