Biden builds out his presidential transition operation

June 20, 2020

The former VP is preparing to take power amid twin health and economic crises.

By Mike Memoli

While President Donald Trump eagerly returns to the campaign trail, Joe Biden is building out a team with an eye toward governing.

Ted Kaufman, one of Biden’s longest-serving advisers, has tapped a half-dozen government veterans to work with him as part of a formal transition operation that has been established independent of the Biden campaign, officials involved with the process told NBC News.

Kaufman described the work as in “the very early stages,” and part of an effort to “ensure continuity of government during such a critical moment for our country.”

“The next president will confront an ongoing global health pandemic and inherit an economy in its worst shape since the Great Depression. No one will have taken office facing such daunting obstacles since Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” Kaufman said in a statement. “Joe Biden is prepared to meet these urgent challenges on the day he is sworn in as president, and begin the hard work of addressing the public health crisis and rebuilding an economy that puts working families first.”

As Biden’s appointed replacement in the Senate for two years after he resigned to become vice president, Kaufman helped write the legislation to formalize transition planning, imposing specific requirements both on the current administration and presidential candidates to take such steps. The legislation was informed by his work as part of the Obama-Biden transition team in 2008.

The Trump administration has quietly established its own Transition Council, led by chief of staff Mark Meadows. A separate Agency Transition Directors Council, led by officials from the Office and Budget and Management and the General Services Administration, was scheduled to hold its first meeting in late May.

For the Biden team, Yohannes Abraham has signed on to manage day-to-day operations, with Avril Haines coming on to help policy and agency review teams and herself lead the national security and foreign policy team.

Abraham served for all eight years of the Obama administration, ultimately as chief of staff for the Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, led by Valerie Jarrett. He also served as chief operating officer of the Obama Foundation before joining the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School. Haines also served in the Obama administration as deputy national security adviser and deputy director of the CIA.

“Given the nature of the challenges that will await (Biden) in January, I know how important it is that he selects the very best team,” Jarrett said in an interview, adding of Abraham: “I can’t think of anybody more qualified to hit the ground running.”

These initial steps by Biden’s team are consistent with other recent transition periods. Denis McDonough, who led those efforts as Obama’s chief of staff in 2016, said that by this point four years ago he had also held initial meetings with representatives from both the Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns.

“The stakes of the transition being as high as they are, in light of the ongoing pandemic and the massive economic dislocation, just underscores how important it is to get going now,” he said in an interview.

McDonough worked with both Abraham and Haines in the White House, and said they’re well-suited for the roles that put a premium on consensus-building and “building a team that’s heads-down, that’s not distracted by the campaign.”

Joining Abraham and Haines as part of the early leadership team will be Gautam Raghavan, currently chief of staff to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus; Angela Ramirez, chief of staff to Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., a member of House leadership; Evan Ryan, a longtime Biden adviser and former assistant secretary of State; and Julie Siegel, top adviser in Elizabeth Warren’s Senate office who also worked at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Kaufman is also consulting with Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., and Jeff Zients, former National Economic Council director under Obama. Christopher Lu, the executive director of Obama’s 2008 transition, and former Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar, who chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 transition team, have also offered input as part of the process. Dana Remus, the Biden campaign’s general counsel, also was involved in establishing the new entity, which has now begun raising private funds to support its work.

By Sep. 1, the Biden team will gain access to federal resources including funding and a dedicated office space to allow them to more significantly ramp up the transition planning.

Kaufman said the transition would prioritize several “core values: diversity of ideology and background; talent to address society’s most complex challenges; integrity and the highest ethical standards to serve the American people and not special interests; and transparency to enable trust and visibility at every stage.”

Biden has had an unusual amount of time to give thought to what a potential administration would look like, with the pandemic having essentially grounded his campaign in March.

In addition to discussing his vice presidential running mate, Biden said he’s discussed with Kaufman the daunting task of having thousands of people ready to fill government positions quickly — as well as who might fill more senior positions.

“There are people who are of such consequence that I already know that I would like to have major Cabinet positions, that I think about maybe announcing not the whole Cabinet, but some before we started, even before, god-willing, we’re able to win so people will have a better idea of what my administration will look like,” he said at a fundraiser in April.

He said then he hoped Trump’s team would be as cooperative in managing a possible transition as President George W. Bush was for Obama.

“I doubt it, but I hope so,” he said.


Publication Type: In the News