National Press Club

Former presidential transition officials cite need for money, time, experience in 'grueling' process

October 2, 2016 | By Jesse Rifkin |

(Left to right) Max Stier, Thomas "Mack" McClarty and Clay Johnson

(Left to right) Max Stier, Thomas "Mack" McClarty and Clay Johnson

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Thomas “Mack” McLarty, President Bill Clinton’s first White House Chief of Staff, called the process of presidential transitions “grueling” at a Newsmaker press conference Sept. 30. Other featured speakers included Clay Johnson, Bush-Cheney 2000 Presidential Transition executive director, and Max Stier, Partnership for Public Service president and CEO.

“What if you had less than 80 days to organize a company with 4,000 people that you needed to get in place for Senate confirmation, a four trillion dollar budget, two million civilian employees and a tremendously diverse set of activities and portfolios?” McLarty asked, referring to the Clinton time table.

At the time, “There was an understandable feeling on every presidential candidate, certainly on the part of Gov. Clinton, that if you started the transition too early, it was viewed as certainly off-key, arrogant, measuring the proverbial drapes. So every presidential candidate had a natural tendency to be very careful in too many resources and focus on a transition. 9/11 changed that,” he recalled.

McLarty noted that a crisis can confront a new president at the start, whether an economic collapse as in Obama’s case, or 9/11 for George W. Bush.

“The president should be prepared to govern from the get-go, because they’re highly likely to do so,” said Johnson. “You have to do a tremendous amount of work in a transition. It’s very straightforward things… but thousands of them.”

Although the transition from President Obama to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will occur publicly from November through January, many aspects of the transition are already underway, even if largely taking place away from public eyes, he said.

Several additional elements have changed since the Clinton-Bush transition, Johnson said. He noted that the 2010 Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act provides $10-$13 million and support to the process beginning after the conventions, not largely after the election as previously. In contrast, Obama’s 2008 transition cost about nine million dollars, half of which came from private funds, he said.

The potential Clinton and Trump transitions are controversial even before Election Day, Johnson said. He cited Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid's, D-Nev., making headlines several months ago by suggesting that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence should give Trump “fake intelligence briefings, because you can't trust him."

Johnson, who coordinated the last transition to a Republican president in 2000, said that Trump's intention to be a political outsider who intends to shake up the establishment can come with a hefty price when it comes to the transition.

He posed the question, “Do you want D.C. veterans at the helm, or do you want fresh voices, fresh legs?”

“The thought of starting up the White House in 2001 with a 30-odd day transition without Andy Card, a White House veteran, as the Chief of Staff, is just unthinkable,” Johnson said. “I can’t imagine how it ever would have gotten done.”

McLarty, Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff, suggested Hillary should use her husband, but not just because they’re married.

“As a general rule, any sitting president will consider and indeed use former presidents in specific situations for advice and counsel about other world leaders that they’ve dealt with and about any particular issues that they are knowledgeable about,” McLarty said. “We asked Jimmy Carter to travel to North Korea, with the crises we were facing there, because he knew the North Korean leader.”