We speak of the ten weeks between a presidential election and the president’s inauguration – if the man elected isn’t the one currently occupying the Oval Office – as the “transition period.” That phrase conceals a wealth of complexity, including both moral and practical elements.
Most Gentle Readers will remember the White House mess George W. Bush inherited when he arrived there in January of 2001. The defacing of walls, furniture, and equipment was a spiteful legacy from the Clintonites, who roundly detested the incoming president for having so narrowly defeated their anointed one, Al Gore. President Bush, whether or not it was to his credit, refused to make a big deal out of the vandalism, writing it off as a “boys will be boys” sort of prank...which it was not.
The Obamunist cadre and its Democrat annex in the Senate found a much more effective way of hamstringing the incoming Trump Administration. Rather than deface the White House, Obama’s political appointees in the Cabinet merely resolved to impede Trump’s policies and attack his high-profile personnel, while Senate Democrats have strained to prolong the procedure for putting new Cabinet secretaries in place.
The operation of a Cabinet department doesn’t pause between presidents and the confirmation of their Cabinet nominees. For example, for as long as there’s no new Attorney-General, a Deputy Attorney-General must run the department. Until recently, that was Sally Yates, whose name became infamous for instructing Justice Department personnel not to defend the Trump executive order on immigration restrictions. In that case Trump removed her as soon as her rebellion became known. It’s not quite that simple to deal with rebellions in other departments.
The recent foofaurauw over Lieutenant-General Mike Flynn was propelled by political appointees and careerists in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. These are people Trump had not thought to remove before they could make trouble for him. I have little doubt that others he hasn’t yet removed, whose replacements will be slow-walked in the Senate, are planning further mischief with which to impede the policies on which he campaigned.
This is both a symptom of the political warfare of our time and a reminder of one of the irrevocable truths of government:
An incomplete purge of the Cabinet departments, such as the one the Obama-to-Trump transition period displays, leaves the previous administration’s lieutenants in place to continue the previous administration’s policies...which they will most assuredly do. The men who guided the Carter-to-Reagan transition, which has been hailed by political analysts as one of the smoothest on record, understood this and acted on it. They convinced Reagan to remove every Carter appointee from the Cabinet, at once and without exception, even if no replacement had yet been chosen for the post. In Revolution, his chronicle of the Reagan years, Martin Anderson noted the explicitness of this policy, stating outright that “we would rather have an empty office than a holdover.” Owing to the compliance of Senate Democrats, who forbore to delay the confirmations of Reagan’s Cabinet appointees, it worked out excellently well.
Things are different today. The Democrats understand that their sole remaining bastion in the federal government – the alphabet agencies – is one Trump intends to shrink, and they’re disinclined to allow any such thing. So Schumer and his merry men (aided by certain unfortunate nominal Republicans who must be disposed of) have done everything they can to impede the installation of Trump’s appointees. That has enlarged the time interval in which the Obama holdovers can create roadblocks to Trump’s priorities.
Trump, a businessman, has always prized continuity of administration in his enterprises. It’s part of his hands-on approach to management. Will he fire a division president? He will if he must...but he’ll then elevate a vice-president to “acting” status while he decides on a new chief. It’s an approach well suited to business, but far less so to governance.
The formal transition period is well behind us, yet owing to systematic obstruction by Senate Democrats several important Cabinet secretary positions remain unfilled. The acting heads of those departments aren’t friendly to Trump’s ideas. Several have already shown what sort of damage they can do. Others are probably formulating schemes. Perhaps our new president will draw the moral before the harm becomes irremediable.