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University Communications

Presidential Expert John Burke Talks Trump Transition

Trump on the campaign trail
Photograph by Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist '11

Every four years, John Burke, the John G. McCullough Professor of Political Science, is in high demand as the foremost expert on presidential transitions. This year is no exception as he's already apperared on CNN, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Financial Times, The Hill, The Globe and Mail and New Republic, among others. His book Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice about the Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., and Clinton transitions is considered essential reading, as is his book on the G.W. Bush transition. But this year’s presidential election has been anything but traditional, and Burke, currently the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has plenty to say about it.

UVM Communications: How do you think the presidential transition of Donald Trump will differ from prior administrations given his lack of political experience and the fact that the country is divided?

John Burke: It will definitely be more difficult for him as a Washington outsider. He’s also coming into a very difficult, highly polarized situation. He didn’t win the popular vote, which I think is very important. Moreover, it may turn out that he will be substantially over a million votes behind Clinton. His Electoral College majority is, of course, larger than expected, but it is well below that of Obama in 2008 and 2012, Clinton in 1992 and 1996, Bush Sr. in 1988, and Reagan in 1980 and 1984. He will likely end up slightly above Carter in 1976, which is not propitious. 2016 is certainly not a “mandate” election, which rarely happens with the exceptions of 1964 with Johnson and Goldwater or 1936 with Roosevelt.

Yet there is a plus side, from his perspective: Trump will be the first president-elect to enjoy the advantages of the Presidential Transitions Act of 2010, which has allowed the Clinton and Trump staffs to run transition operations, with government support, during the campaign instead of waiting until after Election Day. While candidates have quietly planned before Election Day in the past, this legislation has given them public recognition and support for planning early, which I think is critically important. Still, time is of the essence. One important example: On the eve of 9/11, George W. Bush only had half of his department sub-cabinet appointments filled, because security clearances and Senate confirmation take so long (so, too, by the way for Obama in his first term). The signs of an effective transition for Trump are much more positive due to the new legislation that was recommended by the 9/11 Commission. But bear in mind that the nation is deeply divided on the outcome. I can’t recall a prior election in modern times where riots erupted in major cities. Donald Trump has much to address in bringing the nation together.

Vice President Mike Pence is now leading Trump’s transition team. What should he focus on first to ensure a successful transition and lay the foundation for successful four-year term?

You’ve got to get your cabinet nominees lined up because they need to go through confirmation hearings. However, even more importantly, you also need your White House staff in place very early in the process, especially your Chief of Staff and National Security Advisor. It's a good sign that they just named Reince Priebus (Republican National Committee chairman) as Chief of Staff, because he’s not a Trump person, which indicates that Trump is able to reach out to a more diverse, and experienced constituency in his party. This appointment is very important because the chief of staff-designate plays a major role in the organization and appointments of the White House staff, and almost all of these positions are not subject to Senate confirmation. They can start working on Inauguration Day, and, even before that, planning the new administration’s agenda during the transition.

Is it more important for a Washington outsider like Trump to fill his Cabinet and staff positions with people who have government experience?

Yes, for the most part. This is going to be the big challenge for Trump. The prior political experience of other presidents-elect has allowed them to gather, over time, a crowd of people around them who are experienced, loyal, and can handle a White House or subcabinet position. This will be more challenging for Trump. He has some people in his inner-circle with government experience, but if he’s interested in getting business types into government, that’s a huge problem because there’s federal ethics legislation and extensive vetting of people’s financial holdings and tax records. They will need to move things into blind trusts or do a divestment of assets, and that’s a huge impediment to moving into government. I doubt that if Donald Trump were asked 12 years ago to serve as, say, Secretary of Commerce that he would have done it, because he would have had to reveal all of his financial information from decades past.

How important is it that Trump comes out of the gate fast to try and get as much legislation passed as possible?

This is very important from his perspective. If you don’t have some of your major legislation at least in the pipeline by the middle of the second year of your presidency you are sunk politically. Interestingly, Trump will benefit from Obama’s use of executive orders the last two years. There are a lot of them and they have huge policy implications, but because they are presidential orders they can simply be rescinded on day one. That’s a consequence of the Obama administration’s legislative difficulties with Congress and using the president’s executive-orders power as a way of gaining some policy traction. But it’s easily undone. It’s going to be Obama’s regrettable gift to the Trump presidency, because he will be able to show action from day one for a Trump presidency. However, Trump needs to be careful what he rescinds because he doesn’t want to further polarize and alienate people, especially Democrats who will be in the minority in Congress; they can still filibuster legislation. And he may need their votes on other matters. It’s going to make it difficult, for example, if he tries to build a new border wall, which requires legislation. On the other hand, he might be able to get other policies like changing the corporate tax rate through in a budget bill, which is not subject to filibuster. His biggest challenge, unlike his recent predecessors, will be moving beyond the toxic rhetoric of the campaign into a positive presidential agenda. What he does during the transition period will be key here.

Trump made a lot of promises on the campaign trail. How many of them do you think he will try to make good on?

Let me frame this objectively. In terms of major promises he’s going to have to make a good faith effort to satisfy his base. At the same time, he will need to focus on things that have more widespread appeal. Moreover, it’s important that he only focus on a few things; here history rather then partisanship informs. Presidents who come in with a laundry list of things they expect Congress to do – and Carter is a good example of this – end up unsuccessful because Congress isn’t going to do all of them. You’ve got to guide Congress by saying ‘here are four or five things I think are important’ knowing full well you may only get a few of them. G.W. Bush’s experience is instructive here. The contested 2000 presidential election was difficult for Bush, but he was able to rise above it and push his own political agenda forward by governing as if he’d won with a huge majority, and I think that was very smart politically. Whether he made wise choices is another matter.

Do you think Trump’s differences with key people in his own party like Speaker Paul Ryan will affect his ability to get legislation passed?

I don’t think his possible struggles to pass legislation will be so much due to the fact that the party is split, but rather it will be about how our system of government works. It’s not a business corporation where the CEO gets to dictate things. I mean Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may listen, but they don’t have to do a damn thing. They are not accountable to him. He’s going to have to find a way to accommodate members of Congress. Trump would probably say, ‘well, I’m a good negotiator,’ but so are they. They aren’t fools. You just don’t simply tell members of your own party what they should do. Even Lyndon Johnson knew this, and he was the consummate negotiator with Congress. In short: you have a tough task President Trump. Tougher than you have ever faced.

Do you think President Trump will be different than candidate Trump?

It’s possible, largely because he’s in a more controlled environment now as president. He’s not campaigning anymore. A lot of what he’s going to be saying will be filtered through the White House communications apparatus. He may go off at some press conferences, but mostly it will be his press secretary talking to the press for him on a daily basis. Everything is going to be more orchestrated now, which is probably good for him. Finally, he will walk into the Oval Office every day. The weight and wisdom of his predecessors will hopefully positively press upon him.

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