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.”

Donald Trump‘s 2016-17 presidential transition was famously bumpy in part because the president-elect made a change in transition leadership only days after the election. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was chairman of the Trump transition team from May 2016  until shortly after Election Day, but he had done extensive preparation to help the new president be ready to govern. On this episode of Transition Lab, Christie tells host David Marchick how he planned the transition and where it went wrong, offers some advice for 2020 and ponders his own future.

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Read the highlights:

Marchick asked Christie about his experience with then-candidate Trump in 2016 regarding the need for transition planning before the November presidential election. 

Christie: “He became convinced that he had to do this legally and he just tried to stay as far away from it as much as he could. The only time I ever really spoke to him about it…was on rare occasions where he read something in the news about the transition and he would then call and give me some reaction to it. Each time he called, he’d say to me, ‘Chris, you’re wasting a lot of time on this. You and I are both so smart, if we win this thing, we can do the entire transition if we just leave the victory party two hours early.’” 

In recounting how he prepared to lead Trump’s presidential transition, Christie said he sought advice from Republican transition luminaries including Jim Baker, Andy Card and Chris Liddell. 

“What they said to me is you don’t have a day to waste. The government is bigger and more complex than it’s ever been, and if your candidate wins, he is going to be the least well-versed in the intricacies of how government operates than any president of our lifetime. You’re going to have to have an even more detailed plan prepared for him to have him prepared in the 73 days…between the election and inauguration.” 

Marchick asked Christie what he focused on during the pre-election transition. 

Christie: “The first was to listen to what the candidate was saying on the campaign trail, and then give him a roadmap to achieve every one of the things…in either a 100-day or 200-day plan. First was laying out those individual promises…and then putting groups together who were expert in that area to be able to prepare white papers that would say how you get from promise to accomplishment.  

The second big piece was putting together the landing teams and blueprints for each department in the federal government so that you would have a group of people who were qualified to go in there beginning the day after the election. The third piece was personnel…We were looking at Cabinet level, sub-Cabinet and White House staff….We did a lot of outreach to people in the campaign and people in the corporate world, people in the nonprofit world, to get recommendations. We then vetted people and put together an entire list of folks for each Cabinet and major sub-Cabinet position. 

Marchick: “So you had done all this work, and everybody at the Partnership for Public Service and other places who worked with you said you did a great jobWhat was the impact of losing all this work?”  

Christie: “The first term is almost over and they still haven’t recovered… In the beginning in the Trump White House, they were either lots of empty seats or (jobs) filled with lots of Obama holdovers (in places like) the National Security Council and…the departments. So you have people…who are hostile to the president personally, but he had just been elected and he wondered why he couldn’t get things done. it just has impacted this administration in every substantive way…Even if they win a second term, they won’t catch up because they gave away that 150 days or so that you can never get it back.” 

Marchick asked Christie what advice he would give to the Democratic candidate Joseph Biden’s presidential transition team based on his own 2016 experience. 

Christie: “Make sure that you do all the vetting you need to do on your landing teams way in advance (of the election). Decide early on whether you’re going to let any lobbyists be on those teams. You’re going to have to have really good people, smart, experienced people who are literally ready to go in the day after the election. Have all that stuff squared away and the rules laid out right in the beginning so that nobody can raise any issues that can trip you up…I don’t think you can ever spend enough time on personnel because in government, personnel turn out to be policy to a large extent.”

Marchick asked Christie about his plans for the future and if he sees himself holding public office again. 

Christie: “I could see myself reentering public life at some point in the next number of years…I’m not going to be one of a hundred in the United States Senate, or one of 435 of the House. Not my style, not the way I would want to do things…I don’t have a crystal ball and you can’t tell for certain what opportunities will present themselves and whether you’ll be able to take advantage of those or not. But if I were a betting man, I would bet on the fact that I’ll have another opportunity in public life somewhere down the road.”