Clinton Taps Former Obama Officials for Transition Teams at State, Defense
Would be the first Democrat-to-Democrat handoff in generations.
Two former Obama administration officials are likely to be named to run Hillary Clinton’s transition at the State Department and Pentagon if she wins the White House, the two most important agencies for the new president’s foreign agenda.
Foreign Policy has learned that Kathleen Hicks, a former Pentagon official and defense policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is helping lead the transition team for the Defense Department. Kurt Campbell, who served as the top diplomat for Asia during President Barack Obama’s first term and now is CEO of the Asia Group is assisting with the State Department transition, according to people familiar with the planning.
The Clinton campaign is closely guarding the names of agency transition leaders until after the election, wary of appearing overconfident while voters are still heading the polls. People close to her campaign said other Clinton allies currently assisting in the transition process will also be named to lead the process of setting up staff at the Pentagon and State Department.
“The Clinton team has not publicly put forward agency and department leads for several reasons — but principally because you don’t start doing an end zone dance on the ten-yard line,” Jim Ludes, who worked on President Barack Obama’s Pentagon transition team in 2008, told FP.
At the State Department, a ballooning list of names are vying to replace John Kerry as secretary of state, including Bill Burns, the former deputy secretary of state, and Wendy Sherman, a former State Department under secretary. At the Pentagon, Michèle Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense for policy, is by far the most likely choice for secretary of defense, though Ash Carter has indicated his desire to stay on the job.
Campbell, the former assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is one of a handful of individuals credited with crafting Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” an economic and military policy aimed at cementing America’s presence in the region. A key pillar of the rebalancing is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free trade deal with 11 other Pacific Rim countries.
Since leaving office, Clinton says she no longer supports the deal in its current form. In April, Campbell said it would be “very difficult” to renegotiate the deal, but adjustments could be made to allay the concerns of the U.S. public. “There are always opportunities to adjust on the margins and figure out how to ensure that we’ve got an agreement which legislators can sell back home,” Campbell told the Truman Center, a Washington think tank.
Hicks, before joining CSIS, served as principal deputy under secretary for policy, a job overseeing defense strategy and operations. During the election campaign, she sharply rebuked Trump’s claims that the United States spends too much on military bases all around the world. In an April op-ed she co-wrote for FP, Hicks called America’s forward military presence a “bargain.”
The job of ensuring a smooth transition from one presidency to the next is a daunting one given the 4,000-plus political appointments a president must make to fill his or her administration. For the State Department and Pentagon, it also involves identifying immediate geopolitical challenges, recommending priorities, and collaborating with the outgoing president’s team in hopes of a smooth handoff.
Just controlling the flood of transition papers gushing out of government agencies and outside organizations is a significant challenge. “There are now rivers of memos coming in from think tanks, campaign policy teams, and every department,” said Joe Cirincione, president of Ploughshares Fund, a security and nonproliferation group.
Scoring a top position on a presidential transition team can lead to a senior position in the executive branch, but not always.
In 2008, the two Pentagon transition leaders for President-elect Obama were Michèle Flournoy and John White, a former deputy secretary of defense. While Flournoy advanced to under secretary of defense for policy, White returned to Harvard as a lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government.
Besides sifting through scores of résumés, a big part of running a transition team is making sure the White House and the picks for cabinet secretaries have the same talking points, especially when it comes to looming national security decisions.
One issue either candidate will have to tackle, for instance, is the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, which tripped up members of the George W. Bush administration during the 2001 transition.
Colin Powell, Bush’s pick for secretary of state, surprised the White House when he said the United States would resume negotiations with North Korea started by the Clinton administration aimed at eventually removing Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons capability. President Bush and the White House quickly denied this claim, creating confusion and an early embarrassment for Powell. “Bush cut him off at the knees and said ‘no we’re not,’” said Cirincione. “Powell was wounded on day one.”
Transition officials will be responsible for making sure everyone’s on the same page.
In August, the Clinton campaign announced the most senior members of the transition team, including chair Ken Salazar, a former senator and interior secretary, and four co-chairs: Tom Donilon, a former national security advisor, Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress, Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan, and Maggie Williams, director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard.
Donilon is said to be playing a leading role in the transition process for the intelligence community, as speculation swirls about the selection of the next CIA director and director of national intelligence. Names bandied about include Michael Vickers, the former under secretary of defense for intelligence; Matt Olsen, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center; Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA; James Stavridis, a retired admiral and former NATO commander; and Donilon himself.
The agency’s current director, John Brennan could be asked to stay on in the Clinton administration, a move that would avoid an early, contentious confirmation battle. Morell, Vickers, Stavridis, and Olsen are all rumored to be in the running to head up the Office of the Director of National Intelligence if they don’t snag the CIA.
Other names in the mix for the State Department are Donilon and Campbell, as well as Nick Burns, an under secretary of state during the Bush administration. Other possibilities include John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, Strobe Talbott, the president of the Brookings Institution, and Stavridis.
Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
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