While the mainstream media camp out in the lobby of Trump Tower, the work being done upstairs by the Trump transition team is a seemingly endless stream of personnel decisions, policy briefings and figuring out the personal and political chemistry of the president-elect’s inner circle.
Trump won the 2016 election on Nov. 8. He now has just over 50 days to prepare to assume the most powerful office in the world. And that means his team needs to get him ready.
“The idea is that when a president takes office Jan. 20, that he can literally step into his desk that first morning and begin to function as commander-in-chief and handle all the duties of the presidency,” said Reagan White House Political Director Frank Donatelli.
He says the first order of business is growing the president’s staff.
“When someone runs for president, chances are they have a small coterie of advisers around them. Of course, once you become president, you need a lot more people than that. So they have to expand the circle pretty rapidly,” said Donatelli.
While much of the media attention centers on the high-profile cabinet selections, there are a total of about 4,000 political appointments for a president to make.
“Any position that is cabinet-level, deputy secretary or assistant secretary, generally those require Senate confirmation. The president will have some involvement at that level,” said Donatelli.
He adds that while 4,000 may seem like a lot, there are about one million career government employees.
Donatelli says some of the lower political appointments often go to people with some sort of connection to the president or the party.
“The president will give some direction to the kinds of people he wants. Generally, the Office of Presidential Personnel in the White House is responsible for filling out the bureaucracy. They’ll take into consideration campaign workers and key members of the Republican Party and fundraisers for the president, and oh by the way, people who actually have some expertise in the job,” said Donatelli.
In addition to personnel matters, there is the issue of bringing the president-elect up to speed on a wide range of policy issues.
“You want to be able to hit the ground running and so the president needs to be broadly familiar with the issues that are going to be hitting his desk immediately: budget issues, economic issues, obviously foreign policy issues and briefings,” said Donatelli.
It’s an intense process of poring over critical information that is a challenge for every incoming president.
It’s a big curve. It’s no comparison. Some people say it’s a lot more fun to run to be president than it actually is being president. You’ve got a lot of decisions to make. I think it’s true. Only a past president can understand the burdens that a new president is going to take on,” said Donatelli.
While Trump studies his briefing books and makes key nominations, Donatelli says it would be wise for his inner circle to be studying Trump, beginning with the issues he’s most passionate about.
“I think another important thing is if you have people around you that understand the president-elect, so that you know what the president-elect is most interested in and what he’s not interested in – the stuff he’s not interested in that he really doesn’t have to know that much about and can be delegated elsewhere,” said Donatelli.
He says President Reagan had a very smooth transition because some of his closest aides from his days as California governor were by his side and knew how he operated. Donatelli says the learning curve could be steeper for Reince Preiebus and Steve Bannon, who have been close to Trump for a much shorter time.
“Reince Priebus has not worked for Donald Trump before. Steve Bannon was on his campaign but it was only for a short period of time. So I think there is going to be a feeling out process here so that the White House staff knows how this president operates; what he wants to know, what he’s doesn’t need to know, how he functions, etc. etc.,” said Donatelli.