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The Unruly Transition

The work of a presidential transition team is one of the most important facets of an administration, even though it is not officially part of an actual presidency. Transition teams formulate policy details and perform the all-important function of vetting potential appointees to staff the next administration.

Transition teams have long had quasi-governmental status. Since the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, transition teams of the president-elect have received public funding and office space. Amendments to that act in 2010 and 2015 provided funding for transition teams of presidential nominees for work prior to Election Day, and the laws formalized processes for handoffs between incoming and outgoing administrations.

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Despite the government’s role in funding transitions, laws to ensure transparency and deter conflicts of interest that cover ordinary government work generally do not apply to transition teams. President-elect Barack Obama sought to bridge some of those gaps in 2008. Days after Obama’s election, his transition team announced an ethics pledge that transition team members were required to sign. Among other things, it prohibited transition team members from working on issues upon which they had lobbied or otherwise had a fiduciary interest in the previous year. It also banned team members from lobbying on matters related to their transition work for a year after leaving the transition team.

At Public Citizen, we endeavored to study the 2016 transition through the lens most suited to our mission: adherence to small-d, democratic values. These values, in our view, are largely tied to steps to ensure transparency, ethical conduct, and minimize advantages for special interests. These objectives reinforce one another because an open window into an organization’s operations reduces the likelihood of unethical conduct or acts of favoritism occurring. We outlined our recommendations in an April 2016 white paper written by City University of New York Professor Heath Brown, an expert on presidential transitions.

Most observers would probably agree that the outcome of the 2016 election was unexpected on a historic scale. When we released our white paper in April 2016, businessman Donald J. Trump was on the brink of wrapping up the Republican nomination for president, shocking nearly all the pundits. But Trump still remained a prohibitive underdog in the general election.

On Nov. 8, 2016, the nation was stunned to learn that Trump had indeed been elected president. And the next day, the president-elect and his transition team began in earnest the daunting task of preparing to take the reins of the United States government.

Perhaps never before was a presidential transition team so in need of a corpus of safeguards to ensure adherence to ethical standards and prevent the appearance of impropriety. Trump was a billionaire with hundreds of financial entanglements spanning the globe. Moreover, Trump would soon reveal a penchant for nominating other billionaires – with their own myriad financial complications – to high posts in his government. Adding to the complications, neither the president-elect nor many of his appointees had any government experience.

By themselves, these circumstances would counsel in favor of taking extra measures to insulate against conflicts of interest or appearances thereof. But President-elect Trump had extra reason to insist on high standards of transparency and ethics in his transition: His pledge to “drain the swamp” was at the forefront of his message to voters. Promises to reduce the influence of lobbyists and other special interests were at the heart of that pledge.

With that backdrop, this review compares the policies and actions of the Trump transition team with the recommendations we put forth in April 2016, and makes a couple of other observations about the transition team’s operations.