Introducing a new podcast series from the Center for Presidential Transition®

Transition Lab

Transition Lab is a behind-the-scenes look at presidential transitions. Join David Marchick, director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition for candid discussions with former presidential chiefs of staff, transition team leads and other presidential transition experts. Transition Lab is a must-listen for anyone interested in developing a better understanding of what needs to happen before a president takes office or starts a second term.

Episodes

EPISODE 1

2016: The Tale of Two Transitions 

January 21, 2020 

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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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 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 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 afterwards 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.”  

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. 

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.” 

EPISODE 2

Peaceful Transition 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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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 of 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, treat it like at a transition. Maybe appoint a transition director of some kind, some 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 taking transition—either to a new administration or a new term—seriously 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, in the Bush White House in 2004. There, 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 gonna 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 under threat. 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.” 

EPISODE 3

The Art of National Security Transitions

February 3, 2020

Former Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy shares insights from her experience running the Agency Review team for the Obama transition and serving as Undersecretary of Defense. Flournoy also discusses the challenges associated with transitioning during an ongoing conflict, and the underrepresentation of women in national security.

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Dave: “So when you started your career, did you think you were going to be a trailblazer for women in the national security space?”

Michele: “I didn’t set out to be that, but I did find myself from the beginning in rooms where I was the only woman. I started my work working on nuclear issues, nuclear weapons, nuclear arms control and nuclear proliferation. And it was sort of the, the gray bearded priesthood and me in a lot of my early jobs. When I did have a chance to hire a team, I really tried to bring in a team that looks more like America and that had a greater diversity of background and perspective and experience to help us all make better decisions in the national security space. You’ve had female secretaries of state, but never a female director of a head of the defense department. It’s gotten better, but it’s still one of the least progressive areas in terms of gender opportunities.

EPISODE 4

The Obama Transition to Power

February 17, 2020

Head of Barack Obama’s 2008 transition, Chris Lu explains how the Obama team planned for effective governance on day one. In this conversation, Lu explains his role in the 2008 transition and the challenges he faced coordinating the biggest hand off of power in the world. He gives insights from his own experience and lays out the key elements for success in presidential transitions.

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Dave: So you know nothing about transitions, but he trusts you. He asked you to do this. How did you actually become an expert on transition? How did you get up to speed? 

Chris Lu: “The first thing I did is I went to talk to Jim Johnson who had, uh, run, uh, John Kerry’s presidential transition in 2004. And when I got to Jim’s office, he said, you know, I’ve been expecting you. He goes into his closet and pulls out all of his transition boxes from 2004, which also contained all of Al Gore’s materials from 2000, and, you know, as the next democratic transition, he hands them all to me.”

Dave: One of the things that you did after the Obama transition was you worked with the partnership for public service and you gave the partnership a bunch of documents from the Obama transition. Why did you do that?

Chris Lu: “I didn’t think I should be the keeper of all of the transition documents in my attic, which is kind of the case right now. It shouldn’t be the case where I go meet Jim Johnson and he reaches into his closet and pulls out a big box. It should sit somewhere other than me and thanks to you and other campaigns and transition teams. The partnership has the most comprehensive repository of transition documents that which we will make available for whomever runs next.”

Dave: So looking back on your time from when you violated what Obama told you to do, which was not until your wife to getting to election day to getting to inauguration date, what is the most important lesson learned that you would say? 

Chris Lu: “I am proud of the fact that we ran what is, as you say, considered one of the best transitions in history. And it’s in part because we prepared. But we were also flexible.”