Trump inauguration: presidential transitions and intra-administration tensions

As Donald Trump is inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, Kings College London research fellow Joe Devanny looks at the tensions that arise between administrations and considers parallels with Whitehall

By Joe Devanny

20 Jan 2017

The UK experienced its own unexpected – if not unforeseeable – leadership transition last year, in the truncated Conservative leadership contest that produced our new prime minister, Theresa May. Today, we see the culmination of a very different change of leadership in Washington, DC – the lengthier, more structured process of presidential transition. David Cameron and Theresa May have different approaches to being prime minister, but it is hard to imagine two people more different than Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

Obama’s signature approach to foreign policy decision-making has been praised as prudent and deliberative, but also criticised for being weak and hesitant. Meanwhile, the prospect of a Trump presidency has been difficult for many to digest: a reality-television president, a commander-in-tweet more than commander-in-chief.

Whilst much of the focus in the coming months will be about the Trump administration’s evolving policies, I want to look at the structural factors, the personalities and personnel, that will shape his policy-making process. In this post, I consider the challenge of assembling a team during the transition process. The team assembled during this period is crucial, both in terms of the advice they can offer to the president, and, given finite presidential bandwidth and the limits to what any president can do for himself, the skills and experience necessary to shape policies, manage departments and deliver outcomes for the president.

“The scope and scale of presidential patronage and political office-filling is on a vastly different scale than the prime ministerial equivalents in Whitehall”

The context is different in the United States, but these are all structural issues that applied equally to Theresa May’s transition and to the reshaping of the Whitehall centre to better suit her needs. May had much less time to make these changes, the scope and scale of presidential patronage and political office-filling is on a vastly different scale than the prime ministerial equivalents in Whitehall.

In assessing Trump’s incoming team and its key personalities it should be remembered that not all of Obama’s first-term appointments worked out so well. Both national security adviser Gen James Jones, and the director of national Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair had to be replaced during Obama’s first term. Neither Jones nor Blair enjoyed a long-standing relationship with Obama, and reportedly fell foul, in Jones’s case, of more junior aides who did enjoy such a relationship, or simply failed to establish effective working relationships with other members of the administration (as several Obama insiders have suggested about Blair’s downfall). 

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It can take time to settle on durable appointments and sometimes circumstances dictate that top personnel must change more frequently than one would like. As Sir Ivan Rogers’ recent resignation demonstrates, this isn’t a peculiarly American phenomenon.

In Obama’s case, he experienced the far-from-ideal turnover of four different defence secretaries in eight years. His first, Robert Gates, was the longest serving at just two-and-a-half years (in addition to the two years Gates had already served under President George W Bush). Similarly, before Obama alighted on long-time aide Denis McDonough as his chief of staff in 2013, he had already gone through four chiefs of staff since 2009, the largest number in presidential history.

Much has been written about the potential tensions between senior members of Trump’s team, especially his prospective national security adviser, Lt Gen Michael Flynn. Given Trump’s persistent criticism of the US intelligence community, and reports that several of his associates are subject to a multi-agency counter-intelligence investigation, his picks to lead and oversee US intelligence will rightly be subject to intense scrutiny. US intelligence agencies should welcome a review, but agency heads also have a duty to protect their staff from disparagement – or worse – from the White House.

“It can take time to settle on durable appointments and sometimes circumstances dictate that top personnel must change more frequently than one would like”

Obama’s White House was criticised for being both too large and, in Gates’ memoirs, as “the most centralised and controlling in national security” since the Nixon administration. In The Long Game: How Obama defied Washington and Redefined America’s role in the World, former senior Obama administration official Derek Chollet conceded that the inter-agency process under Obama could at times appear overly bureaucratic. Chollet explained that, viewed from the centre, departments might either seem overly-active, stepping beyond a president’s stated positions, or else under-powered, passively undermining the implementation of a president’s agenda. In both cases, Chollet noted that the centre can feel that it has few options for redress that don’t involve its becoming more involved in the process. That’s a familiar story in Whitehall, with the increasing size and influence of the centre in foreign and security policy.

The Trump camp is keen to move away from this model and to reduce the size of the White House staff. Flynn is therefore likely to have a leaner staff than his departing predecessor Susan Rice. With fewer resources (and concerns about the pace and balance of Flynn’s recruitment), he will probably need to rely more on his own relationships with the principals, playing the role of shepherd or broker between competing departmental views and interests.

Given reports that Flynn sometimes lacks the necessary softer skills to create these instrumental relationships, it’s easy to see flashpoints and tensions ahead. In contrast, the UK’s NSA has been a career-official appointment since 2010, prioritising experience of “getting things done” as a prerequisite for the job. Both prime ministers and presidents should also, however, want advisers who are willing and able to offer challenging, independent advice.

Even assuming that all Trump’s picks successfully navigate confirmation hearings, there is no guarantee that they will serve full terms. In any case, the impact of key individuals on Trump’s national security policies may not follow from their formal titles – a close relationship with the president can afford individuals greater influence over policy than their formal role (or lack thereof) might imply. An obvious example is the quasi-formal role to be played in the White House by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, in bringing his innate talents of “deal-making” to the Middle East Peace Process.

In any influence-mapping process, foreign governments, including our own, will need to consider the impact of informal as well as official vectors to the White House – even, perhaps, if their name is Nigel.

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