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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 job. What 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.”
The Clinton and Trump transition leaders share what happened during the 2016 election. In this conversation, Rich Bagger (Trump) and Ed Meier (Clinton) discuss how they became involved with the transition, the challenges they faced and what happened after Election Day 2016.
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Read the highlights from the episode:
Ed Meier and Rich Bagger say that having the two major-party transition teams working in the same building “wasn’t as weird as you might imagine.” Both attribute this to a recognition that ensuring a smooth transition is a critical task.
Dave Marchick: “You were in the same room together after the conventions. You are in the same building together. Was that a little weird [having] your bosses—then candidate Trump and Secretary Clinton—building themselves up and tearing the other person down a [while] you all were working together, collaborating, talking in the same room?”
Ed Meier: “It wasn’t as weird as you might imagine it could be… My colleague Ann O’Leary and I were the co-executive directors and we really emphasized with our team that this was a real responsibility, that we were preparing for governing. And in that sense, we weren’t sitting around trying to think of the next political hit to, to throw at candidate Trump. We were solely focused on how we were going to take the promises that Secretary Clinton was making on the campaign and implement those into the first 100 and 200 days of…[her] presidency. And in that sense, it felt more like governing than it did politicking—because that’s what it was. And so, in that sense, Rich was more of a colleague than a political competitor because we were learning about transition and really working on this great responsibility [together].”
Rich Bagger: “Well, we [were] definitely working in close quarters. And it was certainly interesting, but I agree completely with, with Ed’s comments. When we would meet together– we would meet together every month, you know, in the White House for the White House Transition Coordinating Council. We’d also meet periodically with the agency transition directors in the Executive Office Building. And I remember sitting in those meetings really being incredibly proud as an American that participating in a system where an outgoing administration is briefing representatives [and] planning transitions for the competitors for the presidency during a very contentious election—sitting down together [and talking] about the fundamentally important things for [the] continuity of government.”
Ed Meier discusses how his transition team realized it had failed to prepare for the chance that Hillary Clinton would lose, as well as the emotional aftermath of the election.
Dave Marchick: Donald Trump won, and most people didn’t expect him to win. What was that like and then what happened?
Ed Meier: “[Laughter] I’m glad the podcast listeners can’t see the tears streaming down my face right now. So, my family packed up, drove up to New York, and drop[ed] my kids off in New Jersey where my sister lives, and my wife and I went to the Javits Center for what we thought was going to be the victory party in New York City. Actually, one of my dear friends recalls…[that] I turned to her and I said, “Our transition website was so beautiful.” She still reminds me of that moment. And, it just sort of encapsulates [it]—all this planning that goes into this process and preparation and then for it to all [to] sort of not be as meaningful as you as you had hoped it would be…The next morning we had [all our] briefing materials with us and afterward, you realized we haven’t really planned sufficiently for this eventuality: Uh, what happens if we lose? And so as we were driving back down to Washington the next day, I sent [a] message to all of our transition team who had stayed…in Washington…and said “Don’t go into the office, come to our house. We’re going to have lunch. Bring your laptop computers, bring anything you have that you need to turn in.”
Meier (continued): “And we took care of the beginning of all the logistics of winding down this organization we had spun up. And we also just had a moment for us; to just be there for each other emotionally. And there were definitely some tears shed. And, and you know, [on] one hand you’re having to take care of the logistical responsibilities of winding down an organization and [while also] taking care of a team—your colleagues who are and yourself—who are just emotionally exhausted and crushed. And it was definitely an extremely painful moment but also a moment where you realize you can’t just cry—even [if] you do cry a lot—but you also have to take care of winding down this organization.”
Meier (continued): “We knew Rich would have been very gracious, for sure. But we just didn’t want our team to need to go back into the building… There were a handful of us that then took all the laptops and took all the fobs and all that sort of thing and return[ed] them to the GSA in the building…For the most part, we just didn’t want our team to have to go through that emotionally.”
Rich Bagger recounts how he left his role as transition director “two or three days after the election.”
Rich Bagger: “Two or three days after the election, [it was announced that] Vice President-elect Pence, would becoming the chair of the transition for the next phase, and Governor Christie would be moving to a new role as just a member of the transition executive committee. I decided that it was right for me to leave [my] role as executive director. The only reason I was doing the transition work was because of my relationship with Governor Christie and the fact that he had tapped me to do it. So, it was appropriate that I move out of that role and hand off to Rick Dearborn, who carried [the transition] forward to the next phase.”