Trump defends pace of transition work as process remains opaque

Offices prepared for Trump transition teams in departments and agencies across the government remained empty Wednesday as the president-elect stayed ensconced with close aides in his Manhattan tower.

The White House said that it received paperwork, signed Tuesday evening by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, necessary for the teams to move into the department offices and begin to receive briefings from current officials. But people close to the transition said the first wave of teams was not expected at the Washington locations until Thursday.

The “landing teams” for the State Department, the Justice Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council will be announced and begin interacting with the Obama administration Thursday, Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer said late Wednesday. Economic policy landing teams will be announced next week, followed by teams devoted to domestic policy and independent federal agencies.

Donald Trump took to Twitter early in the day to say that the process of selecting Cabinet secretaries and working with the Obama administration “is going so smoothly.” Responding to media charges of spotty and haphazard contacts with foreign leaders, the transition released a list of 29 presidents and prime ministers with whom it said Trump and Pence have spoken since the election.

Transition communications director Jason Miller said that reports of turmoil within the transition following the ouster of several senior team members in recent days came largely from “folks on the outside” and those who feared Trump was preparing to “drain the swamp, as he’s promised.”

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Miller declined to speculate on the timing of appointment announcements, saying that “the president-elect is going to get this right” and that names would be put forward when Trump was ready. He also denied reports that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, had been instrumental in purging members of the transition seen as close to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whom Pence replaced as the head of the team last week.

Miller said Trump met with several advisers and candidates for administration positions Wednesday, including Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), investor Steve Feinberg, Success Academy Charter Schools chief executive Eva Moskowitz and Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.). Miller did not elaborate on which people on the list are candidates to join the administration. Price is considered a candidate to lead the Department of Health and Human Services.

Trump will meet Thursday with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.), Florida Gov. Rick Scott, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger and retired Gen. Jack Keane, among others, Miller said.

Most attention continued to focus on potential national security picks. Trump campaign surrogates said Rudolph W. Giuliani remained at the top of the rumored list for secretary of state, along with former State Department official John Bolton. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who visited Trump on Tuesday in Manhattan, emerged as a defense secretary candidate, with Trump adviser Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) still high on the list.

Sessions, who has also been mentioned as a possible attorney general, was an early supporter of Trump, and his influence in the transition has been growing.

Sessions’s former staff director of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Brian Benczkowski, is now helping to manage the Justice Department transition for Trump’s team, according to two prominent Republican lawyers with knowledge of the matter. Benczkowski replaced Kevin O’Connor, a former U.S. attorney and associate attorney general, the lawyers said. A white-collar defense attorney at Kirkland & Ellis, Benczkowski previously worked in a number of senior Justice Department jobs.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani arrives at Trump Tower in New York on Nov. 16. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Farther down the defense list were George W. Bush national security adviser Stephen V. Hadley and former senator James M. Talent (R-Mo.). Frank Gaffney, a far-right conspiracy theorist who was described in some media reports as a Trump transition adviser and possible pick for a national security job, said Wednesday that he had “not been contacted by anyone from the team.” His statement followed one by Miller, the transition communication chief, that Gaffney is “a nice guy, but he’s not part of the transition team” and was not advising it.

Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn was still being mentioned as national security adviser, although some with transition connections said his stock appeared to be falling as others questioned his potential effectiveness in the job. Retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, whose name was also mentioned, is close to Keith Kellogg and Michael Meese, transition team members and former military colleagues.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), mentioned as a possible CIA director after the leading candidate, former chairman Mike Rogers of Michigan, was among those purged early this week, is a transition adviser but is “not interested in a post,” a congressional aide said. Former congressman Pete Hoekstra, also a Michigan Republican and a former committee chairman, said in an interview that he’d told the transition “if they have a role for me, I’d be more than happy to discuss it with them.”

Hoekstra said the Trump team was “going to expand its outreach, absolutely. But they’re going to do it in a methodical way.”

Despite intense media scrutiny and swirling rumors in Washington, Trump’s timetable was still well within the bounds of his immediate predecessors. President Obama did not announce his first Cabinet pick until nearly a month after the 2008 election; he presented his national security team en masse Dec. 1 that year. Confirmation of George W. Bush’s 2000 victory did not come until a Supreme Court decision more than a month after the Nov. 7 election.

But Obama, who held regular news conferences beginning three days after the election, had long since assembled an extensive transition team with voluminous policy position papers.

Miller said Trump’s communications team will hold a morning press call every weekday, starting Thursday, to update the media on Trump’s and Pence’s schedules.

Bush had put together a team of national security experts from previous Republican administrations in 1998, dubbed the Vulcans. He announced his first Cabinet pick — retired Gen. Colin L. Powell for secretary of state — three days after the Supreme Court’s announcement.

“What’s not natural is that Trump doesn’t have any Vulcans,” said one well-known conservative in Washington, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about associates. “That shouldn’t surprise us. He was elected in a very different way. . . . He never wanted to sound like the smartest guy on the stage.”

“I’m prepared to say that he’s filled his Cabinet with a bunch of lackeys and sycophants and idiots,” the conservative said. “But he hasn’t yet.”

This person expressed confidence, at least for now, that those around Trump, in appointed positions and the bureaucracy, will supply the knowledge he needs for good decision-making. “He may think he’s the best decision-maker, that he knows the most about ISIS,” or the Islamic State, but when presented with problems, “he’s going to go ‘Duh,’ and he’s not going to bone up on it, he’s going to turn to them for answers.”

In addition to assessing fitness for the jobs, the Trump team is also examining potential problems with each of the candidates, including their business ties and financial backgrounds. After leaving office as New York mayor, Giuliani started his own consulting firm that has worked with the government of Qatar and with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company. A sharp critic of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for her high-priced speeches overseas and to corporations, Giuliani has made hundreds of such speeches, some for six-figure payments.

The Trump team has required all transition officials to sign a “Code of Ethical Conduct” disqualifying themselves from “any involvement in any particular transition matter which to my knowledge may directly conflict with a financial interest of mine” or family or business partners. The document, a copy of which was published by Politico, also contains a confidentiality clause for all “non-public information provided to me in the course of my duties with the transition.”

The Trump team also announced a new plan aimed at reducing the influence of lobbyists on federal policymaking, underscoring one of Trump’s key campaign promises.

On an evening press call, the first of its kind since the election, Spicer said members of Trump’s administration will sign a form stating they will not engage in lobbying for five years after leaving their positions.

“The key thing for this administration is going to be that people going out of government won’t be able to use that service to enrich themselves,” Spicer said in brief remarks.

Administration personnel will also have to certify they are not registered as state or federal lobbyists, he said.

The replacement of Christie with Pence, who met with Trump in New York on Wednesday and also had lunch with Vice President Biden in Washington, left unclear the status of transition work already done by transition officials — some of them among those now departed.

One person close to the transition said that teams under Rogers and others had spent months drafting position papers and drawing lists of people who might serve in senior or even midlevel positions across multiple agencies in a Trump administration. The effort involved almost every issue of foreign policy or security that had come up in the campaign, including the course of the war in Syria and whether it was feasible to “build a wall” separating the United States and Mexico.

The work was “professionally done” and largely on schedule, the person said. “That’s the whole point — so when the president-elect wakes up on Wednesday morning and says what’s going on in [a specific agency or department], he has something and they take it from there.”

The campaign and the transition entities had operated somewhat independently but collided within days of Trump’s improbable victory, according to people involved. Kushner “was really in charge of the campaign. So the day [Trump] won he asserted control over the transition.” That led swiftly to the expulsion of anyone Christie had helped recruit, including Rogers and officials in charge of planning for the National Security Council, as well as parts of the Justice Department and the Office of Legal Counsel.

Greg Miller, Missy Ryan, Dan Lamothe, Ellen Nakashima, Elise Viebeck and Julie Tate contributed to this report.

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