By Lisa Haralampus and Chris Naylor

Government employees create and maintain federal records as an integral part of their daily responsibilities. Agencies must ensure employees are aware of their responsibilities regarding the management of records, especially during presidential transitions.

To assist agencies, the National Archives and Records Administration has created an online publication, “Documenting your Public Service,” that provides all government employees, including senior officials and political appointees, with information regarding their responsibilities for managing federal records.

For senior officials, many of their records are permanently valuable and one day will be sent to the National Archives to help document the country’s history. As senior officials often enter and leave federal service during times of presidential transition, there are several things they should know to properly manage and preserve their records.

When entering federal service, it is important to lay the foundation for good records and information management.

Some key points to remember are: 

While working in federal service, records management should be routinely incorporated into daily activities and work processes.

Federal employees must always remember the following guidelines:

When leaving federal service, remember specific recordkeeping responsibilities.

Federal employees cannot take records with them when leaving federal service, but they may be able to take some copies of federal records as well as their personal materials. Setting up good practices from the start of your career will make it much easier to manage federal records at the end of your service.

To further explain the obligations, NARA has developed transition specific guidance materials for political appointees covering the key points outlined above, including a one page handout and an online briefing video.

Lisa Haralampus is the Director of the Records Management Policy and Outreach program in the Office of the Chief Records Officer for the U.S. Government at the National Archives and Records Administration where she issues government-wide policies for federal agencies related to records management standards, technology and processes. 

Chris Naylor is the Deputy Chief Operating Officer at the National Archives and Records Administration and is currently serving as NARA’s Presidential Transition Director.

Editorial credit: Katherine Welles /

By Bruce Andrews

This post is part of the Partnership’s Ready to Serve series. Ready to Serve is a centralized resource for people who aspire to serve in a presidential administration as a political appointee.

The opportunity to serve in a presidentially-appointed position in the federal government is a unique privilege and honor. For some positions, this means nominees must traverse the difficult Senate confirmation process before they can take office.

The confirmation process can be one of the biggest challenges a nominee will face in their lifetime. The process puts the fate of a highly accomplished individual in the hands of a Senate committee and a small group of staff, followed by the full Senate for a vote. Rarely do nominees depend so heavily on the judgment of others.

I had the opportunity to work on several sides of the process— first overseeing nominations for the Senate Commerce Committee as the general counsel, then helping nominees navigate the process as chief of staff of the Commerce Department, and finally working on my own nomination to be deputy secretary of Commerce. Here’s some advice for navigating the process.

Tip 1: Be honest

Nominees rarely know how intrusive the process will be and how deeply the background check and the committee will get to know them. In my experience, it is most important to be fully transparent and honest. It is always better to disclose everything, even embarrassing information, rather than be seen as untruthful or misleading.

Tip 2: Trust your team

Remember that confirmation is a team sport! Nominees need champions to build support and to work with potential critics.

The good news is that nominees have a confirmation team to help them. Trust the team. They are experts and their job is to help get the nominee confirmed. They are selected for their understanding of the process and have many resources to draw from.

Tip 3: Think about relationships

Prior to confirmation, nominees should catalogue their relationships and identify third party validators. 

When thinking about relationships, some key questions to ask include:

When I went through confirmation, I thought I would be fine with Democrats, but wanted to strengthen my support among Republicans. I was fortunate to have a group of well-connected Republicans who served as my “Shadow Confirmation Team.” They enthusiastically helped me by reaching out to key Republican senators, committee and leadership staff. Not everyone is as fortunate to have that kind of assistance, but all nominees will benefit from examining their own networks for potential help.

A crucial step in the process involves meetings with members of the Senate committee that has jurisdiction over the position you are seeking. These meetings may be with senators or their senior staff. They are the best way for nominees to introduce themselves, learn about the important issues from each committee member and earn their support.

Tip 4: Remember the hearing is part interview and part political theater

Next, the confirmation hearing will be scheduled. The hearing is not just an opportunity for the nominee to answer questions, but also for senators to impress on the nominee what they see as most important and show their constituents they are fighting for them. If senators want to spend three of their allotted five minutes talking about their positions, that is great. It is less time for the nominee to have to answer questions.

During my hearing, one senator asked me to come meet the fishermen in her state. I first suggested they meet with the regional official as instructed by my confirmation team. She then asked a second time, and I repeated the crafted response. On the third time she pressed me, I finally agreed to visit her state. (After the hearing, my eight-year-old daughter asked why I didn’t just agree when she asked in the first place.) After I was confirmed, my team reached out to her office to schedule a trip to meet with the fishermen, but her office never followed up.

Tip 5: Only answer the question that is asked

Many nominees want to show how smart they are. The most important thing is to listen to what the committee members are asking, and do not go beyond the question. Many nominees get in trouble by straying off topic.

I will never forget one hearing I staffed when a nominee violated this rule and tried to answer questions that were not asked to show the breadth of his knowledge. His responses raised concerns from several senators and led to an entirely new set of tougher questions. No one should want to be that nominee.

The confirmation process is not always easy, but it is a time-honored part of our democracy.  Serving your country is an incredibly rewarding experience, but it is important to respect the crucial role of the Senate in that process, and preparing wisely will increase the chance for a successful confirmation.

Bruce Andrews is managing partner at SoftBank Group and a former deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Commerce. He also served as general counsel to the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee.

Agency review—the process of informing new administrations about the work of the federal government’s various departments—is a critical aspect of presidential transition planning. In this episode of Transition Lab, host David Marchick speaks to Lisa Brown, co-chair of agency review for the 2008 Obama-Biden transition team. Marchick and Brown discuss how this process works, why it is so important and the critical role played by career staff.   

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Brown why agency review is vital to presidential transitions.

Brown: “When [presidents] actually start governing on Inauguration Day, [agency review teams help ensure] they are ready to hit the ground running….The agency teams collect … critical information that the [president-elect] and his or her senior key advisors need to make strategic policy [as well as] budgetary and personnel decisions.…You don’t want gaps when one president leaves and another one comes in….You want to make sure that when the new [administration] comes in, they have the information they need to handle the crisis of the day.”

Marchick asked  why career staff are so important to the agency review process.

Brown: “If you’ve ever worked in the government, you realize how critically important career employees are. They are in these agencies [and] they’re the ones who know how to get things done. You need them to be your friends. You need to be collaborating with them. The worst thing that you could do during agency review is to go in and alienate the career staff because you will find that it is much harder to get things done when you take office.”

Marchick asked  how career staff tend to view agency review teams.

Brown: “I have found that career employees are professionals and they are accustomed to a change in political administration….They care about the mission of their agency. They care about the work that they’re doing. So they do want to partner with you to get that work done.”

Marchick asked Brown about her experience working with the Bush administration in 2008.  

Brown: “President [George W.] Bush and his team in the White House really set the tone … for collaboration. They wanted to ensure that it was as seamless a transition as possible. This was after 9/11, so they had a real sense of responsibility to the country.”

Marchick asked Brown to discuss what she learned from spearheading agency reviews after the 2008 election. 

Brown: “You need to anticipate demand for your work product quite early. The pre-election work that you do is vital….Post-election, you really do want to get people into the agencies very quickly so that you get that information fast to inform policy and to inform the personnel, particularly [during] confirmation hearings….Really think about how [to] best integrate policy teams with the agency review teams….I think you really want people [on the agency review teams] who are … familiar with the president-elect’s policies…..You [also] have to think about [creating] a structure with enough redundancy that your critical work continues … [even if] … somebody [takes on] a new role.” 

Marchick asked Brown to describe how Joe Biden should handle the agency review process if he wins the election, but has an abbreviated transition.

Brown: “[A shorter post-election transition] puts a premium on engaging people who have worked in the government before. That is not to say that you don’t want fresh blood when you actually enter office on nomination day and after … You absolutely want a mix of new people and previous experience….Democrats have been out of power for not yet four years. There’s a lot of knowledge that people have that will still be relevant.”

By Amanda Patarino and Troy Cribb

How do Americans find information about the people serving in the top decision-making positions in the federal government?

The answer is not simple. In many cases, the best option is to refer to the “Plum Book,” a government document produced every four years that is outdated by the time it is published.

The Plum Book is the most comprehensive source about officials serving in the federal government. It contains information on more than 4,000 political appointees – 1,200 of whom are subject to Senate confirmation – along with thousands of other jobs filled by senior career officials in the federal civil service.

Unfortunately, the Plum Book has been produced largely the same way since 1952, and should be modernized to provide greater transparency and accountability. Congress is currently considering legislation that would do just that, and the Partnership for Public Service supports this effort to bring the Plum Book into the 21st century.

The history of the Plum Book

The Plum Book has remained largely unchanged since President Eisenhower requested a list of the “plum” positions he could fill in his new administration. Today, the Office of Personnel Management requests information from agencies and compiles that data into one long list with a “plum” purple cover. The list is published by Congress in late November or early December of every presidential election year and provides a snapshot of the political positions and appointees who filled them that previous summer.

This means the data is only available every four years, and, as the Partnership has written, the Plum Book itself is often filled with errors. For example, the Federal Housing Finance Board was listed in the 2016 Plum Book even though it was dissolved in 2008. The 2016 Plum Book also misclassified some positions that were changed to PA (presidential appointment) from PAS (presidential appointment with Senate confirmation) by the Presidential Appointment Efficiency and Streamlining Act of 2011.


There are three improvements to the Plum Book that would make it more useful. First, the information should be updated more frequently than every four years to provide more timely data. Second, errors should be fixed as soon as they are caught. Third, while the Plum Book is available online as a PDF and a few other file types, it should be available in a more downloadable and machine readable format.

These improvements would bring increased transparency and accountability to the federal government by letting the American people know who is serving in the top decision-making positions. An online, up-to-date Plum Book would be an effective planning tool for the Office of Presidential Personnel or the transition team planning for a new presidency. It also would provide key information to individuals wanting to join an administration.

Current legislation

In June, the Partnership applauded the introduction of the Periodically Listing Updates to Management Act of 2020 (The PLUM Act) by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y.,  and Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del. As introduced, both bills would require an online database of appointees and require monthly updates, and just yesterday the bill moved through committee in the House. As the Senate bill moved through committee earlier in the summer, though, the reporting requirement was scaled back to an every-two-year update.

As the legislation moves forward in the House and Senate, the Partnership urges lawmakers to put the government on the path toward a real-time comprehensive database. This would include updating the information at least quarterly for all types of positions in the traditional Plum Book. The legislation also should create a process that will minimize errors and allow agencies to leverage systems they already use to track political appointments in order to minimize duplicative reporting.

In addition, the legislation should include guidance about reporting vacancies subject to Senate-confirmation. The Federal Vacancies Reform Act requires agencies to report information about these vacancies to the Government Accountability Office. In recent years, the reporting has been spotty and left the public in the dark as to who is assuming the duties of vacant positions subject to Senate confirmation.

Passage of the PLUM Act would bring the Plum Book and the tracking of political appointments into the modern world. Congress should seize on this opportunity to make appointee data more accurate and accessible.

Amanda Patarino is a consultant on the Center for Presidential Transition, focused on political appointments. Troy Cribb is the Director of Policy at the Partnership for Public Service.

Since launching in January 2020, Transition Lab has offered a close look at the world of presidential transition planning, featuring in-depth interviews with those who have organized, led and written about some of the most notable transfers of power in U.S. history. In this episode, host David Marchick shares the most important takeaways, poignant stories and surprising moments from these interviews. Utilizing episode highlights, presidential recordings and historical news clips, Marchick takes us back in time–from the 1930s to the present–to illustrate how transitions work, why they are important and the lessons they hold for both today and tomorrow. Topics discussed include the importance of good staffing; why transition teams and campaign teams don’t always get along; how successful transitions breed successful presidencies; why bipartisanship during a transition matters; and how administrations try to learn from the missteps of previous transitions. Transition Lab is the official podcast of the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that strives to make our federal government more effective, innovative and responsive to the people it serves.  

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Read the highlights:

Marchick talked to Martha Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, who discussed why Harry Truman’s transition plans–the first to be organized by a sitting president–went awry.

Kumar: “[Truman] thought that it would be good to have both sides come into the White House. It was during the summer of 1952 in August, and he invited [Democratic presidential nominee] Adlai Stevenson and [Republican presidential nominee] General Eisenhower to … get briefed by the CIA … individual Cabinet members and White House staff. Eisenhower was not in favor of doing it. So he wrote [Truman] back turning down the invitation. Truman was very unhappy and … wrote, ‘I am extremely sorry that you have allowed a bunch of screwballs to come between us. You have made a big mistake and I’m hoping it won’t injure this great Republic.’”

Marchick talked to two top policy advisors in the Carter administration, Stuart Eizenstat and David Rubenstein, about the distrust between the Carter transition and campaign teams.

Eizenstat: “David and I were heading the policy staff of the campaign. And unbeknownst to us until about a month before the election, Jimmy Carter had a parallel policy planning group for the transition…”

Rubenstein: “You had people fighting over jockeying or positions and you couldn’t really prepare that well for the new administration because people didn’t really know who [was] going to get what jobs.”

Eizenstat: “Yes … because you had these parallel structures, because you had this clash, it took up an enormous amount of time.”

Rubenstein and Eizenstat also discussed how poor staffing, including Carter’s initial decision to serve as his own chief of staff, hampered the administration early on. 

Rubenstein: “Carter was obsessed with getting the Cabinet done. The White House staff? [He said], ‘Well, staff people are not that significant. Who cares about staff? We’ll deal with that later’… He didn’t really feel he had to have very powerful people at the White House staff because in his view, everything was going to be in the Cabinet.”

Eizenstat: “He decided to be the opposite of Nixon. Nixon had [H.R.] Haldeman as the all-powerful chief of staff who blocked everyone from seeing him. So [Carter] decided he was going to be his own chief of staff.”

Ronald Reagan learned from Carter’s missteps. Before taking office, Reagan hired James Baker, a veteran of Washington politics who ran two Republican primary campaigns against the president-elect in 1976 and 1980, as chief of staff. Marchick asked Baker to discuss his surprising hiring. 

Baker: “I don’t think it will ever happen again in American politics where a president-elect will go to someone who has run at least two campaigns against him [and ask him] to be … their White House chief of staff … He was looking for someone who knew and understood how Washington worked.”

Importantly, Baker established a strong working relationship with Reagan’s transition director, Ed Meese, who had also expected to become chief of staff. 

Baker: “The next morning I met with the president and he said, ‘Jim I want you to be my White House chief of staff … but I want you to make it right with [Ed] Meese.’ And I said to [Ed], ‘Let’s figure out a workable way to divide up the responsibilities in the White House’…. My job was to make sure the trains run on time, and making the trains run on time meant I had to have authority over the congressional relations, press relations [and] political relations, and operate from the chief of staff’s office, which is the biggest office in the West Wing.”

Marchick also interviewed Mack McLarty, President Clinton’s chief of staff, who discussed why Clinton downplayed transition planning as a presidential candidate and explained how he repeated Carter’s mistake of selecting a Cabinet before hiring important White House staff. 

McLarty: “Governor Clinton had a strong feeling … that he did not want to be seen as an underdog candidate, or a younger candidate, who was already beginning to measure the drapes in the Oval Office. So his instinct was not to have a robust transition.”

McLarty: “You either have to [select Cabinet and White House staff] simultaneously or, perhaps even better, focus on the White House staff first and then quickly move the Cabinet.… There was just not enough work done before the election. And once you get behind, it just does not leave you any room to catch up.”

Marchick interviewed Clay Johnson, the head of the George W. Bush’s transition team in 2000, who explained why the president-elect was prepared to take office despite a delay in the official election results. 

Johnson: “He said, ‘I want you … prepare a plan for what I do when I win the presidency.’ This was in June of 1999. So it’s 16 months or so before the presidential election. I don’t think anybody’s started that early…. I [told] Bush that summer, ‘When we get to within a month or so from the election, I’m going to be encouraging you to pick your chief of staff. So you might be thinking about who it ought to be.’ And he did, [selecting Andy Card, one of the earliest chief of staff picks in U.S. history].”

Marchick also spoke with Stephanie Cutter, a spokesperson for the Obama-Biden transition in 2008, about why transition teams need to set aside partisan difference after presidential elections and continue to govern for the good of the country.

Cutter: “The Bush team couldn’t have been more helpful. We were working so closely in cooperation with them and they were being extraordinarily helpful to us because of the economic crisis that we were in. As soon as you move from a campaign to a transition, out goes the campaign rhetoric. It’s not ‘Bush’s economy’ this, and ‘failure’ that, it’s what are we going to do? It’s looking to the future. It’s putting real plans in place.”

More recently, Marchick interviewed Chris Christie, who chaired Donald Trump’s transition team from May 2016 until shortly after Election Day. Christie discussed how he relied on many of those who had run presidential transitions to prepare for a Trump transition and explained why a personnel shakeup of the transition team after the election hurt the administration.  

Christie: “I met with Andy Card, who along with Vice President Cheney ran the transition for the George W. Bush team. I met with Jim Baker, who was instrumental in the Bush 41 transition and in the Ronald Reagan transition. And I also met with a number of other folks who were involved around the periphery in those transition efforts … They said, ‘You don’t have a day to waste. The government is bigger and more complex than it’s ever been’.… [The Monday before Election Day], we turned over 20 volumes of materials to the Trump campaign, for them to be ready to begin to execute on Wednesday.”

Christie: “[Shortly after Election Day], Steve Bannon asked if I’d come see him in his office. So I went down to his office and … we sat down and … he [said], ‘ We need to make some changes.’ And I said, ‘OK. What changes are we making?’ And he [said], ‘You.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And he [said], ‘Nope. Vice President Pence is now going to be the chair of the transition and you’re out’…. They still haven’t recovered [from Christie’s firing and transition leader Richard Bagger’s resignation] … because you cannot recover from the loss of all of that work. And even if they win a second term, they won’t catch up because you gave away that 150 days or so you can never get it back. And those are 150 very important days.”

By Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton

Presidential transitions are a time of great vulnerability for our nation, with a significant turnover in national security personnel occurring when the nation may be facing a foreign policy crisis or an adversary willing to cause significant trouble. Many of the laws and norms that presidential transitions follow today were put in place based on lessons learned in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. 

The independent, bipartisan 9/11 Commission, which we headed, examined the transition of power in 2001 from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. We found, among other things, that the Bush administration, like others before it, did not have its full national security team on the job until at least six months after it took office.

Since a catastrophic attack can occur with little or no notice as we experienced on 9/11, we concluded that the government must seek to minimize disruption of national security policymaking during the change of administrations. In exploring this issue, our report made a series of recommendations to protect the nation from national security threats during a presidential transition.

Our proposals were adopted by Congress largely through the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. The post 9/11 provisions have been integrated into the process for all transitions since and include:

To be truly effective and help protect our nation from national security threats during and soon after a presidential transition, our outgoing and incoming leaders must be cooperative, take these requirements and best practices seriously, and act in the best interests of the nation.

Thomas Kean, a former Republican governor of New Jersey, and Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana, served as chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

Ed Meier and Richard Bagger ran the presidential transition teams for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively, during the run up to the 2016 election. In this Transition Lab episode, host David Marchick spoke with Meier and Bagger about preparing to lead presidential transition teams, navigating strategic differences with campaign staff, shaping the public’s perception of transition planning and the results of the 2016 election. 

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Meier and Bagger about how they prepared to lead their respective transition teams. 

Bagger: “I got ahold of the transition guide published by the Partnership for Public Service, as well as the book that had been published by the Romney transition [team] following the 2012 election. Then I said, ‘I need to get together and meet with some people who’ve done this before.’ We had a full day meeting with the leadership of the Romney transition team … and then [we] met at the Partnership … to ask questions, get briefed and learn about the resources that were available.”

Meier: “I absorbed everything I could that had been written and … had a lot of conversations with [John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman], and also with others that had run transitions.… I was able to connect with the Romney folks and then also people from the [George W.] Bush transition and pick their brains and figure out kind of lessons [they] learned, what worked, [and] what didn’t work.”

Marchick asked Meier and Bagger about how they avoided the appearance of “measuring the drapes” before the 2016 election.  

Bagger: “There’s always been a concern … about ‘measuring the drapes,’ concern with candidates not wanting there to be a perception that they’re taking anything for granted.… I think the last couple of amendments to the federal transition planning laws make it clear that there’s a structure to do transition planning … I think that provides some context for why it is happening and helps prevent it from being interpreted as jumping the gun it before the election.”

Meier: “We kept our transition team very small … We wanted to keep it very low profile, keep all the focus on the campaign, and keep our heads down and get the work done.… We did not want anyone to call attention to themselves in the work we were doing.” 

Marchick asked Meier and Bagger about how they mitigated common tensions with campaign staff.

Bagger: “The people who are working 24/7 to get the candidate elected on the campaign wonder about this other group that’s planning a transition and whether they’re really sitting on the sidelines deciding who gets what jobs.… So that is why close collaboration and communication and recognizing that the transition works for the campaign is just a fundamental principle.”

Meier: “We kept the campaign fully in the loop on all the major decisions and we sought their guidance on all the major decisions.… We stayed in in lockstep, kept the campaign up to speed on what we’re doing [and] looked for guidance.”

Marchick asked Meier and Bagger about whether it was challenging to work in the same building while planning transitions for opposing candidates. 

Meier: “It wasn’t as weird as you might imagine. We really emphasized … that this was a real responsibility [and] that we were preparing for governing.… We weren’t sitting around trying to think of the next political hit to throw at candidate Trump. We were solely focused on how we were going to take the promises that Secretary Clinton was making [during] the campaign and implement those in the first 100 and 200 days of, hopefully, a presidency.”

Bagger: “I agree completely with Ed’s comments … We would meet together every month or so in the White House for the White House Transition Coordinating Council.… And I remember sitting in those meetings really being incredibly proud as an American to be participating in a system where an outgoing administration is … planning transitions for the competitors for the presidency during a very contentious election.”

Marchick asked Meier and Bagger about how they handled the influx of job seekers in the months leading up to the election.

Meier: “We steered everyone to the campaign and said, ‘ You want to get involved? You want a job in this administration? You want to focus on the transition? Well, go focus on the campaign first and help Hillary Clinton get elected.’”

Bagger: “One thing we tried to do was to prevent having people just hanging around the transition offices.… [We tried to ensure that] it wasn’t just a place where people could hang around and sort of like become part of the team.”

Marchick asked Meier and Bagger to reflect on how their work changed after Election Day and to discuss their reactions to the results.

Bagger: “We … started to execute on the plan of this sort of handoff from the transition planning phase to the transition execution phase.… Once it was announced, two or three days after the election, [that] Vice President-elect Pence would become the chair of the transition for the next phase and Governor Christie would be moving to a new role as a member of the transition executive committee, I decided that it was right for me to leave the role as executive director. The only reason I was doing the transition work was because of my relationship with Governor Christie … So it was appropriate that I sort of move out of that role and hand off as well to Rick Dearborn [the next executive director].” 

Meier: [We] realized we [hadn’t] really planned sufficiently for this eventuality: What happens if we lose? … I sent a message to our transition team who had stayed down in Washington because that’s what we asked them to do and said, ‘Don’t go into the office. Come to our house.’ And we took care of the beginning of the wind down … and we also just had a moment for us to just be there for each other emotionally…. It was definitely an extremely painful moment, but also a moment where you realize you can’t just cry.… You also have to take care of winding down this organization.”

Nancy Cook and Andrew Restuccia know all about presidential transitions. They currently write about transition planning and presidential politics for Politico and the Wall Street Journal, respectively, and previously collaborated on several transition stories during the 2016 election. In this Transition Lab episode, host David Marchick asked Cook and Restuccia about their experiences covering presidential transitions, the 2020 candidates’ current plans, the big transition storylines to expect in the coming months and the ways in which a sound transition strategy can make governing easier.

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Cook and Restuccia about their experiences covering Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s transition operations four years ago.

Restuccia: “The Clinton transition team … didn’t want to talk about what they were doing, partly because they didn’t want to be seen as measuring the drapes in the White House…. The Trump people saw themselves as sort of an underdog and, as a result, were not as organized in some ways, certainly when it [came] to whether or not people should talk to the press. As a result, we were able to make a lot of inroads with the Trump people pretty early on.”

Cook: “There was a real ragtag element to the Trump transition that made it sort of a gold mine to reporters…. The Trump people were just much more relaxed about grabbing coffee with reporters or talking about what they were up to.”

Marchick asked about the vetting problems encountered by some of President-elect Trump’s Cabinet nominees in 2016–2017.

Cook: “Someone would call  Trump or someone would say to [Vice President-elect Mike] Pence, ‘Oh, this person would be good.’ And then two days later, [Trump] would call them and they would have the job, or the person would go to Trump Tower and meet with [him] for 20 minutes and have the job. There was really no vetting of people’s backgrounds, potential conflicts of interest, [or] ethics.”

Restuccia: “We were the first really reporters to raise those red flags and [ask] what that could mean down the road [when] confirmation hearings started.”

Marchick asked how Trump’s transition affected his ability to govern.

Cook: “So many problems that the [Trump] administration has faced … [stem] from not really having in place–after [Chris] Christie [the head of the Trump transition team] was fired–a serious transition operation. [The team was] just sort of doing everything on the fly [and] … people [wanted] to stack the administration with friends. So many problems go back to the transition and the first few months of the administration.”

Restuccia: “Even after Christie was pushed out, there remained this group of people who were long-time, Washington-seasoned George W. Bush administration folks. A lot of them were really trying to put in place a structure…. There was this constant tension between those people trying to put together some sort of more formalized vetting process and the people in Trump’s inner circle who just didn’t find that to be a priority.”

Marchick asked whether Trump is now doing any second term transition planning.

Cook: “[The Trump administration has] ended up dealing with the pandemic and an economic downturn for the past several months, so they’ve been quite distracted. But I do think some [members of the Trump team] are very focused on [transition planning] … But it’s really going to be the president who will set the tone and determine whether or not hiring is efficient if he wins a second term. And then if he loses, he will really set the tone for what the transfer of power looks like.”

Restuccia: “One person [in the Trump administration] to watch really closely is Chris Liddell. He is a deputy chief of staff at the White House and leading the internal discussions about organizing the infrastructure around how [the Trump team is] thinking about a second term.”

Marchick asked the two journalists to predict the major transition challenges that Trump or a newly elected President Biden will face after the 2020 election.

Cook: “If Trump remains in power and wins a second term, then I think there’ll be a lot of questions about who serves in his second term and [how] they [are] vetted.… If Biden wins, there will be all of those similar questions about the transition … but [also] a whole other storyline that opens up about the Trump administration’s reaction to Biden’s victory and what they do in response. Do they make it easy for people to take power? Do they make it easy for Biden folks to access the agencies? Do they make it easy to give Biden people security clearances? There will be a bunch of questions that come up just based on how Trump reacts if he loses.”

Restuccia: “The really interesting story will be if Biden wins and what happens during those precious months between the election and the inauguration between [both the Biden and Trump teams].”

Marchick asked how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect transition planning for both Trump and Biden.

Cook: “I think COVID … has taken away some of [the Trump administration’s] attention from planning a second term, both in terms of the policy agenda [and] who could serve at the agencies or [in] the Cabinet. If Biden wins, [he is] going to walk into a White House [and] inherit … the pandemic. [He’s] really going to have to come in and hit the ground running.”

Restuccia: “Then there are just some day-to-day considerations, including [how to run a transition remotely]. How does that change the dynamic on the transition team? Does that affect communication? And will you even move into an office space that the government offers and staff it fully? [The pandemic] makes people question all of those things.”

By Livi Logan-Wood and Dan Hyman

The conclusion of the Democratic and Republican national conventions this month mark the official start of the 2020 presidential campaign and a key turning point for transition planning.

According to the Presidential Transition Act, within three days after the last convention ends, the federal government is required to provide presidential transition teams with specific support. By Sept. 1, 2020, the following changes will take place.   

Because President Trump is the incumbent, his administration is not required to create a formal transition team. However, the conclusion of the nominating conventions presents an opportunity for the Trump administration to plan for second term policy and personnel changes.

The next notable transition milestone will be on Oct. 1 when the Trump White House and the Biden-Harris team must reach an agreement that governs how and when transition team members can engage with federal agencies following the November election if the Democrats are successful. This agreement also will include an ethics plan for transition team members.

With the presidential campaign now heading into its final months, the law dictating the beginning of official coordination among the transition team, the current administration and federal agencies is a testament to the importance of a smooth and peaceful transfer of power and for effective presidential transition planning.

By Christina Condreay and Alex Tippett

The winner of this November’s presidential election will face daunting challenges—a devastating pandemic, a major economic crisis, civil unrest stemming from racial inequality and a long list of pressing domestic and national security issues. These are momentous times that accentuate the need for presidential transition planning, whether it’s a first term for Democratic candidate Joseph Biden or a second term for President Donald Trump.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout will impact presidential transition planning in four key areas:

Additionally, a first-term Biden administration will have to consider a fifth area–the preparation for “landing teams” that are deployed by incoming presidential administrations to review agencies operations and policies.

The president’s budget must balance the immediate needs stemming from the pandemic and the economic crisis along with the long-term policy agenda

The president’s budget is an important opportunity to signal the priorities of an administration, shape the congressional debate and shore up alliances.

In 2021, the president’s budget will come on the heels of congressional approval of several trillion dollars in stimulus spending in 2020 and will involve weighing trade-offs between the administration’s long-term policy agenda and the requirements dictated by the current crises. This will necessitate a high-stakes appraisal—the funding choices in this budget could shape the economic and political landscape for the next four years. Due to these challenges, work on the budget should begin early and be given greater attention and resources than in previous election cycles. 

Chris Lu, the executive director of the President Barack Obama’s 2008-2009 transition, said the severe financial crisis occurring when Obama took office pushed many policy concerns “to the backburner.” Transition planners should develop the budget to highlight major policy goals for the year ahead even if the immediate crisis remains the top priority.

Staffing the government during a crisis requires focusing on both immediate needs and second-order issues

Presidents are responsible for appointing about 4,000 officials throughout the federal government. A new president must fill these positions from scratch while second-term presidents often face significant staff turnover. According to previous research by the Partnership for Public Service, the first year of a second term coincides with an average turnover rate of more than 40% for senior leadership positions. Both before and after the Nov. 3 election, it is critical for transition planners to focus on public health and economic policy appointees who will be responsible for overseeing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the sagging economy.

The specific priority positions will depend on how a new administration structures its response, while a second-term administration may take the opportunity to reshape its efforts. A Cabinet-led response will require the administration to prioritize agency leadership positions while a response driven by the White House will call for a different staffing structure. Transition planners should develop a clear picture of what the post-election COVID-19 response will look like and identify key personnel for this effort.

The pandemic also has created several second-order threats such as increased cybersecurity risks with a remote workforce as well as greater global instability. The next administration should recognize that successfully navigating the current crises will require filling positions without traditional “pandemic-response” roles in agencies throughout the government.

The pandemic also will create operational challenges for presidential appointees. Procedures will have to be developed for previously routine issues, ranging from how to conduct safe and secure briefings with new appointees to the best way to work with a potentially remote Senate. The challenger’s transition team will need to closely coordinate with the General Service Administration (GSA), which provides the transition with office space, IT equipment and other support.

According to Mary Gibert, the federal transition coordinator at GSA, the groundwork for a virtual transition, however, has already been laid. In the last transition, much of the work was already conducted virtually, with many of personnel choosing to work on GSA-provided devices rather than come into the office. “COVID has not impacted our transition planning,” Gibert says. “We haven’t missed a beat. We’ve kept up with all our statutory requirements.”

Those involved in overseeing a second Trump term will have to ensure the Office of Presidential Personnel can ramp up its efforts to meet an expected turnover of political appointees on top of a high level of current vacancies, and determine where it can improve operations and procedures to better deal with the challenges resulting from the pandemic.

Prioritizing key executive actions will advance policy goals

Executive actions are one tool presidents can use to enact significant change–and do so quickly. Effectively using executive orders for achieving policy goals may be more challenging in 2021 because so much attention must be devoted to dealing with the immediate crises. Transition planners for both first- and fifth-year administrations should take time to develop executive orders and anticipate potential operational and legal challenges well before Jan. 20.

First-year administrations face a two-pronged challenge. They must advance the new president’s agenda while evaluating previous executive actions and rules they want to change. This can be a huge undertaking even under normal conditions. Resource constraints created by the pandemic will make it difficult for a new administration to accomplish all its goals. An incoming administration should concentrate on the most critical subset of issues. Doing so will prevent it from spreading itself too thin and increase its chances of success. Historically, there has been a decline in the number of executive orders issued by a president during the fifth year in office compared with the first term. In interviews with the Partnership for Public Service, former senior White House officials suggested the focus on re-election often limits formal planning for a president’s fifth year. If an administration is facing both a crisis and a re-election campaign, as is the case today, developing fifth-year executive orders may well fall to the bottom of the agenda. Investing time and resources in planning an executive agenda now, however, may allow the president to start the fifth year more effectively and set a productive tone for the rest of their presidency.

The White House structure must be equipped to respond to the current and future crises

All presidents seek a White House organizational structure that will lead to a smooth functioning operation and enable them to achieve their key policy priorities. New administrations must create this structure from scratch while a second-term administration has the opportunity to reexamine its White House design and improve areas of weakness. Any such redesign, however, will need to be attuned to the demands of the current crisis.

Different presidents have relied on a variety of organizational structures to address crises. During Harry Truman’s presidency, Congress created the National Security Council in 1947 to help the president coordinate national security policy. In 1993, President Bill Clinton created the National Economic Council by executive order to help coordinate the economic policy-making process and provide economic policy advice.

These entities centralized decision-making and the flow of information. Other presidents have relied on temporary arrangements such as President Obama’s appointment of an Ebola czar in 2014 to coordinate what was then the world’s biggest health threat. This type of temporary structure can be valuable but cannot provide the same institutional knowledge offered by a more permanent organization. Both first- and fifth-year administrations should use the transition period as an opportunity to evaluate the current pandemic response structure and determine if changes are needed. The next administration also should assess how to operate in a partial virtual work environment. A new administration should seek expert guidance and develop contingency plans while the current administration should identify problem areas that need to be resolved. Identifying and resolving these issues long before Inauguration Day will ensure a smooth start for a new administration or lead to improved conditions for a second term. Lessons could be learned from the agencies across government who are currently operating partially or totally virtually. Despite working virtually, agencies like the IRS and FEMA have managed to fulfill their normal mission requirements in addition to the new demands created by COVID-19. A new administration will have to demonstrate a similar level of agility.

A new administration must understand how agencies operate

A new administration must have a thorough understanding of every federal agency’s capabilities and responsibilities. To do this, presidential transition teams traditionally create landing teams that enter agencies following the election and gather relevant information. The roles of various agencies can change rapidly during a crisis. The transition landing teams must flag challenges related to the pandemic so that those issues can be evaluated and resolved.

Landing teams should also map the statutory landscape for each agency. Do agencies have emergency powers they are not taking advantage of? Are agencies exceeding the legal limits of their authority? An incoming administration must be aware of all these issues to mount an effective COVID-19 response. In addition, federal agencies must coordinate with one another, the private sector, state and municipal governments, and international partners during a crisis such as a pandemic. Landing teams should document these relationships so an incoming administration can take immediate control and identify potential pain points that need to be resolved.


Whether it’s a second Trump term or a first term for Biden, our government must be prepared to tackle the pandemic and the nation’s economic problems in addition to the challenges associated with any presidential transition. This will require thorough transition planning that accounts for the uniqueness of the current crises.