There are 72 days between Election Day and the Inauguration on January 20th. These are the most important and predictive days because the decisions made in four critical areas will not only determine the course of the first 100 days of the Trump Administration, but also the next 4 years. They are: Politics, Personnel, Policy and Prose-and in that order. These four Ps are the essential ingredients to understanding the transition and how the President-elect will govern.
POLITICS: A realistic assessment of the political landscape in the new Congress and around the county is the first task. Politics determines what is possible, and perhaps more importantly, what is not possible. Given Republican control of the Senate and the House, and Trump's decisive electoral victory, almost all will be possible, whether legislative or by Executive order. But at last count, Trump is losing the popular vote by over 2 million people so this fact will have to be considered for obvious reasons.
PERSONNEL: And so far, President Trump is moving with deliberateness in speed in making nominations and appointing senior staff to the White House. The politics are going to drive the decisions about personnel. There are two major groups of people needed for the President–elect to govern. First is his White House staff. There are over 1,700 positions to be filled in the Executive Office of the President—and somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 throughout the government. But approximately 50 senior level advisor and assistant positions that directly support and advise the president need to be filled quickly.
The challenge is to surround himself with experienced and loyal advisors; there were just a handful around him in the campaign. And since this was his first campaign ever, Trump does not have a loyal cadre of experienced operatives like previous presidents. Just because the President–elect's party has control of the Congress does not mean that it will be easy or simple to govern America: this is a new century of asymmetrical challenges and threats, both internally and externally, that make it a Herculean task.
Second, the President–elect must choose his Cabinet. The personalities and experience of the appointees will signal how the Trump White House will manage the government. Almost all presidents since Ronald Regan have had a White House-centric management system; the White House determines the policy and the politics and Cabinet members are directed to execute.
But given the personalities and management styles of now six Cabinet nominees, Jeff Sessions for Attorney General; Rep. Pompeo for CIA; Rep. Tom Price, Secretary of Health and Human Services; former Secretary of Labor under G.W. Bush, Elaine Chao for Transportation; Betsy DeVos, Department of Education; Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the United Nations; and several other Cabinet appointees under consideration, including Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, it will be interesting to see how Trump and his team either attempt to maintain a tight rein on these forceful and experienced personalities or reach a power sharing agreement with these three men specifically—a hybrid of White House-centric and Cabinet-centric.
(One of the little known, but very important positions is White House Liaison to each Cabinet secretary. These positions provide the White House with eyes and ears into the Cabinet secretary's office and also provides the Cabinet secretary with a direct line to the White House.)
The people nominated to Cabinet positions require Senate confirmation. Fortunately for Trump, his party controls the Senate. But, there is a tradition in the Senate that any Senator can place a “hold” on a nomination, thus preventing a nomination from moving forward. Although this has been very effective in the past, given the political power that the President–elect has, any Democrat—or Republican—placing a “hold” on a nominee will have a hard time holding onto her/his hold.
One of the challenges with Senate–confirmed senior positions is that comprehensive and exhaustive background investigations are required. The investigating agencies, which can include the FBI, Secret Service, State Department, the Civil Service, and even the CIA, are almost taxed beyond their capacity to provide the myriad background checks between now and the inauguration. And so too the nominated individuals find the process onerous, and often overwhelming; the sheer weight of the paperwork is inconceivable. The Senate will not confirm a nominee without a completed background investigation. So there is a real scramble in these remaining days to nominate key personnel quickly and submit them to the investigating agencies so that the clearance process can be completed by January 20, 2017.
Note: White House personnel do not require Senate confirmation, but must go through varying degrees of background investigations based on their position and the type of security clearance they need to do their job.
POLICY: Policy Initiatives and policy rollbacks will be devised and implemented by personnel appointed by the president. Normally an incoming president has two or three major initiatives that he can hope to achieve. But given Republican control of the Congress, and the vast majority of state houses around the country, Trump may be able to succeed with many more initiatives than tradition would suggest. And most certainly, since many of his initiatives will likely be rollbacks of Obama’s legislative successes and Executive orders from Obamacare to the Trans–Pacific Trade Pact to Immigration, we will witness a breathtaking pace at which the new President–elect seeks to implement the policies that he promised on the campaign trail.
Other policy decisions that President Trump will begin implementing on January 21 are: what about the European Union, Russia, China, the Mideast –– the world? And what about domestic issues such as double digit unemployment in both urban and rural areas, the rising cost of healthcare, and the millions and millions of people, most of whom voted for Trump, who no longer believe in the American dream, who know that tomorrow will not be better for their children than it was for them today?
PROSE: Former Governor Mario Cuomo said that politicians campaign in poetry, but they govern in prose. Obviously, there was nothing poetic about either candidate's campaign rhetoric. Trump's challenge will be to continue the conciliatory and tempered tones of his spoken words from his election night victory speech. He and his aides must never forget that they lost the popular vote. So the challenge is to try to bring more people onto his side. This will be one of the most difficult challenges any incoming president has ever faced simply because of the vitriolic, poisonous and destructive and harmful words that were spewed.
Almost all the books written about presidential campaigns and transitions focus on the first 100 days of a new administration. Granted, these are often very interesting days, but based on my 44 years experience in campaigns and transitions, it is during the first 72 days that the most critical, crucial and long–lasting decisions are made. These decisions are the harbinger of the 4 years to follow. So despite the pundits’ fascination on what the first 100 days will be, the smart eyes and ears are on the first 72 days.
Peter Emerson has worked on every Democratic presidential campaign since 1972. He has participated in two Presidential Transitions, the first in 1980 while serving in President Jimmy Carter’s administration, and the second in 2008 for President Barack Obama. And Peter is an expert on the nomination and confirmation processes; he has been appointed to three presidential advisory commissions by three Democratic Presidents and reappointed by a Republican President, George W. Bush.