POLITICS

Here’s why Trump rebuked conservative groups

The first rule of transition planning is to not talk about it

Heath Brown
3Streams
Published in
3 min readNov 15, 2023

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Photo by Sander Sammy on Unsplash

A year away from the 2024 election and conservatives have been gushing; eagerly sharing what they intend for the future. Dismantling federal green energy initiatives, outlawing pornography, and rapidly building a wall at the US-Mexico border are on the very long wish list.

But, when conservative groups describe in exacting detail their plans for a second Trump administration, they break the cardinal rule of pre-election transition planning: don’t talk about pre-election transition planning.

Candidates and their campaign advisers are a superstitious bunch, making public discussions about exactly what they’ll do once elected, a campaign third rail. John McCain was so concerned about leaks during this time period, that he refused to carry out some of the basic steps to prepare to govern, like notifying the FBI who would need a security clearance, should he win.

Pledge and promise all you want, but keep the details vague and don’t get caught “measuring the drapes” of the White House.

Conservative groups seem to have forgotten this maxim over the last six months, leading to a very public reprimand from the Trump campaign this week.

The New York Times reported that the campaign said: “The efforts by various nonprofit groups are certainly appreciated and can be enormously helpful. However, none of these groups or individuals speak for President Trump or his campaign.” The campaign clarified “all 2024 campaign policy announcements will be made by President Trump or members of his campaign team. Policy recommendations from external allies are just that — recommendations.”

This comes after the Heritage Foundation has been loudly proclaiming its plans since at least April and America First Policy Institute since September. They proudly allege a personnel system is already in place so a newly-elected conservative president will have all the resumes ready and waiting. Others suggest they’ve vetted hundreds of applicants for lower-level positions, taking the burden off of future cabinet secretaries to select their own staff.

To be sure, the Trump campaign hardly seems opposed to the various recommendations. The candidate has echoed many of the most far-reaching proposals, including on immigration, education, and dismantling the federal government.

Conservative groups, nonetheless, seem to have learned little from the last transition or even from Ronald Reagan’s in 1980. As I’ve written about before, so concerned were Reagan’s advisors during the campaign that word would get out, that Edwin Meese secretly met with a top personnel official at a Bob’s Big Boy in Northern Virginia.

Photo by Ruth Durbin on Unsplash

More recently, in research for a forthcoming book on the 2020 transition, I discovered a similar practice of quiet transition planning during the campaign. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote here at 3Streams about the secretive way some people were offered positions on the pre-election transition team. One person told me: “I basically just got a call. We’re in the middle of August and the word ‘transition’ was never used. So, I thought I was being punked, maybe. The caller was not someone I knew.”

This tradition of secrecy is hardly good for democracy. It’s not transparent and rarely involves as many people and groups as it should. Nevertheless, this is the way campaigns like it and candidates demand it.

It’s also too early to know if the Trump campaign’s rebuke this week will mount to much more. In going public, conservative groups may have anticipated the response they got this week. That’s because the various groups may be jostling with each other for power as much as trying to influence the candidates, and a rap on the knucks what they were each willing to take.

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Heath Brown
3Streams

Heath Brown, associate prof of public policy, City University of New York, study presidential transitions, school choice, nonprofits