Six months before the next presidential election, President Donald Trump has begun some formal planning, but it remains unclear whether the administration will be fully prepared to shepherd our government into a second Trump term or to transfer power to his successor. The coronavirus pandemic makes it even more important that our government adequately plan for the future: The United States now has the most cases and casualties from COVID-19 in the world, and the virus understandably must be our government’s top priority. Unfortunately, Trump’s repeated attempts to subvert and corrupt the institutions that will be critical to an effective transition loom as a potential new problem later this year.
Presidential transition is an enormous undertaking, led by mostly unknown agencies. For example, in May 2016, President Barack Obama established a White House Transition Coordinating Council and an Agency Transition Directors Council that included leadership from the General Services Administration (GSA), the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). President George W. Bush took similar steps in 2008. Experts agree that facilitating a smooth transition is critical to governance even if a president is reelected.
First-term presidents sometimes took a different approach to transition. Now, pursuant to the Presidential Transition Act of 2015, Trump must start building his transition council, becoming the first president to seek re-election “while taking detailed steps to prepare for the prospect of defeat.” Last week, GSA’s major activities timeline for the presidential transition was updated for the first time since the coronavirus outbreak, identifying multiple deadlines this month. While the Trump administration is working to meet these benchmarks, the president’s relentless attacks against institutions leading the transition effort threaten this fundamental part of our democratic process.
Trump’s hostility to checks and balances has defined his presidency. His earliest attacks on democratic norms came against OGE, the agency that works “in partnership with” presidential transition teams to ensure “that prospective nominees are free of conflicts of interest, to fill top leadership positions quickly.” In January 2017, then President-elect Trump ignored OGE’s advice to divest from his business while serving in office, leading to thousands of conflicts of interest. Then in March 2017, the White House rebuffed OGE’s recommendation to discipline counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway for violating ethics rules by promoting Ivanka Trump’s business while on the job. In July 2017, then-OGE Director Walter Shaub resigned in protest, prompting one publication to declare that Trump “broke” OGE. (Shaub is now my colleague at the nonpartisan ethics watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.)
The Trump administration has repeatedly undermined NARA, an agency with “special responsibilities” during transitions that ensures that government records are properly preserved. Following reports that White House aides used encrypted apps that destroy messages to discuss government business, NARA raised concerns that the administration was not appropriately preserving presidential records. This year, presidential son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner led a “shadow” coronavirus task force that uses nonpublic e-mail accounts in violation of federal law. Unfortunately, NARA lacks legal authority to force the White House to comply with the Presidential Records Act, leading to even more abuses.
As the agency responsible for federal human capital management, OPM is central to the transition process for an incumbent or a president-elect. Unfortunately, the last two Trump appointees to lead OPM abruptly left the job after clashing with the White House. Trump’s first nominee for OPM director withdrew amid ethics concerns. Despite this disarray, Trump appointed acting OPM director Michael Rigas to a second position, at the Office of Management and Budget, with responsibility for running the Agency Transition Directors Council. Trump has also left OPM without a permanent inspector general for more than three years.
Even more concerning is Trump’s assault on ethics at GSA, which plays a critical role in the transition by helping a president “assume their official duties.” In 2018, public reports confirmed findings by GSA’s inspector general that Trump was coordinating efforts with the agency to stop the FBI’s long-planned move from downtown Washington; the move could have created more competition for Trump’s hotel if other hoteliers built on the FBI site. Earlier this month, the Trump Organization asked GSA to reduce its hotel rent because of the pandemic, raising more alarms that the president’s family may receive special favors from the government.
Under federal law, the Justice Department is required to facilitate presidential transitions by providing “pre-election security clearances for key transition staff in both campaigns,” among other tasks. Yet Attorney General William P. Barr has continually enabled the department to become a partisan tool for the president’s personal agenda. In February, Barr overruled career prosecutors’ sentencing recommendation for Trump ally Roger Stone after pressure from the president. Later, Barr defended Trump’s removal of the inspector general who forwarded the Ukraine whistleblower complaint to Congress. Trump’s and Barr’s repeated attempts to undermine the Justice Department’s independence are cause for grave concern about its outsize role in the transition process.
The president has aggressively weakened or co-opted the agencies most important to the transition. This will make it harder to address the natural turnover expected among senior appointees if Trump wins re-election. An incoming administration’s preparations could likewise suffer if Trump and his political appointees don’t meet transition benchmarks on time. In April, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden began assembling a transition team. Government ethics groups have called on Biden to publicly announce the leaders of his transition team, outline its governance policies and appoint an “ethics czar” by June. Ensuring that ethics and transparency are ingrained in both the campaigns’ and the administration’s transition teams is critical to having a functioning and accountable government on Jan. 20, 2021.
Nearly four years ago, Trump led a notoriously chaotic transition, making it difficult for many of his nominees to address conflicts of interest and win Senate confirmation. Now, congressional oversight committees should investigate how the coronavirus pandemic may affect the 2020 transition. Inspectors general should proactively review whether their agencies are complying with presidential transition statutes, including the requirement that career government officials, rather than political appointees, oversee agency transition plans. If Trump doesn’t adequately prepare for this next transition, the resulting instability will undermine the efficacy of the Trump or Biden administration at a time when the nation is especially vulnerable. Without ethical, transparent and effective leadership, presidential transition will become another pillar of our democracy to crumble under the Trump administration.
Donald K. Sherman is deputy director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former congressional ethics and oversight attorney in the House, Senate and executive branch. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.