Peaceful transfer of power

January 21, 2020

Few have served with more distinction than Josh Bolten and Denis McDonough, chiefs of staff for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In this conversation, they talk about three types of transitions – into government, to a second term, and the handoff to the next administration. 

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Read the highlights from the episode:

Both Josh Bolten and Denis McDonough offer advice for the Trump administration as it approaches the end of its first term. Bolten recommends that the Trump administration appoint a transition director in preparation for his second term and encourages him to “rethink all your personnel.” Denis McDonough suggests that the president put the transition effort in the hands of “somebody you trust and is discreet.”   

Dave Marchick: “So, what would you advise people on the Trump administration to do now that…they’re coming up on year four?”   

Josh Bolten: “I mean, treat it like at a transition. Maybe appoint a transition director of some kind, somebody that the president is close to. Rethink all of your personnel and know what your priorities are…We sure weren’t thinking about how to reshuffle the Cabinet and that kind of thing. And those are all important things to think about. And that would be my advice to the Trump administration, Including to the president. But the president by personality—every president by personality—is going to be resistant to that kind of advice.”  

Denis McDonough: “I think the same lesson that we talked about earlier about a bifurcated team and new legs and fresh perspective I think applies. And so, I think a best practice is to think about how do you put this somewhere [with] somebody you trust and who’s discreet, who can help you give a good hard look at [transition].”   

According to Josh Bolten, the Bush administration made a mistake by not treating transition—either to a new administration or a new term—as an opportunity in 2004.  

Josh Bolten: “…The Bush administration made the converse mistake, we didn’t really treat [2004] as a moment of transition. I mean as farsighted and thoughtful as I think President Bush was in directing a robust transition in 2008, I cannot say that that was very high on the agenda in 2004. …Anybody who’s elected president is a competitive person and isn’t inclined to say I need to plan for defeat. Right? And so, the person sitting in the oval office is likely to have the kind of personality who is focused on how are we going to win—and what are we gonna do after we win? And there was plenty of focus on that in the Bush White House in 2004. There was not a lot of focus in 2004 on planning for what to do if we lost. And I know Andy Card, my predecessor and our good friend, who was chief of staff at the time, tried to persuade the president to think about a second term, even in victory as a moment of transition…Even in victory as a moment to just think about the staff and the Cabinet from the beginning. And presidents just aren’t inclined to do that…Good advice is to seize the opportunity. Assume you’re going to win but treat it as a transition and make sure you’re prepared to hand off in good shape in case you don’t.”  

Josh Bolten says that both Obama and McCain ran as “not Bush” during the 2008 campaign, but the president “did not take it personally” and pushed for a smooth transition despite their critiques.   

Dave Marchick: “[How was] the hand-off from the Bush administration to the Obama administration so smooth, even though…a large part of the campaign of then Senator Obama was a repudiation of some…Bush policies?”  

Josh Bolten: “What I remember is that both candidates were running against the President… Obama and McCain were fashioning their campaigns as “not Bush” and, and God bless him, George W. Bush understood that and did not take it personally… Some of the rest of us did, but, I mean, President Bush was sufficiently unpopular towards the end of his term that it was kind of a political necessity for even the Republican candidate to be repudiating some of the Bush positions. We weren’t actually indifferent—we were rooting for McCain—but on the president’s direction we stayed out…He said prepare a really good professional, smooth transition because this is the first transition in modern history when the United States itself is underthreat. And we have a national security responsibility here to do the best possible job you can regardless of who wins this election.”  

Despite its success, Josh Bolten says that the Bush transition wasn’t “exceptionally well-organized” because they “didn’t have a playbook.”   

Dave Marchick: “Why did you think it was important to actually start [planning transition] a year ahead [of the election]?”   

Josh Bolten: “It’s not, it’s not more complicated than what the president [told me] when he gave me the direction: This is the first time in modern history that the territory of the United States is actually under threat. And we cannot afford those weeks and months of people trying to learn on the job. [They have] got to be as as well prepared and as well in place as we possibly can make them, beginning on January 20th. It was just that simple. And so, we put some effort into it. I can’t say it was an exceptionally well-organized effort because we didn’t, we didn’t have a playbook…There was—at least there was certainly at the time–no manual for how to, how to turn over government.”