2020 election: President Trump to formally prep for transition in case he loses

Administration officials insist they are taking the transition seriously, though a key test will come in how the White House council works with Joe Biden's yet-to-be-announced staff.
WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump is still all-in on getting reelected, but he's also set to take the first steps to formally prepare someone else to take over if he loses on Nov. 3.

Trump is standing up a council under the first deployment of the Presidential Transition Act by an incumbent running for another term after Congress moved in 2015 to better ensure continuity of government when one president hands off to another.

Making sure presidential candidates are ready to take charge of the federal government became a priority after the Sept. 11 attacks, but the effort takes on new urgency because of the coronavirus pandemic and associated economic turmoil.

"The relevance of transition planning has intensified since it could be the first election since 1932 where we had more than 20% unemployment, more than twice as high as the unemployment rate in 2008," said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. "You add to that a health crisis and the potential for a virtual transition. The degree of complexity has increased significantly."

Under the act, Trump must name members of the transition council and a senior White House employee to chair it no later than six months before Election Day, which is Sunday. Trump is expected to tap Chris Liddell, deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, according to two senior administration officials. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss internal plans.

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Liddell is already leading the administration's preparations for a second term, itself effectively a mini transition, as history shows vast turnover at that point in a presidency.

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, told donors Monday that he has been discussing transition plans with former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman, a longtime top aide who was appointed to fill Biden's Senate seat when he became vice president.

Biden said his campaign is putting together a transition team and is in contact with many people interested in serving in a prospective Biden administration.

"You can't wait until you win, if you win. You've got to start right now," he said. "People know we're in real trouble and they're ready to help."

The law requires presidential candidates and the General Services Administration to reach a memorandum of understanding that governs everything from the provision of federal office space to access to sensitive documents by Sept 1, though generally it is reached sooner.

Transition teams begin vetting candidates for jobs in a future administration, including beginning the time-consuming security clearance process for likely appointees who need to be ready to take their posts on Inauguration Day.

Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, on Monday sent a directive asking federal agencies to select transition coordinators by the end of the week.

He said the act "promotes the orderly transfer" of executive powers when a new president is inaugurated. And, rejecting any thought that the work would go to waste if Trump is reelected, Vought added that the effort would also be "helpful to prepare for leadership transitions" that occur between an administration's first and second term.

Some presidential hand-offs have been friendly, others more frosty, especially when the party in power shifts. In 2008, though, then-President George W. Bush and his chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, worked to develop a politically neutral process to prepare future presidents to take over. It was later written into law by Congress on a bipartisan basis.

Liddell has arguably more experience on presidential transitions than anyone in the administration, having served as executive director of Mitt Romney's 2012 transition team before joining the Trump administration as a key ally of the president'

The Romney transition was the first to benefit directly from federal funding to support an orderly transition of power. The Romney plan was turned into a book after Barack Obama won a second term.

Before Obama left office, Congress strengthened the transition process, setting out specific requirements for presidents to help prep their successors, regardless of whether they are running for another term. The 2016 election was the first in which the incumbent had to designate a senior White House official to coordinate the whole-of-government transition.

Trump, though, rejected the detailed transition plans prepared for him that year out of hand. He dismissed his transition chief, then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and his advisers and trashed their transition plan days after the election. It created chaos and contributed to the administration's difficulty vetting for senior jobs and staffing that persisted through much of Trump's first term.

He is now the first incumbent president who must simultaneously run for another term while taking detailed steps to prepare for the prospect of defeat on Election Day.

While Trump is moving to meet the statutory requirements, some Democrats have expressed doubts that the White House would be fully engaged in the process of preparing the president's 2020 opponent.

Administration officials insist they are taking the transition seriously, though a key test will come in how the White House council works with Biden's yet-to-be-announced staff.

Marchick, for his part, said that so far "every indication suggests the administration is on track" to follow the law.

The transition act was amended earlier this year, in part because of the Trump experience, to require that transition teams develop ethics plans before they get federal support. Congress also required that senior career officials, rather than political appointees, oversee agency transition plans.

Trump's transition was scrutinized for its wide use of current and former lobbyists and industry insiders on its agency teams. The 2020 law requires that transition team members sign an ethics agreement and that the transition disclose any conflicts of interest.

Michael Rigas, acting OMB deputy director, will run the Agency Transition Directors Council, along with Mary Gibert, a senior career General Services Administration official serving as the federal transition coordinator.
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