Outgoing administration raises alarm bells on Trump readiness

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US security concerns amid Trump transition
01:42 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Some members in the federal workforce are voicing concerns about the incoming Trump administration’s readiness to assume control of the federal bureaucracy on Friday, citing unread transition memos, vacant administration posts and a host of appointees with scant government experience.

Staffers at the most senior levels, including in the White House and at federal agencies, have met with their incoming counterparts. Deeper into the hierarchy, however, there’s been little contact between the staffers currently operating the levers of government and the team who takes over when President-elect Donald Trump is sworn in at noon on January 20.

“I don’t think they are ready for prime-time,” said a longtime Obama administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe concerns about the state of the transition.

“They are not ready,” said a Republican who is close to Trump’s transition.

Deep differences over policy and tone have divided the incoming and outgoing administrations for months, but both sides have insisted that political differences would not prevent a smooth hand off of power. Indeed, the Obama and Trump teams have made shows of cooperation, including last week when top members of Trump’s incoming Cabinet and White House staff participated in tabletop exercises with Obama’s team.

But officials at the White House and federal agencies who have been preparing for months to hand off memos with detailed instructions on presidential logistics and navigating the federal bureaucracy say there’s no one in place to deliver their documents to – and have little faith those people will be named by Friday.

At a White House function Monday for Obama aides who have served for all eight years of the administration, senior officials were heard wondering aloud whether to expect any contact from the Trump administration before they packed their desks and vacated their offices.

“People running major offices in the White House currently have had no contact with their successors,” said one person who attended the function. “It is stunning. And we always kept thinking they’re going to have a plan, they’re going to come through at the last minute. We’re less than 48 hours away. This should be concerning to anyone.”

Trump’s national security transition team has been slow to interact with the Obama administration’s National Security Council, according to a source close to the transition, who cited delays in the appointments of key staff and getting required security clearances. NSC staff have written a series of briefing materials to bring the Trump team up to speed and there is uncertainty within the Obama administration on whether Trump’s team have read them, the source said.

Trump’s transition on Wednesday downplayed any suggestion the transition was lagging behind.

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“The level and comprehensive nature by which this transition has conducted itself will become the gold standard going forward, because it’s not just the nominees and the prep and the White House staff, but it’s the level of continuity of government, and peaceful transfer of power, that we have concentrated on,” said Sean Spicer, Trump’s incoming White House Press Secretary, on Wednesday.

“I would just give a shout out to the Obama administration,” he said. “President Obama, Mrs. Obama, Denis McDonough, and their various counterparts, especially on the White House staff, have been really gracious with their time and their support on the logistical nature to make sure that we have the support that we need.”

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford also had reassuring comments Wednesday.

“We talked about the state and nonstate challenges we have [and] spoke about our priorities we’ve had in our national military strategy,” Dunford said of his transition team discussions, according to DoD News.

According to a person close to the transition, Trump’s new administration does have beachhead teams prepared to walk into each agency on Friday when Trump is sworn in. These teams range in size, from one to 30 people, and are staff-level jobs, which don’t require Senate confirmation. Technically temporary presidential appointments, at least some of those hires are expected to become permanent once the administration gets fully up and running.

But the transition source conceded Wednesday that beyond the Cabinet level posts, the top tiers of leadership in various federal departments remain largely unknown.

Republicans who have observed the transition at close range describe a stalled hiring process after Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, was ousted from his role leading the transition team shortly following November’s election.

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Some of those Republicans complain the President-elect and his closest advisers placed too great an emphasis early in the process on barring those in the party who had disavowed Trump during the campaign – many of whom had experience working in past Republican administrations.

Current administration officials and wary Republicans alike were relieved when Trump named Joe Hagin, a veteran of George W. Bush’s White House, to the key post of deputy chief of staff for operations. The move places an experienced hand in charge of the complicated world of presidential logistics.

But, say current and former administration officials, one person alone can’t be expected to manage the complex and deeply engrained system of running the executive branch. Those officials said that presidential scheduling, bookkeeping, document flow, and travel is a deeply complex system that requires a modicum of knowledge at all staff levels in order to prevent major disruptions in services.

Managing a president’s day-to-day schedule involves deep coordination both with the Secret Service and the US military, which handles the president’s meals, his aircraft, his secure communication equipment, and his medical care. Trump has named government outsiders to the roles responsible for organizing his logistics, including appointing his former head of security as director of Oval Office operations.

Another area of concern cited by an official: paper flow, a mundane but vital function of any White House. The White House releases thousands of documents yearly that have been approved by the president, many continuing obscure programs already in place.

“Let one piece of paperwork get lost and suddenly a whole set of sanctions is lifted,” one official warned.

Trump, like past presidents, will work through a staff secretary to manage paper flow and circulate important documents among his senior staff. A name hasn’t officially been put forward by Trump’s transition team, but reports have pegged Rob Porter, Sen. Orrin Hatch’s chief of staff, as Trump’s pick. President Barack Obama named a staff secretary in November 2008, shortly after he was elected.

Questions over the Trump team’s preparation for office have even trickled to the East Wing, where permanent staff – some of them preparing to work for their sixth president – are awaiting marching orders. Unlike his predecessors, Trump hasn’t named a decorator to assist in redesigning and personalizing his private living quarters and the Oval Office.

The National Gallery of Art, which has lent artwork to White Houses dating back decades, say they haven’t received any requests from Trump or his team. Meanwhile, the selection of 20th Century art the Obamas used to decorate their own living quarters has been returned.

Jim Sciutto and Elise Labott contributed to this report.