Shadow Government

Here’s How Democrats Should Handle the Transition of Power in 2020

Let's do things differently.

TOPSHOT - US President-elect Donald Trump boards the elevator after escorting Martin Luther King III to the lobby after meetings at Trump Tower in New York City on January 16, 2017.  / AFP / DOMINICK REUTER        (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - US President-elect Donald Trump boards the elevator after escorting Martin Luther King III to the lobby after meetings at Trump Tower in New York City on January 16, 2017. / AFP / DOMINICK REUTER (Photo credit should read DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images)

To the transition team for the next Democratic president:

I know, I know, it’s a bit early to be writing to you. I’m not writing now because I want to fast-forward through our present predicament (although part of me surely does). I’m writing because it’s important for us not to mimic the dysfunction of the Donald Trump transition, and if we wait until four (or, heavens forbid, eight) years from now to think about it, we might be tempted to treat the Trump folks the way they treated us.

I can hear the conversation now: “They kicked out all the Obama people — and then some — on day one. Why should we treat them any differently? Run those folks out of D.C. ASAP!” It might feel good, but it wouldn’t be good for our fellow Americans who will be counting on us to govern effectively.

Here’s the thing: The problem is not that political appointees lost their jobs on Jan. 20 — that’s something all of us knew was likely when we took those jobs. It happens to most political appointees in all transitions. It’s the prerogative of the new administration to empty out the political posts on day one, and none of us were entitled to stay on for a single minute past 12 p.m. the day Trump took office. Sure, it’s true that in the past incoming administrations have, in some cases, for either professional or personal reasons, invited certain officials to stay on. But this was always a matter of courtesy and/or national interest, not entitlement. So while we may think that the Trump transition team wasn’t particularly courteous to the fellow Americans who occupied the positions that Trump will now get to fill, it was well within its prerogative to eject us.

But there’s a more important reason for a more collaborative approach to managing transition: The American people depend on us — whether incoming or outgoing officials — to ensure that political transitions pose as little disruption as possible to the continued functioning of the government.

And on this measure, the Trump transition approach in the State Department fell short. I have heard repeatedly from a range of senior colleagues — many of them not political appointees, but career bureaucrats — that the transition team has declined offers of briefings or memos, that has kept close its intentions for how to manage the transition, and didn’t communicate to senior career officials what it expected of them on Jan. 20.

In my own case, I submitted a formal request to the Trump transition team in November. I said I wished to relinquish my role as ambassador for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on Jan. 20, and then travel to Washington for consultations with the State Department the following week. The Foreign Affairs Manual, the internal regulations for the department, provides for five days of such consultations for retiring ambassadors so that they can debrief before heading on to their next chapter. I received a formal cable in late December telling me that my request — which was really an offer to help the new administration hit the ground running — had been carefully considered and declined. As far as I understand, all requests for any kind of continued engagement after Jan. 20 were declined — I wasn’t special.

That’s not just petty or rude; it’s just bad governance. The Trump administration allowed dozens of Obama appointees who have been representing our country abroad, interacting on a daily basis with foreign governments to counter terrorist threats, support American commercial interests, protect U.S. citizens, and advance U.S. policy, to scatter to the wind. Even if the new administration wants to reverse everything we accomplished, it surely would have had a better chance of accomplishing its own objectives effectively if it had the information that we could have shared with the incoming leadership at the department and the career diplomats and civil servants who keep working throughout Democratic and Republican administrations. For example, among other things, I would have been able to brief on the selection process for the new secretary general of the OSCE and on the challenges of renewing the mandate for the OSCE’s monitoring mission in the conflict zone in Ukraine. True, I made the request to come to Washington to brief them, but that was not for my own benefit but for the transition team’s, and for the benefit of the taxpayers who counted on me, and who now count on members of the Trump administration, to fulfill their roles effectively.

So I say to whomever leads the next Democratic transition team at State and the Department of Defense (and elsewhere): Let’s do things differently. Even if we disagree with Trump’s picks for ambassador to Japan or to the EU or wherever, let’s invite them to come to Washington at the end of their service and to share their perspective. Let’s ask what things we should be aware of so that we can serve the American people effectively.

Oh, and if there’s a Trump appointee who wants to stay on for a few weeks to finish up a project or so that a family member can finish a medical treatment, let’s treat that person like we would want to be treated, like the fellow American he or she is.

All the best,

Daniel Baer

Photo credit: DOMINICK REUTER/AFP/Getty Images

Daniel Baer is diplomat in residence at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He was U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from 2013 to 2017. He previously served as a deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor from 2009 to 2013. Baer was an assistant professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, a faculty fellow at Harvard’s Safra Center for Ethics, and a project leader at the Boston Consulting Group.

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