By Peter Van Buren for Reuters — You’ve seen the stories – President-elect Donald Trump was shocked to learn he needs to hire over 4,000 political appointees by January 20, and that people in Washington may refuse to work in a Trump administration, or that Trump, as a newcomer to politics, may not know enough people to get down to business. Many of the same news sources which said Trump would never win are now exaggerating the few hours’ delay of a transition memo, or the switch from New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to Vice President-elect Mike Pence to lead the transition team, as signaling a process in disarray.
Trump was well aware if he won he would need to hire, and if he was not keeping lists of potential candidates, you can be sure others around him were. Far from some kind of unanticipated chore, political organizations stretching back to Tammany Hall if not ancient Rome live for this task – handing out jobs is one of the prizes every election winner, Republican or Democrat, takes home.
In addition, the standing bureaucracy in Washington oversees these transitions every four to eight years, as do the national party offices. And as a businessperson, Trump is no stranger to the hiring process. Though many are new to government, this is not a cold start for the president-elect’s team.
But when it gets down to the actual work of filling jobs, how exactly is it done? I worked in the State Department for 24 years’ worth of transitions. Trump will fill positions pretty much the same way every other modern president before him has.
He has already started with the big jobs, such as transition head Mike Pence, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, former chair of the Republican National Committee. After that will come the Secretaries of State, Treasury, Defense, and an Attorney General. Trump will hand-pick these people.
Those appointees will then fill in below them, the deputy and assistant secretaries, attorneys, and special advisors. Given the number of people he knows and trusts from his business, Trump himself may seed in some mid-level appointees, particularly in agencies like Treasury and Commerce. The Democrats would have likely done the same, drawing, for example, from loyalists at the Clinton Foundation.
These positions amount to about one-fourth of the jobs that need to be staffed. And of those, maybe fewer than 100 are critical for Day One.
One important point: the top tier political appointees require Senate confirmation. So do around 1,000 others. A good strategy to both ease that process and to locate experienced hands is to turn to senators and congressmen for recommendations.
With those Senate confirmation jobs lined up, Trump’s transition team will move to other positions, including any number of economic and national security staffers. Many will be drawn from people already advising Trump, or selected out of think tanks and academia. People from those pools are already vetted politically based on their association and/or past work.
And don’t believe what you might read about vast numbers of people in Washington refusing to work in Trump’s White House.
The currency of public service is power, and official Washington will kneel on broken glass before any but an ideological handful would turn down a job with access to the West Wing. Don’t be surprised if even a few of those high-profile Republican national security officials who signed letters in March and August saying they’ll never work for Trump quietly change their minds, “for the good of the country.” Whether or not Trump will invite them is another story.
The largest category of jobs left to fill after all that include people like schedulers, subject matter experts, special counsels, and staff assistants. Many will be pulled from the cadre of campaign volunteers and interns – why do you think someone devoted all that time knocking on voters’ doors during an Iowa winter?
The last way Trump will staff up his administration is via application. In fact, you can go right now to President-elect Trump’s “Serve America” website and complete one online. And yes, getting hired is a long shot.
While the longer process plays out, Trump’s team does have the (not often used) option to ask some current Obama-appointed staffers to stick around, especially those in positions that are non-partisan. And not every job available to Trump has to be filled by Inauguration Day; there are layers of career civil servants, who make up the vast majority of federal employees, that can stand in temporarily, same as say next year when their eventual political-appointee boss goes on vacation. In addition, once president, Trump can also appoint his own acting head of an agency while awaiting a confirmation hearing for his real choice.
Absent a core group of appointees, there is no immediate hurry. Chris Lu, who ran Obama’s first transition team, recalled the chaos of that period; Obama was still announcing key personnel in mid-January 2009. The first formal announcement of a Cabinet member, Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, didn’t come until 16 days after the 2008 election. In fact, many administrations don’t complete their first full cycle of appointments for months.
And of course it has been only about a week since Trump’s election, a span history suggests is a tad early to declare discord and disarray. The rumors of Trump’s deadly personnel failures some ten weeks before he even takes office seem to be exaggerated.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People” and “Ghosts of Tom Joad.” His next book is “Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan.”