All-star reporters discuss covering presidential transitions
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.
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.”