Making the Transition Less Chaotic

The mainstream U.S. media is faulting Donald Trump for a turbulent start to the presidential transition, but part of the chaos is baked into the process and its excessively large job turnover, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Disarray in the Trump transition apparatus has been a major news story, so much so that one of the President-elect’s recent Twitter offensives has been to assert that there isn’t any disarray and to castigate the New York Times for covering the disarray.

Amid all the transition horse race coverage of who’s in and who’s out and which appointment will be even more controversial than other appointments, almost no one is taking this episode as another reminder of how needless is much of this confusion and turmoil.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence during Day Three of the Republican National Convention. (Photo credit: Grant Miller/RNC)

Donald Trump and Mike Pence during Day Three of the Republican National Convention. (Photo credit: Grant Miller/RNC)

The United States is alone among advanced representative democracies in subjecting itself to disruption in which thousands of government officials are replaced every time the electorate changes the political leadership.  Far more common among sister democracies is changing of government that entails replacement of a slate of ministers and a small number of assistants and staff, with a permanent professional service underneath them charged with carrying out whatever policies are identified with the leaders whom the voters have elected.

Granted, most of the positions that have been the focus so far of the transition in the United States are cabinet-level posts that would be changing as well in those other democracies. But there are thousands more jobs to go; the turmoil is just beginning.

The confusion is worse this year because so many of the President-elect’s presumed policies are themselves confused extrapolations from fragmentary and often contradictory comments he made during the campaign, with no prior public service on his part from which to draw conclusions. Moreover, because of the experience-free, blank-slate quality of so much of what passes for a Trump program, more is riding this year than most years on who wins the contests for plum jobs. But the disadvantages of the whole disruptive process are not unique to this transition or to Trump.

Unnecessary Disruptions

One of the biggest disadvantages is the sheer disruption itself, with all the resulting interruptions to governmental programs and foreign relations. Newcomers are still learning the location of rest rooms and the phone numbers of essential contacts elsewhere in the government as continuing business must be transacted. It also has become routine with each transition for many senior positions to remain vacant for months after the inauguration.

President Barack Obama returning to the White House on Jan. 17, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama returning to the White House on Jan. 17, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The quadrennial purge of upper levels of the U.S. Government may be consistent with the habit of thinking of U.S. policy in terms of discrete administrations, but it is inconsistent with the larger reality that — notwithstanding the understandable focus on where political parties and candidates differ — most of the important business and important interests of the United States continue across administrations.

This certainly is true of the vast majority of issues in foreign relations. Here the Trump transition has made transition confusion among overseas partners even worse by eschewing the usual procedure of coordinating a President-elect’s contacts with foreign leaders through the State Department’s operations center. The politically sensitive matter of who gets a phone call before whom has been thrown to the wind and the ordering determined by such things as whether [Australian] pro golfer Greg Norman had Trump’s phone number to give to his prime minister.

Not least important: experience, expertise, and the knowledge that comes from continuous work on a problem matter a lot in the sound administration of policy. That is what one gets from a professional civil service and does not get from most newbie political appointments.

Pre-election political support appears so far to be at least as important a criterion in Trump’s appointments as it is with other incoming administrations. It is not what makes for carefully crafted and skillfully executed policy.

Passing Out Plums

The usual rationale for making political appointments in the thousands is that this helps assure that the elected president’s policies will be fully implemented and is thus consistent with the democratic principle of policy reflecting the will of the voters who elected that president.

Steve Bannon, political adviser to President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo from YouTube)

Steve Bannon, political adviser to President-elect Donald Trump. (Photo from YouTube)

In fact, the filling of those jobs often has nothing to do with the will of the people, results in policies that may even be contrary to that will, and puts into office people more inclined to pursue their own agendas rather than any agenda associated with the president or any platform on which he or she ran.

In most transition years, probably the single factor that most influences which of the ambitious and willful people aspiring to senior executive branch jobs will get the jobs is which of those people, early in the primary stage of the election campaign, made better political predictions than other people and hitched their wagons to what turned out to be the winning horse.

Amid the disarray of this year, we have the added spectacle of senior appointments depending on such things as internal squabbling over who runs the transition, which in turn depends on such things as the President-elect’s son-in-law getting revenge on the previous transition head because he had prosecuted the son-in-law’s father for tax evasion and other crimes. None of this has much of anything to do with democracy.

The periodic purging of the senior governmental ranks is one of several ways in which, although exceptionalist-minded Americans may be reluctant to admit it, American democracy lags behind democracy elsewhere.

A Better Way?

This year’s election gives multiple reasons to long for a British-style parliamentary system. One reason is that those cabinet-level appointments that are the focus in the United States of ructious transition team politics and out-of-right-field possibilities such as a John Bolton or Rudolph Giuliani would instead mostly go to members of the winning party who had been front-bench shadow ministers, had themselves been elected by the people, and had acquired and demonstrated some expertise with clusters of issues as exhibited in parliamentary debate.

The British system also makes for far clearer and better understanding of who is responsible for policy and who should be held accountable for failures or rewarded for successes. Notwithstanding the advantages of checks and balances in the U.S. system, it does not provide democratic accountability when the electorate is ignorant, as it was with great effect this year.

For example, a poll taken two years ago by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that only 38 percent of respondents knew that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. Couple that lack of knowledge among the electorate with a Congressional Republican playbook that, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute describes it, consisted of, “Vote in unison against everything, filibuster everything, even those things you like, to obstruct action and make it look ugly, allow damage to the country in the short term to reap political rewards in the next election.”

A result is what we saw this year: a large part of the electorate understandably frustrated with a dysfunctional government’s failure to provide better for the general welfare, but with poorly informed aim regarding where they should direct their ire.

Moving to a parliamentary system would entail a huge constitutional change, and that is not going to happen. But there is nothing in the Constitution that requires the confused and disruptive quadrennial purging of the Executive Branch.

We can’t blame the Founding Fathers for that one. The main reason that flaw in American democracy probably won’t get fixed is the reluctance of any candidate to forgo being able to offer as many plums to would-be supporters as other candidates have offered.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

16 comments for “Making the Transition Less Chaotic

  1. J'hon Doe II
    November 22, 2016 at 20:32

    Making the Transition Less Chaotic

    Good advertisement could be misleading/
    don’t be fooled by grimaced faces/with promises.
    Madison Ave are just the men that own the mike

    and is proclaiming his stuff/aka bill of goods,adverts
    assertions, broadcasts of slogans/Public Relations/

    Trump and Co. in Trademark affect
    Marvel Comic story board mode
    leading to a promised land backstory.

    In thinking we must hang loose
    so as to avoid re-encampment.

  2. Peter Loeb
    November 21, 2016 at 08:54


    Certainly there will be changes and many for the worse.

    What the old-fashioned liberals obstinately refuse to face
    is that old-line, old-fashioned Democrats in effect
    “created” Donald Trump.

    The Democrats insist on whacking their own dead horse.
    They continue to believe that the New Deal solved the
    Great Depression (World War II did, complete with perks
    to defense contractors etc.).The old-fashioned
    Democrats continue their fealty unto death to Israel.
    They continue to believe that the old line civil rights
    organizations (I was a member of many) mean much
    to people of color shot on the today’s American streets.

    The Bernie Sanders etc. who supports the military
    as a solution (“jobs” etc.) are old and will disappear.

    The media continues to follow the Trump administration
    like a tabloid. (No one said much when JFK appointed
    his brother as Attorney General!)

    In 2008 after his election Obama was asked to criticize
    the war. “We have one President,” was his all-too-
    clever reply. And yet here is Barack Obama traveling
    the world trying to make commitments to support his
    policies, not those of the incoming Administration. It
    is inappropriate and obscene. Fortunately, not
    all foreign nations (Obama ‘s “our core partners”)
    are buying. One wonders what bribes/threats Obama
    is using. In fact, some of Trumps best ideas involved
    foreign policy. Hopefully a Mitt Romney (??) will have
    the stature and professionalism to put some of Trumps
    foreign policy ideas into effect.

    No, many if not most of Trump’s violence regarding
    domestic issues are unacceptable. See Sam Husseini’s
    article of yesterday in Consortium.

    —Peter Loeb, Boston. MA, USA

    • Brad Owen
      November 21, 2016 at 10:23

      The wide-spread belief in your assertion that WWII saved us from the Great Depression is what has delivered us into the traps of the MIC and the Nat’l security state. There can just as easily be a PWA/WPA/CCC/TVA/Industrial Complex. Indeed, THAT is EXACTLY what is happening right now with China’s BRICS/AIPAC/Silk Road/One Belt-One Road/Space Program-for H3 isotope fusion reactor “win-win” policies that half the world has already signed on to. Does not rely on even one tank, one howitzer or one gun or one soldier for success, just intense investment in capital and labor and research and development.

      • Brad Owen
        November 21, 2016 at 12:06

        Sorry, not AIPAC, but AIIB, got lost in the alpabet soup.

      • Gregory Herr
        November 21, 2016 at 20:00

        Reminds me of Eisenhower:

        “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. […] Is there no other way the world may live?”

        The difference between public investment that continues to produce returns and valueless destruction.

  3. evelync
    November 20, 2016 at 23:48

    Thoughtful article.
    I seems, from the mess we’re in that the structure of checks and balances has failed. Why I don’t know.
    But as Mr. Pilar points out maybe the Parliamentary system would have served us better.

    Although…….the Parliamentary system did not protect Britain fromTony Blair dragging Britain in behind George W Bush’s chaotic, disastrous “preventive” war on Iraq and all that followed.

    What Americans don’t know – what is kept hidden – does hurt us.

    Shouldn’t a democracy mean transparency and full disclosure so that government of the people, for the people, by the people means something?

    • Brad Owen
      November 21, 2016 at 10:11

      What is overlooked in all democracies is the “money power”. When that is captured by private forces, even a so-called “central bank” that is divorced from congressional OR parliamentary power-to-control, then it won’t matter if you have a congressional system such as ours or a parliamentary system as in UK and Europe. They all dance to the banksters’ tune. Lincoln did an end-run around the Bankster power by issuing directly the Greenbacks. THAT’s why he was assassinated by them. FDR did it with glass-steagall and the New Deal policies (a re-organized RFC, and the other policies).

  4. November 20, 2016 at 19:38

    An overwhelming thought of Liberty, freedom and peace of mind-gut wrenching I must stop I am literally rubbing my face with my hands. I cannot bare the thought of the journey ahead for my kids and grand kids. Good by America. dammit all.

    • Bill Bodden
      November 21, 2016 at 01:04

      When Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor many citizens rose to defend the nation. This time America’s enemies are fellow Americans attacking from within. American citizens must again rise to defend the nation.

      If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace. Thomas Paine

      These are the times that try men’s souls. Thomas Paine

      • JUNIUS
        November 21, 2016 at 16:28

        The strike against Pearl Harbor was not an attack on American soil. Hawaii was an American colony, which had been wrested from its hereditary dynasty by American settlers less than half a century earlier. It was not a part of the Union and would not become a state until 1959.

        In the summer of 1940 the United States government moved a massive battle fleet from its home bases in California to Oahu. Japan was forced to confront the threat of an enemy invasion force now stationed two thousand miles closer to its home islands, and reacted in its own defense. This was only one step in FDR’s policy of treating Japan’s peace overtures with contempt, while imposing ruinous embargoes and sanctions on a nation whose only offense to America was cutting its merchants off from the lucrative trade with China.

        The seeds of today’s empire were planted during “the good war”, when an imperial presidency was not held accountable to U.S. and international law.

        John Adams incidentally penned a powerful rebuttal to the shameless demagoguery of Paine’s “Common Sens.” in which Paine united the practical political philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment with the mystical evangelical Protestantism that saw Americans as the new chosen people. It was Paine who first declared and popularized the deadly doctrine that “We (Americans) have it in our power to remake the world.”

        • Gregory Herr
          November 21, 2016 at 19:43

          But the sort of “remake” Paine had in mind has nothing in common with today’s “deadly doctrine”.

        • J'hon Doe II
          November 22, 2016 at 20:05


          Day of Deceit; The Truth About FDR and Pearl Harbor

          Robert Stinnett
          c. 2000

  5. J'hon Doe II
    November 20, 2016 at 13:29

    Paul R. Pillar.– “For example, a poll taken two years ago by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that only 38 percent of respondents knew that Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. Couple that lack of knowledge among the electorate with a Congressional Republican playbook that, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute describes it, consisted of, “Vote in unison against everything, filibuster everything, even those things you like, to obstruct action and make it look ugly, allow damage to the country in the short term to reap political rewards in the next election.”


    We’ve suffered another Right Wing coup d’etat; face it.

    President Andrew Johnson, who attained the presidency
    after the assassination of Liberal President Abe Lincoln,

    Did grant a Presidential Pardon to General Jefferson Davis,

    the man which sought to Overthrow the United States gov’t
    via Civil War did not face justice for war crimes or sedition.

    The republican playbook is authoritarian script advocating
    control and derision as methods of government oppression.

    Washington & Hamilton vs. Jefferson & Madison
    John Adams was a Lawyer employed by the British
    Monarchy, the Nobility, the Crown, King George,
    The Wealthy Establishment, Hamilton was that ilk
    Madison, a slaver, fought against corporate power

    go figure.

    • JUNIUS
      November 21, 2016 at 16:19

      Andrew Johnson was himself a southerner and as military governor of Tennessee during the rebellion he famously stated “treason must be made odious’; he dealt very harshly with Confederates. As President, the former tailor enjoyed immensely the groveling obsequies of the fallen lords of the slavocracy. It was his great pleasure to be so humbly addressed by those who had scorned him for his modest occupation as a young man. Restoring their citizenship on his terms must have given him much satisfaction. And don’t forget that it was the radical republican abolitionist Horace Greeley who paid for Jeff Davis’ bail, ending his federal imprisonment.

      Jefferson Davis had been President Pierce’s Secretary of War, and in that he capacity he ordered many tons of modern munitions shipped from the north to southern arsenals for the war against their government that the slaveholders had long plotted, but that is perhaps another matter. As is U.S. Senator Davis’ “southern honor” in using his senatorial free franking privilege to mail letters to his fellow antigovernment conspirators without having to pay postage.

      John Adams was a passionate opponent of monarchy and the collusion between church and state to confuse and enslave mankind. And there is suggestive evidence that Hamilton accepted payments from the British Crown in return for the favorable trade agreements that enfuriated his republican rivals

      • J'hon Doe II
        November 22, 2016 at 19:58

        Thank you, Junius. Your extended info is appreciated.

  6. Sam F
    November 20, 2016 at 13:10

    The writer offers no argument why “the vast majority of issues in foreign relations” should “continue across administrations” unchanged, when changing that policy is the very substance of changing administrations. While the resulting policies may be contrary to “the will of the people” their replacements so appointed may be less contrary.

    The “checks and balances in the U.S. system” do not “provide democratic accountability” because they do not work at all. It was a good first try and no more. The judicial branch has no checks; the executive has seized most power from Congress. One does not design reliable systems that way: aircraft landing gear do not serve as checks or balances to the engines, nor do either of those back up the flaps: there must be redundancy within each functional subsystem. All federal branches should have three administrations that check and balance each other in a sensible way, as aircraft do.

    It is true that an informed electorate with fair elections could provide a better Congress and executive, and eventually a better judiciary. But the “electorate is ignorant” because of the failure of mass media and elections to facilitate public information and debate, due to their corruption by oligarchy, which must be overthrown.

    The only path left now to protecting the mass media from oligarchy is executive overreach, declaring a national emergency and handing the mass media (with preparations) to the universities until Congress is cleaned up enough to pass amendments and supporting laws. A strong progressive president might start such a process if Trump does not.

Comments are closed.