September 08, 2020

Two transition planners reflect on the 2016 election

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.”