News Journal: The self-inflicted chaos inside Trump’s administration

There was every reason to believe the 2016 presidential transition would be the best in history, no matter who won the election.

Full disclosure: I became something of a transition nerd back in 2008, when I was co-chair of the vice president transition team and, after the election, sat in on presidential transition meetings that reviewed major Cabinet selections for the Obama-Biden administration and helped plan its legislative priorities.

We did a good job, I think, but I realized then that we were severely handicapped by how little time we had and how much of what we did was by the seat of the pants. The major reason for our success was the total cooperation of President George W. Bush and the excellent leadership of Josh Bolton, his chief of staff.
That’s why, when I became a senator in January 2009, one of the first things I did was to try to incorporate into law all the things we had learned in the 2008 transition. There was wide bipartisan support, for my bill and I was able to convince Republican Sens. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, to become co-sponsors. In just six months it passed both houses of Congress, was signed by the president and became law.
What everyone realized, on both sides of the aisle, is that democracies are most vulnerable during transitions of power. What if 9/11 had happened on 2/11, for instance, just three weeks after a new president had been inaugurated? A new president appoints the top 4,000 managers in all the departments and agencies across the federal government. Would a new team be in place and ready to handle such a crisis? Getting transitions right was imperative.
The Transition Bill of 2010 primarily called for the GSA to provide space and equipment for the candidates nominated at the summer conventions rather than wait to see who won the election. Instead of 70 days for transition planning, there would now be 170.
President Barack Obama signed the second bill in early 2016, also with bipartisan support but primarily due to the work of Delaware Sen. Tom Carper. It called upon the incumbent president to put in place committees and rules to work with the transition teams from the presidential candidates. Forgive me (nerd recognition!) for citing its full name: The Edward “Ted” Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvement Act. A mouthful, I know, but I was happy to share honors with Gov. Leavitt, who in addition to serving as a three-time governor of Utah and President George W. Bush’s secretary of Health and Human Services, had led what was universally acknowledged to be a model transition team for Gov. Mitt Romney in 2012.
Given all the new support mechanisms and added time, it was certainly reasonable to expect that the transition of 2016-17 would be a successful one. I hoped to help make that happen as a member of the advisory board of the bipartisan Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transitions, a six-member board of three Democrats and three Republicans, including Gov. Leavitt. Before the November election, the partnership identified what it considered the 549 key positions in a new administration from among the 4,000 presidential appointees, 1,200 need Senate confirmation.
As of Feb. 17, only 34 of those 549 had been nominated by the Trump administration and sent to the Senate for confirmation. Of 116 key positions at the State Department, only the secretary and four others have been announced. At defense, only three of 53.
If you worry that our government is in no shape to handle a major crisis, you are not alone.
How did this happen?
All of us transition nerds were upbeat immediately after the conventions. The Trump transition team was led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and included a number of highly qualified people, including Gov. Leavitt, who had worked on previous transitions. Both the Trump and the Clinton teams moved into government-provided offices, interacted with Obama administration officials and were each well on their way to selecting hundreds of key people for the new administration by the end of August.
Then, right after the election, President-elect Donald Trump fired Gov. Christie and replaced his team with another one led by Vice-President-elect Mike Pence. Over 100 days of work were discarded. The new transition team started virtually from scratch and had just 70 days until the new administration took over. Nearly all members of the new team had been active in the Trump campaign but were without any previous experience planning transitions. Few, In fact, had any hands-on experience working within the federal government.
Yes, I understand President Trump was elected proclaiming his disdain for Washington and how the government was managed. Things would be different with a smart business dealmaker in charge.
And so they are. None of his three top advisers in the White House, Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, have any experience with how the government actually works. They may (or may not) have some sort of vision of where they want to take the country. But even if the passengers on a plane know where they want to go, they still need a pilot to take them there. No one who has worked in the White House in previous administrations, Republican or Democrat, believes it can be effective without the institutional knowledge of government operations that practically every previous chief of staff has had.
Self-inflicted chaos inside the administration is worse than dangerous. It makes it impossible to effectively handle all the chaos from outside, diplomatic, military, political, economic, that must be dealt with every day.
We have, as I write this, managed to survive a month of chaos. It simply can’t be allowed to continue. President Trump promised change. He urgently needs to change his approach to how his transition has been handled. Putting politics aside if necessary, he must get the expertise he needs in the White House and quickly nominate hundreds of qualified people needed to operate a functioning government.
Ted Kaufman is a former U.S. senator from Delaware