WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump’s transition team is nearing a state of stasis, causing concern among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington that his White House will be woefully ill-prepared once he is inaugurated.
The primary cause, according to multiple sources, is the revamped leadership structure at Trump’s transition offices ― the demotion of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie from the top post and his replacement with Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
On Tuesday morning, for example, the Obama administration alerted the press that it had not yet received a memorandum of understanding signed by Pence, which would legally allow the old and new administrations to begin discussions on how to hand off critical government functions. That document still hadn’t arrived by 4:30 p.m., and only later in the evening did a White House official confirm it had been received. The official noted that the language signed by Pence was identical to a memo signed by Christie, making the holdup all the more peculiar.
The disarray has left agencies virtually frozen, unable to communicate with the people tasked with replacing them and their staff. Trump transition team officials were a no-show at the Pentagon, the Washington Examiner reported. Same goes for the Department of Energy, responsible for keeping the nation’s nuclear weapons safe, where officials had expected members of the Trump transition team on Monday. Ditto for the Department of Transportation. Over at the Justice Department, officials also are still waiting to hear from the Trump team.
“The Department began planning for this transition well before the election and we are fully prepared to assist the incoming transition team,” Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said in a statement. “As the President has said, we are committed to a smooth and successful transition, including the seamless continuation of the department’s essential law enforcement and national security functions which are performed each and every day by its career staff.”
The transition dysfunction extends beyond failure to promptly execute a memorandum of understanding. According to several sources close to the Trump transition team and inside the Obama administration, the president elect and his staff have had difficulty finding able-minded Republicans willing to take on critical posts. One Democratic source, who like others would only discuss sensitive talks on condition of anonymity, said transition officials had been informally asking Obama political appointees to recommend Republicans to take over their jobs.
Other administration officials said conversations had not gotten to that point of desperation quite yet. But they acknowledged the pace of getting people in line for critical posts was moving painfully slowly.
The problem is twofold: Trump and his staff are not creatures of the establishment and are naturally skeptical of those who are. At the same time, many Republican lawyers and government officials who would have jumped at the opportunity to work in a GOP administration are balking at employment under Trump and his cabinet picks.
According to one Trump insider, this is particularly true for potential national security and intelligence officials.
“One issue is [Retired Lt. Gen.] Michael Flynn,” said the insider. Flynn, vice chair of the Trump transition, is reportedly in line for a top national security post in the new administration. “It’s a major problem. No one wants to work for him or around him because of the time he was running the DIA,” or Defense Intelligence Agency.
Eliot Cohen, a longtime neoconservative voice, tweeted a window into the disorder, recounting his talks with transition officials.
After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming “you LOST!” Will be ugly.
— Eliot A Cohen (@EliotACohen) November 15, 2016
The internal rivalries inside Trump’s transition have not helped matters. The promotion of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff was supposed to set the tone for the rest of the administration. But it came with Breitbart CEO Steve Bannon as chief strategist, a move that delighted the ardent, anti-establishment wing of the party, but has given others pause because of his history peddling anti-Semitism and white nationalism.
Priebus, according to sources, is also skittish on the possibility of former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski replacing him at the RNC, worried that he may undo a lot of the work from the past six years.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the warring fiefdoms roiling the Trump transition effort better than the demotion of Christie. According to the Trump insider, the president elect and his team soured on Christie after he “abandoned Trump,” refusing to do media appearances after videotape of Trump bragging about sexual assault surfaced and skipping surrogate duties during the presidential debates.
When Christie’s top aides were convicted in the Bridgegate scandal, Trump decided to cut him loose, along with the officials he had brought along to help with the transition. One of those officials, former Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), left the transition team on Monday morning.
This article has been updated to note White House receipt of the memorandum of understanding.