President-elect Donald Trump named Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the vice president-elect, to head their transition team, abruptly replacing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on Friday amid increasing signs that the effort to prepare the next White House is off to a rocky start.
Trump also took the unusual step of naming his three oldest children and his son-in-law to top posts, moves certain to create potential conflicts of interest given that his attorney said Trump would put his children in charge of his assets while he is president.
The transition team is always crucial, but especially so for the first president elected without experience in either government or the military. In addition to recruiting thousands of people to staff the White House, Cabinet agencies, embassies and other key government posts, the transition team needs to make sure Trump is briefed and prepared to take responsibility for the government and for implementing his policy initiatives as soon as he is inaugurated in just 76 days.
“You need to have your team on the field when the clock starts," said Max Stier, who heads the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington nonprofit that focuses on good-government practices. "This is not simply about achieving the policy promises; it’s also about keeping us safe. Transitions are the point of maximum vulnerability for our nation."
The effort is almost always well underway before a new president is elected, given the complexity and critical nature of the job, even as candidates know the work will be in vain if they are not chosen by the voters. Legislation passed in 2010, and updated in 2015, formalized much of the process for the transition from George W. Bush to Obama after the 2008 election, considered one of the smoothest in history. Both Trump and Hillary Clinton formed transition teams months ago that began working with the White House on first steps toward a potential handoff.
“One of the biggest dangers is that people will underestimate the scope,” said former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who ran Mitt Romney's transition team in 2012.
That may have happened in Trump’s case. Following Trump’s meeting Thursday at the White House with the president, several Obama officials privately noted the extent to which Trump and his staff seemed unprepared to discuss basic aspects of staffing a new administration and daunted by the extent of the challenges ahead. A follow-up meeting between Trump aides and White House transition officials scheduled for Friday was canceled, a senior Obama aide said.
To be sure, some of the observations made by White House officials could be colored by partisan differences or concern that Trump appears set to dismantle Obama’s legacy achievements. Many had counted on a smoother transition to a Clinton administration in which top personnel would likely include former coworkers.
Trump’s decision to elevate Pence to run his transition team was one of several announced Friday.
Pence has proved a loyal second to Trump, backing him when other establishment Republicans were critical and finding ways to explain some of his more controversial statements in public. A former member of the House, Pence also has close ties to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and other top Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Christie’s departure came after the recent convictions of two former top aides for creating a traffic jam leading to the George Washington Bridge to punish a mayor who would not endorse him to be reelected New Jersey governor.
“The mission of our team will be clear: Put together the most highly qualified group of successful leaders who will be able to implement our change agenda in Washington,” Trump said. “Together, we will begin the urgent task of rebuilding this nation.”
Christie was retained as a vice chair of the team, along with several of Trump’s most visible campaign advisors: Dr. Ben Carson, a former GOP primary rival; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn; former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
Sessions, who may be the most hard-line member of the Senate on immigration, has long been among Trump’s most influential advisors. Stephen Miller, a former top aide to Sessions, has been Trump’s top policy advisor and will take a similar role in the transition team. Rick Dearborn, Sessions’ chief of staff, was named as the executive director for the transition team.
The team also includes Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s campaign chief who is on leave from heading the arch-conservative Breitbart News. Several prominent business people, including Peter Thiel, one of the only major figures in Silicon Valley to endorse Trump, were named, as was Pam Bondi, the Florida attorney general who solicited and accepted a $25,000 campaign donation from Trump’s family foundation in 2013, four days after Bondi said her office was considering joining a New York state probe of Trump University.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the Tulare Republican who leads the House Select Intelligence Committee, was also given a top spot. He could be a key bridge for Trump and the intelligence community, which has been reluctant to rally behind Trump.
Trump’s children and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who guided him throughout the campaign, appear to have retained their influence in an official capacity. Kushner’s presence at the White House on Thursday drew notice from Obama’s staff when he asked, as they toured the West Wing, how many of the individuals there would remain into the next administration. Nearly all will depart along with the president.
Briefing reporters Friday about the president’s trip next week to Greece, Germany and Peru, Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, repeatedly referred to the imperative of fully educating the incoming administration about the major foreign policy issues Trump will face.
"The main focus of the conversation [between Trump and Obama] ... was determining how to make the best use of this transition period to fully brief up the president-elect and his team," he said. "There’s a great deal of complexity."
Trump’s spokespeople did not respond to calls and emails asking about his preparation.
Passages on Trump's transition website, GreatAgain.gov, were copied from the site of the Center for Presidential Transition, a nonprofit that had consulted with both campaigns about the transition, Politico reported.
“It’s in everybody’s interest to have a good transition,” said Martha Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Project. “We’re living in a world of great vulnerability. You can’t afford to not prepare well.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.