When former President Trump saidhe wouldn’t be a dictator if reelected, “other than on Day 1,” many gasped.
After studying presidential transitions for over a decade, my attention instead shot to a consequential decision the Republican frontrunner will make in the next few weeks, if he hasn’t already. Though Trump has yet to announce who’s overseeing his pre-election transition planning, that person will ultimately determine whether Trump will realize his promise to be a dictator, should he win next year’s election.
To be sure, though integral, the job of transition director rarely grabs headlines and is quickly forgotten. Can you name Joe Biden’s?
Nevertheless, while operating largely in private during and after the campaign, this person oversees the execution of a candidate’s wishes on everything from personnel and staffing to the budget and public policy. This includes tens of thousands of decisions. If a campaign promise becomes an executive order on Day 1, that’s because the transition director did this incredibly difficult job right. Likewise, if an early Cabinet nominee is withdrawn during Senate confirmation hearings, it was the transition director who probably dropped the ball.
Trump surely knows this, since he fired his transition chair, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, days after he won the 2016 election. The chaotic period that followed led to the failure of many of Trump’s early actions, such as on immigration and the border.
Likewise, Joe Biden’s accomplishments four years later, including 17 executive orders signed on Day 1 of his administration and a record number of nominations, can be credited to the work of his 1,000-plus person transition team and especially its transition leader, former Delaware Sen. Ted Kaufman.
Kaufman’s success was pretty remarkable, given it bucked a historic trend. Typically, cooperation with the outgoing administration is essential to the success of an incoming administration. That was the case in 2008 when Josh Bolten, then-President Bush’s chief of staff, worked seamlessly with incoming President Obama’s transition chair, John Podesta, to ease the new administration into office during that rocky economic period. Congress has since deemed cooperation so important that it’s mandated it in federal law.
However, this wasn’t the case in 2020. Many Trump appointees shared little information and refused to cooperate, as I learned from interviews with dozens of members of the transition team. One person described the cooperation as “completely non-existent” and another said, when information was shared, an official pleaded “don’t tell anybody we told.” Despite this, Kaufman guided the transition team through a raging pandemic and flailing economy to get ready for the inauguration.
Kaufman was a logical choice for Joe Biden; he’d been at the president’s side for decades. But not every transition chair has claimed such a close connection. Podesta, for one, was relatively new to the Obama team in 2008.
Every indication is Trump will opt for a true loyalist He’s signaled that’ll be how he staffs the government and he’ll likely take the same approach with such an important position running his transition.
If this is the case, though we don’t yet know who’ll run Trump’s transition, we at least know two who won’t. Christie is surely out, as is his replacement in 2016, former Vice President Mike Pence, who took over the chief transition job after the 2016 election.
More likely is someone already busy with transition planning at one of D.C.’s conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, led by former Trump aides. Even when the Trump campaign chastisedthese efforts last week, the message seemed to be to keep it quiet, not to stop planning.
It may seem too early to speculate about a Trump transition; he hasn’t even won his party’s nomination. Yet, past candidates have done just this: George W. Bush asked his good friend Clay Johnson to start transition planning in June of 1999, long before the Iowa caucuses.
If Trump’s recent comments are to be believed, a second term would be marked by vengeance and retribution directed from the White House, unprecedented in American history. Preparing to do this will happen long before the election. This makes whom Trump chooses to oversee this work worthy of great attention and scrutiny. His presidency depends on it, as does our democracy.
Heath Brown, associate professor of public policy at the John Jay College City University of New York, and author of the forthcoming book, “Roadblocked: Joe Biden’s Rocky Transition to the Presidency“ (University Press of Kansas, 2024).