The American Tradition of Orderly Political Transition

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, November 9, Donald J. Trump crossed the necessary threshold of 270 electoral votes and became the President-elect of the United States of America.  At noon on Friday, 20 January 2017, Mr. Trump will take the oath administered by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on the west portico of the U.S. Capitol and become the nation’s 45th president.

While the election results were perhaps a shock or surprise to many, all should expect an orderly transition from the Obama administration to the Trump administration.  The good news is that the United States has a long trahcdition of orderly and peaceful transitions of power.  This will be the 44th such transition over the last 220 years, starting with the handover from George Washington to John Adams in 1797.  More often than not the transitions were between administrations of differing political parties and ideologies, but all except the transition of 1861 were conducted in an orderly and mostly civil manner.  We should not expect the current transition to be otherwise.

American presidential elections usually hinge on domestic and economic issues more so than foreign policy.  This election was no different, although with some degree of attention paid to the Islamic State, Syria, relations between the U.S. and Russia, and the Iran nuclear deal.  The dominance of domestic issues, however, should not be interpreted as a signal that the U.S. is somehow disengaging from the world.  The broad and long-standing U.S. national interests compel us to remain engaged, and the transition process helps ensure that the incoming administration is prepared to accept the responsibilities and vigilance required to protect those interests.

As with all candidates for America’s highest office, Mr. Trump assembled his transition team months ago, long before the outcome of the election was known or his victory even considered a possibility, on the assumption that he could win and that the enormity of the responsibility for an orderly transition required long and arduous planning.  The outgoing administration also has been preparing.  Months before the election each executive branch department and agency, as well as the National Security Council staff, have been preparing, refining, and updating transition books and policy papers defining the ends, ways, and means of major U.S. strategies.   (Several of the NESA faculty have contributed to some of the current preparations.)  The books, briefings, and papers will now be presented to the incoming transition team and, depending on the subject, meetings will be scheduled between current Obama administration officials and experts and members of Mr. Trump’s transition team.  In some ibonstances we can expect briefings and discussion to occur directly with the president-elect.  Indeed, Mr. Trump met privately for 90 minutes with President Obama on November 10 to start the process.  These briefing books are not political campaign documents nor are they designed to try to convince the incoming administration that the current Obama policies are correct or must be continued.  Rather, they are concise statements of the facts surrounding the major policy issues, the steps taken or proposed by the current administration and the challenges and opportunities that may face the next president in January.  These books, briefings, and papers are taken seriously by the current administration officials as they know first-hand the gravity and responsibility to the American people and our international partners and allies.  The 70 days between the election and the inauguration may seem like a long time but will be consumed in what seems like an instant as the transition teams attempt to accommodate all of the issues and policies that need a smooth and orderly hand-off.

But the transition will not – in fact, cannot – be complete by noon on January 20, 2017.  President Trump will need to nominate scores of senior officials that require confirmation by the Senate.  Many of the third- and fourth-tier political appointees may not even be identified for several months into the new administration.  And the process of confirmation may be more contentious than many would perhaps predict given the unique status of Mr. Trump within the Republican party, despite the Senate remaining in Republican control.  So the process of transition will extend perhaps as long as eight to ten months into President Trump’s term.    This means that the professional civil service personnel and the uniformed military have a large responsibility as the continuity between administrations.  They too have prepared for the transition.

The issues and challenges facing the NESA region will remain.  America’s global interests – and our responsibilities – will not change.  The policies, methods, or strategies may be amended by the new president, but change in Washington comes more slowly than you might think.  Expect the U.S. commitments, obligations, and investments in the region to remain steady in the short-term.  As we have frequently highlighted during NESA seminars, the president and the executive branch are only one part of the U.S. government.  Our system of checks and balances require the Congress to authorize and fund almost all U.S. activities and that any actions or programs are constitutional.

Throughout this period the Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies remains committed to our alumni and to our partners in the region.  We look forward to a robust continuing relationship with all of you.  And we stand ready to answer any questions or concerns you may have during – and after – the change of administrations.


LTG Terry A. Wolff USA (retired)