Outgoing Obama administration officials are muttering darkly of a Team Trump unstaffed and unprepared to take on major crises on Day One. But Trump transition officials tell The Daily Beast the controlled-chaos standard in any White House handover is on track—a mantra of “we got this” combined with a little bit of “enough already!”
“I actually think it’s gone pretty well and this is the best you can expect,” said Trump transition team member James Carafano of the Heritage Foundation.
He likened the process to a merger and acquisition—merging Trump’s campaign staff with those who will set policy and acquiring the White House from the Obama administration.
“If anybody expects this to be a frictionless process, they’re kind of nuts,” he added Wednesday.
Obama officials complained privately and publicly that they hadn’t had much time to do a handoff because there was no one to hand off to, and some are getting eleventh-hour requests to stay on, but they’ve already made other plans. They warned that the uncertainty in staffing could complicate President-elect Donald Trump’s response to an early post-inauguration national -ecurity crisis, like a North Korea missile launch, perhaps to test Trump’s tweeted claim that North Korea won’t be able to develop nuclear launch capability under his watch.
The rancor reflects a certain degree of anguish and anxiety over the incoming Trump administration’s promised repudiation of many of President Barack Obama’s key policies, from health care to the Iran nuclear deal, and also the boisterous, competitive nature of the different factions of the incoming team. The would-be policymakers, who are the relative newcomers to the team, clash with campaign officials, who all get trumped by Trump family members who serve as his closest advisers.
The churn, which somewhat resembles an episode of The Apprentice, has left some high-profile would-be Trump candidates in the wind and some Obama administration officials—from a notoriously hands-on, detail-oriented White House—twitching in near panic.
“It took them more time than we expected for them to be ready to engage with us,” outgoing National Security Adviser Susan Rice told The New York Times of the incoming Trump national-security team. It took two weeks after an election the Trump team did not expect to win to replace New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s team with a new one. Now, Rice said, “we’re racing to make up lost time.”
Trump officials say they’ve got it all in hand, or will soon.
“I want to personally again thank Ambassador Rice and her entire team for their preparation: the transition materials… that they’ve provided to us, the initiation of various NSC reform measures that she has already undertaken, and the time that she and her team took to help guide us and to help us be as well prepared as we can be prior to Inauguration Day,” said incoming National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, sharing the stage with Rice on Jan. 10 at the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Passing the Baton event celebrating the peaceful transition of power in Washington, D.C.
The reform he’s referring to includes the shrinking of the NSC from a high of 400 or so staff to fewer than 200 today—a change enshrined in the latest defense authorization bill to keep the national-security staff from ever ballooning again.
“The NSC, particularly under this administration, though under Bush as well, has micromanaged decisions by Cabinet members as well as senior uniformed officers,” said a senior Hill staffer who worked on the legislation, speaking anonymously in order to discuss contentious debates.
Previous Obama NSC staffers say Obama was so detail-oriented, and so distrustful of some of his Cabinet members, that he had his staff questioning the smallest details.
NSC spokesman Ned Price countered that the Obama NSC has already been whittled down to 180 people, with 90 percent of them detailed from other agencies rather than being political appointments.
Flynn has told Capitol Hill staff that he’ll keep his team similarly lean and let Trump’s Cabinet secretaries run their departments. That means there will be only 20 or so political appointees at most.
But Team Trump is becoming aware of the gaps and has asked some Obama appointees to stay on, according to former Department of Homeland Security official Juliette Kayyem. “Three friends, at three different agencies…. got calls this week asking if they would consider staying on. They had long ago made other plans,” she tweeted, and later confirmed by email.
And Obama officials gripe the incoming Trump appointee roster keeps changing.
One official complained of briefing incoming NSC staff for sensitive jobs in counterterrorism and the cyberfront at the National Security Council, only to have them fired or forced to withdraw by Team Trump—Monica Crowley the most public recent example.
“We’ve briefed at least 10 people, but they’ve all gotten fired by the transition after we trained them,” said one administration official working at the White House.
NSC spokesman Price said they’d left approximately 300 memos for the incoming team, adding that “members of the departing NSC team will make themselves available for continued consultations following the transition.”
Another senior administration official at a large national-security agency said he was also instructing his staff to leave notes on their desks with their personal email addresses and phone numbers so that Team Trump could reach out to them for institutional knowledge, like who they’d contact to get the quickest or most reliable answer out of a database of international counterterrorism counterparts.
That was standard practice in previous handovers, according to former Obama transition official Derek Chollet, who said it is often the only way to let the incoming team know what happened at those ranks of empty desks at the NSC.
“It’s nothing to do with politics. It’s just to do with records management. When you leave the NSC, you have to have files empty, wipe your hard drive, which presents challenges for continuity, as you have to understand what came before,” said Chollet, who now works at the German Marshall Fund.
So in the handover from President George W. Bush to Obama, the incoming and outgoing teams improvised.
“We called people up all the time after transition,” Chollet said. “The Bush team was terrific in terms of being open, helpful, disclosing things, to make sure the baton did not get dropped. That’s what [Bush NSA Stephen] Hadley championed and that’s the posture of the Obama team.”
Chollet said he was aware that the new teams are already communicating, with daily conversations happening at the senior staff level.
One of the places transition talks have been going well is the CIA, according to a U.S. official briefed on Trump CIA director nominee Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS).
“I’ve heard that the agency and senior staff have been very welcoming and supportive of Congressman Pompeo,” confirmed former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden on Wednesday. “He has indeed reached out to all former directors and I spent an hour or so with him. In that private meeting, he came across the same way he came across in his confirmation hearing: knowledgeable, confident, enthusiastic,” Hayden emailed to The Daily Beast.
That’s high and unexpected praise, considering Hayden strongly criticized how the president-elect compared the intelligence community to Nazis and implied CIA Director John Brennan leaked a controversial portfolio on alleged Russian attempts to gather compromising material on him. The CIA declined to comment.
Another Trump official said the staff churn the outgoing Obama officials complained of was planned. Small transition teams like the one that studied defense issues parachuted into the Pentagon in November and will be replaced by “beachhead” teams, which start work at 12:01 p.m. on Inauguration Day.
The initial team interviewed current staff and came up with an action plan to turn Trump’s campaign promises into reality. They also came up with potential names to fill political appointee posts but couldn’t share them with Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, Ret. Marine Gen. James Mattis, because he hadn’t yet had his confirmation hearing.
Some of those names got to Mattis, however, especially Trump’s reported choice of businessmen Vincent Viola as secretary of the Army, and that caused friction, according to multiple officials involved in the Trump process.
Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, rejected the story first reported by The Washington Post, in a tweet: “Great transition at DoD. Reports to contrary completely false and come from sources who do not have any knowledge of our transition efforts.”
Carafano, an Army veteran and former speechwriter for the Army chief of staff, said in any event, service secretaries are seldom the Pentagon chief’s choice but are dictated by the White House.
He predicted that after Friday, reporters would be busy covering a new government in overdrive.
“People will have something to write about other than tweets,” he said. “People will pay attention to what the government is actually doing.”
Update 8:00 am, 1/19/17 This story was updated to add a quote by former DHS official Juliette Kayyem.