Presidential Transition Guide

Role of the Incumbent Administration

A successful presidential transition requires extensive preparation not only on the part of the incoming team, but also by the incumbent president and administration. This chapter examines what an incumbent administration must do to prepare for transition, as well as the incumbent’s responsibilities if indeed there is a transfer of power to a new president.

Whether the election brings a change in political parties and a shift in ideology or a friendly takeover by a candidate of the same political persuasion, the occupant of the Oval Office has a responsibility to the country to help the president-elect be ready to govern. This requires creating a cooperative environment and sharing information about national security and pressing domestic issues. It also requires developing an infrastructure for coordinating the transition within the White House and at the agencies, offering assistance on presidential personnel issues and providing training on emergency response with members of the incoming Cabinet. The outgoing administration also must make preparations to leave office, including archiving records and facilitating the departure of its political appointees.

Major Steps for the Incumbent President

The actions of the incumbent president are determined by three factors: law, precedent and goodwill. Starting with the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 as amended and updated through 2022, and through additional legislation such as the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004,  the major architecture, governing councils, milestones and resources provided to presidential candidates, and expectations of agency preparations, have all been laid down with great specificity over time. In addition, transition leaders in incumbent administrations have often looked to precedent for guidance on how to carry out major transition responsibilities.

But the single biggest factor that remains in the incumbent administration’s control is setting the standard for cooperation and facilitating the advancement of the national interest above the basic requirements of the law. The smooth transfer of power depends on the attitudes and actions of the outgoing administration, starting with the president. The 2008-2009 transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama was widely regarded as one of the smoothest in recent history because the president made the transition a top priority and communicated this fact to his Cabinet and the rest of the administration. In 2016, Obama made the same pledge as Bush. His administration worked in the pre-election phase to prepare for the transfer of power, and followed through on this commitment during the post-election period with President-elect Donald Trump’s team.

While the president should set the right tone, other administration officials  must follow suit by seeking to be helpful to the president-elect and the incoming team. Building relationships can start with the incumbent president meeting with the president-elect shortly after the election. Other high-ranking administration officials should sit down with their incoming counterparts as soon as they have been announced. This will allow for an invaluable transfer of knowledge. The outgoing and incoming teams should be professional, respectful  and focused on serving the national interest. The goal is to ensure that the incoming president will be as prepared as possible to assume control of the government.

Cooperation with all candidates prior to the election

The incumbent administration must ensure uniform access to transition information and assistance to all eligible candidates. The importance of ensuring that our nation’s leaders are ready for the challenges of governing rises above partisanship. The incumbent president must ensure that each candidate’s transition team receives an equal offer of materials, assistance, access and guidance. Moreover, an appropriate level of access to any internal White House systems or processes that may be useful to the candidates should be shared early and equally so that an incoming administration can transition seamlessly.

In 2016, officials from both Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s transition teams said they felt they received fair and equal treatment prior to the election from the Obama administration. To coordinate the planning across government, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough convened the president’s Cabinet and held meetings with senior White House staff in early 2016, providing an overview of the transition process and setting the expectation that the transition would be a top priority.  In late July, McDonough also called the Clinton and Trump campaigns to emphasize Obama’s commitment to working with both teams in a nonpartisan manner to ensure a seamless transition.

During the 2008 transition, Bush pledged that his administration would provide uniformity of access to both the campaigns of Sens. Obama and John McCain, and took several steps to facilitate the work of their transition teams. The Bush administration offered to expedite security clearances for advisors to each candidate, provided national security briefings through the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, shared an inventory of federal appointments and designed a new personnel system with input from both campaigns that the winner could eventually use in the White House.

Convene White House and agency transition coordinating councils

The president is required by the Edward “Ted” Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act of 2015 to form the White House Transition Coordinating Council and the Agency Transition Directors Council no later than six months before Election Day. The two councils are responsible for assisting all eligible candidates’ presidential transition teams prior to the election, and providing advice and assistance to the president-elect after the election. Both councils must be established and fulfill their statutory responsibilities, even if the incumbent president is running for re-election.

The White House Transition Coordinating Council provides senior-level guidance to help agencies prepare for the presidential transition, including succession planning and preparation of briefing materials; facilitating communication and information sharing among the transition representatives of the eligible candidates, senior officials in agencies and the Executive Office of the President; and preparing and hosting interagency emergency preparedness and response exercises.

The president is required to designate a senior White House official as the chairperson of the White House Transition Coordinating Council. This individual will ensure that all necessary preparation takes place for a smooth transfer of power and serve as the front line of communication and coordination within the White House. The council plays a significant role in gathering and disseminating information about White House personnel and staffing issues, and its leader serves as the main point of contact between the White House and the candidates’ transition representatives. For that reason, the coordinator should be a person of significant stature at the White House.

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In 2016, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and deputy chief of staff for operations Anita Breckenridge served as the points of contact at the Obama White House for the presidential transition teams. In 2012 when Obama was running for re-election, he named Cabinet Secretary Chris Lu and deputy chief of staff for operations Alyssa Mastromonaco to run transition activities, including directing agencies to prepare briefing materials.

In 2020, the first year the transition council was established under the Kaufman-Leavitt transition law,  and while there was an incumbent president running for re-election, the coordinating council included the eight officials required by law. This smaller size was in keeping with the low-key approach Obama  took in 2012, while at the end of the eight-year terms of  Bill Clinton, Bush and Obama, the  transition councils had 12, 15 and 11 members, respectively.

The Agency Transition Directors Council’s job is to coordinate transition activities among the various federal agencies. The council should draw on guidance provided by the White House Transition Coordinating Council and lessons learned from previous transitions. The law requires the incumbent administration to designate a career federal transition coordinator from the General Services Administration to lead the Agency Transition Directors Council and for the co-chair to be the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. The federal transition coordinator serves as the intermediary between the presidential transition teams and the agencies prior to election, and is responsible for ensuring that all statutory requirements for transition planning are met. By custom, when the incumbent president is running for re-election, the federal transition coordinator serves as the ‘lead’ co-chair. This is the system that co-chairs Chris Liddell, the White House liaison, and Mary Gibert, the federal transition coordinator, used in 2020, where Gibert worked out most issues on a day-to-day basis and only elevated some issues for Liddell’s attention as needed.

Members of the agency council include the career transition leaders appointed by each of the major agencies as well as individuals from the Office of Personnel Management, the Office of Government Ethics, the National Archives and Records Administration and any other agencies deemed necessary by the co-chairs of the council. The agency council is expected to meet monthly starting in May of a presidential election year and by law must convene at least once a year between presidential elections.     

The agency council provides guidance on gathering briefing materials and information relating to the transition, and ensures agencies adequately prepare career employees who are designated to serve in acting roles until political appointees are confirmed. Under the law, the senior career executives leading the transition at each agency are responsible for ensuring briefing materials are assembled for the incoming administration no later than Nov. 1 of the election year. Additionally, agency leaders must ensure that a succession plan is in place for each senior noncareer position in the agency.

President Obama signed an executive order titled “Facilitation of a Presidential Transition” on May 6, 2016, six months before the election and 259 days before the presidential inauguration, marking the formal start of the transition and establishing the two councils. He also made the transition a standing agenda item for the monthly President’s Management Council meeting, composed of deputy secretaries of major agencies.

Prior to that order, the Obama administration appointed Mary Gibert in the spring of 2015 to serve as the federal transition coordinator and begin early planning, but she was replaced by Tim Horne in early 2016 after being named as a regional commissioner for GSA’s Public Buildings Service. Horne led a team of more than 60 who were focused on providing support to the presidential transition teams. Besides working with the agencies, the GSA transition team identified transition office space in Washington, D.C., and built a staff to perform key transition support activities that would take place following the political conventions and after the November election. Amendments to the presidential transition law adopted in 2010 require the GSA to offer presidential nominees a host of services once the parties’ nominating conventions have concluded. This includes office space, phones, computers, and briefings.

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