The Tricky Transition to a Trump Administration

Donald Trump ran a free-wheeling campaign with a skeletal staff, which somehow worked for him, until now. Now it’s reality time, and the lack of planning and foresight is costing him dear.

US president-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, US, November 9, 2016. Credit: Reuters

US president-elect Donald Trump speaks at his election night rally in Manhattan, New York, US, November 9, 2016. Credit: Reuters

Washington: The transition from one US administration to the next is never easy but rarely has an incoming team been as clueless and chaotic as Donald Trump’s, largely because he did not expect to win.

The president-elect is even having trouble adjusting to the idea he will have to live in the White House and leave his New York penthouse. He reportedly asked if he could get away on weekends – an idea ridiculed by late night comics who said the republic of Manhattan, which overwhelmingly voted against him, didn’t want weekly traffic snarls.

Meanwhile, Washington is drowning in reports of infighting and revenge within the transition team itself. At this rate, say observers, Trump needs a transition to a transition. After “no drama, Obama,” the contrast is stark and not reassuring.

Diplomats in Washington are rushing around meeting any Republican they can to get a handle on things but most of them are out of the loop because they were not loyal to Trump during the campaign.

The incoming president has talked to world leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but without any advice or input from the state department. A day before his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York on Thursday, the Japanese side didn’t know where or when the meeting would take place. If the meeting materialises, Abe would be the first foreign leader to meet the president-elect and press the case for continuing the traditional alliance.

And Trump’s transition team is yet to contact the Pentagon.

There is no shadow cabinet in waiting and no clear sense of how to select candidates for top positions. Anyone and everyone is trying and submitting resumes on the campaign website.

It’s not as if Trump is spoilt for choice – more than 150 former ambassadors, strategic experts and policy wonks had signed letters at various stages of the campaign vowing not to work for him because of his policy positions. They found him unfit by temperament, character and judgment for political office.

But some, even as they stayed away, encouraged younger conservatives to serve in the Trump administration. Eliot Cohen, a respected former Bush administration official and now professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, was one such distinguished Republican who was willing to “help steer good people” towards Trump.

But after one email exchange with the transition team, Cohen said in a tweet on Tuesday: “Stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming “You LOST.” Will be ugly.” Cohen then wrote a full article saying the “president-elect is surrounding himself with mediocrities whose chief qualification seems to be unquestioning loyalty. By all accounts, his ignorance, and that of his entourage, about the executive branch is fathomless.”

Reminder: this is a Republican speaking, not a Democrat.

The transition in Washington from one administration to the next is a hugely complicated affair because of the 4,000 political positions that need to be filled. It requires months of planning and vetting of possible appointees by the presidential candidate and his advisers. For the record, Trump says the “failing NYT” has got it all wrong and that the transition is progressing smoothly.

Trump ran a free-wheeling campaign with a skeletal staff, which somehow worked for him, until now. Now it’s reality time, and the lack of planning and foresight is costing him.

At the centre of the transition mess is Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, a real-estate developer who happens to be his closest adviser. Kushner reportedly got the original head of the transition team – Chris Christie – demoted for what reports say was vendetta. Christie, as a US attorney, had helped prosecute Kushner’s father who was charged with tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions. Kushner senior was sentenced to two years.

Kushner is Jewish and fiercely loyal to his and Trump’s families – he even defended Trump when the candidate was accused of peddling anti-Semitism during the campaign, to the surprise of many. Reports say he is now seeking the highest-level security clearance so he can sit with Trump for the daily intelligence briefing – a most unusual collision of circumstance, nepotism and executive office privileges, although Trump has denied seeking security clearance for his “children” in a tweet. Kushner appears to be calling the shots even though vice president-elect Mike Pence is formally in charge of the transition.

Foreign policy experts are shocked and awed by the names of people rumoured to be in the running for top national security jobs. Rudy Giuliani, the acerbic former mayor of New York, wants to be secretary of state even though he has no foreign policy experience. His past is littered with several conflicts of interest issues – he was a legal consultant for Qatar, Venezuela and Iranian exiles.

Another controversial name to come up over the last two days is Frank Gaffney, who served in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration. Known for conspiracy theories and described at “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes,” Gaffney asked if Obama was the US’s first Muslim president or acting as one. He has even accused a Supreme Court justice of being soft on “Sharia”.

Trump, meanwhile, tweeted that all was well and he alone knew who the finalists for positions in his administration were as he slipped away for a dinner with his family, jettisoning the press pool that always follows a president-elect and later the president, in case history is made without a warning.