The Domestic Threat to Peaceful Presidential Transitions
Transferring Power Should Not Entail A Military Take Over
When you study something as obscure as the 70-odd days that occur less often than Supreme Court nominations, you get used to being ignored. Presidential transitions are like this: there have been just four in the United States since 2000 while nearly twice as many (seven) new justices have been sworn in.
So when Jonathan Allen of NBC News reports that Steve Bannon is musing over future transitions at a GOP social club, I pay attention. “If you’re going to take over the administrative state and deconstruct it, then you have to have shock troops prepared to take it over immediately,” Donald Trump’s chief White House strategist explained to Allen on the phone.
Bannon fires up 'shock troops' for next GOP White House
WASHINGTON - Scores of former Trump political appointees gathered at a GOP social club Wednesday night to hear Steve…
I’ve been studying presidential transitions for over a decade, so I recognize that there’s nothing new about a party-operative like Bannon preparing for a future Republican in the White House. Ronald Reagan’s circle gets the most credit for its extensive planning for victory in 1980, but this went on before the Reagan Revolution and each party has done so ever since. In one way, Bannon is just doing his job.
What is troubling about Bannon’s declaration is his inflammatory tone and allusions to war. In the context of the January 6th siege of the Capitol, the implications of what Bannon is calling for is truly worrisome for the future.
Convention holds that continuity and cooperation are the most important principles of transition planning, not conquest and conflict. Since 1963, federal law has reinforced this convention by adding more and more structure to the passage of power between an outgoing and incoming presidential administration.
In fact, the law clarifies its purpose: “Any disruption occasioned by the transfer of the executive power could produce results detrimental to the safety and well-being of the United States and its people.” The goal of that law, and amendments ever since, has been to guarantee the safe, secure, and peaceful transition of power.
Experts point to the hand-off from Bush-to-Obama as a model of how to do this, but a more recent transition is even more illustrative: Mitt Romney’s planning in 2012. That transition — quite obviously — didn’t go beyond the planning stage, but what his team devised — the Romney Readiness Project — was as well-organized as it was ambitious (you can even read a book-length synopsis of their work).
Former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt oversaw most of that planning in 2012. Leavitt — a George W. Bush appointee whose name is attached to the 2015 update to the federal transition law — remarked on a podcast episode of the Center for Presidential Transition that they consulted Bush and Obama officials, but were guided during all of the planning by a mantra: “We’re all going to leave our swords at the door and have a discussion about something very important to the American people.” Leavitt’s sentiment is the exact opposite of what Bannon is suggesting.
Listen to Transition Lab on TuneIn
Former governor of Utah and Romney Transition chairman, Mike Leavitt, shares how he planned the 2012 presidential…
To carry out this type of comprehensive planning, Leavitt needed a lot of help. In the run-up to the 2012 election, Leavitt hired 400 people to prepare for a Romney victory. The candidate and his team recognized that a failure to prepare would be much worse than losing an election and having to let all of these people go.
Eight years later, Leavitt’s partner in the Romney Readiness Project, Chris Liddell, was Donald Trump’s Deputy Chief of Staff. Liddell’s role in the White House, he claims, was to be one of the few voices loud enough to insure that a transition actually happened earlier this year. Liddell said “I’m 100 percent committed to setting up the next administration to succeed. 100 percent.” On January 7th, one day after the insurrection at the Capitol, it was Liddell who wrote the memo to Trump appointees to submit their letters of resignation before Inauguration Day, a sensible step toward the transfer of power, but one that came weeks after what has been past White House convention.
It would seem that Liddell was largely alone in being 100% committed to a peaceful transition. Congress has subpoenaed his boss, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Bannon, and Dan Scavino, along with a host of others associated with Trump’s final days in office, all implicated in the storming of the Capitol. There’s little evidence that a seamless, peaceful handoff of power or a cooperative transition was central to most of those in the White House.
Though in 2020, the attack came from domestic sources — including the Proud Boys, Women for America First, and the Eighty Percent Coalition, the concern in the past has been for international threats. Professor Martha Kumar — the dean of presidential transition studies — testified to this point in written comments to Congress last year :
“The weekend before the 2009 Inauguration, the intelligence community warned Bush and Obama about a potential terrorist attack. When President and Mrs. Bush welcomed the Obamas and Bidens to the White House before they left that morning for the capitol, the key national security officials for the two administrations were meeting in the Situation Room to discuss a threat to disrupt the inauguration. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley commented that the attack most likely would have involved an explosive device: “It would have killed people.” While the threat “melted away,” he said, this incident and the ones cited earlier underscore the national security stakes in a transition and the need to prepare for it.”
This is the crux of the problem with how Bannon has framed preparation for a future transition. “Shock troops” are a reference to violent conflict and suggest a military takeover after an election. It is true, transition planners have long worried about violence, but it has always been foreign not domestic. Officials in the 1960s were especially concerned about a national security threat during the transition of power. This is, in part, what led the Brookings Institution to organize transition planning for both Nixon and Kennedy. And it is why Richard Neustadt advised John F. Kennedy: “The President-elect must be prepared for a variety of international complications before inaugural.”
Cooperation across parties, not on a common legislative agenda or policy priorities, but on the seamless transfer of power, has been the best form of national security. It would shock Neustadt, and generations of experts worried about the presidential transition period, that a peaceful presidential transition would be in question, transition planning emphasized conflict not cooperation, and that the chief threats in the future would be internal not external.