Why was the US presidential transition such a mess?

The US may possibly have the longest transition period between presidential administrations in the world between the election and the swearing in of the new president. Presidential elections are held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, which means that it falls between November 2nd and 8th, while the inauguration is held on January 20th of the following year, which gives a transition period of about two and a half months. That should be plenty to ensure a smooth transition and in general that is what happens.

The Trump-Biden transition was chaotic to say the least. This was mainly due to Trump spending much of that time denying that he had lost and fruitlessly plotting ways to stay in office, which meant that the normal pace of packing and storing had to be compressed into a frantic few days before the 20th. The revelations of the search warrant executed by the FBI on Mar-a-Lago shows how messy the transition was from the Trump to the Biden presidency.

The final, frenzied pack up of Trump’s 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. began in earnest as the president was consumed with other matters: the aftermath of the January 6 riot and the impending impeachment. Norms and protocols were cast aside. Everything was running late, including the General Services Administration’s formal acknowledgment of a transition of power.

“We were 30 days behind what a typical administration would be,” recalled one former top Trump aide.

The weeks after the November elections were among the more chaotic for a Trump White House that had been defined by chaos. The West Wing was left reeling by Trump’s loss to Joe Biden, and the president’s refusal to concede largely froze the transition process in place.

Some aides recalled that staff secretary Derek Lyons attempted to maintain a semblance of order in the West Wing despite the election uncertainty. But he departed the administration in late December, leaving the task of preserving the needed records for the National Archives to others. The two men atop the office hierarchy — then-White House chief of staff Mark Meadows and Trump — took little interest in it, aides and advisers recalled. Meanwhile, responsibility for overseeing the pack up of the outer Oval and dining room, an area where Trump liked to work when not in the Oval Office, was left to Trump’s assistants, Molly Michael and Nick Luna, according to multiple former aides.

In the UK, when the ruling party loses an election, the new prime minister moves into the official residence at 10 Downing Street the very next day and, as far as I can tell, the process goes pretty smoothly, even involving the private belongings of the prime minister and his family. As I understand it, the whole transition is handled by permanent members of the civil service who are independent of the political parties and hence have people who have done this many times before and have developed a system for making it smooth, whereas in the US much is done by political appointees who come and go with each administration and basically wing it.

Standing amid half-packed boxes in early 2021, staffers in the West Wing grabbed packages of presidential M&M’s and tried to obtain giant photos of the president and the first couple that adorned the walls, eager for a memento from their White House service.

Trump-themed accessories and memorabilia were snagged. Aides stood in empty offices and tried to find a moment to secure presidential greetings for a loved one’s upcoming birthday or anniversary.

It was part free-for-all, part fire sale. Souvenirs were kept, records were indiscriminately thrown away. The Oval Office and its adjacent private dining room were only packed up the weekend before former President Donald Trump moved out, former aides said.

It is true that this particularly messy transition could be classified as a one-off due to Trump’s chaotic style. But I think the US could learn something from the UK about how to manage transitions better.

In the US, there is also the problem that there are so many political appointees that run many layers deep into the government bureaucracy all of whom require Senate confirmation, which is why it takes a years to fill all the vacancies. And then when there is a transition, new people have to learn what the former people did. There is a lot of institutional memory that is lost because it is the lower-ranking people who are aware of the nuts-and-bolts of administering their area. The long transition period can help in this instance if the outgoing and incoming administrations work together. Of course, with Trump, that was also hindered.


  1. cartomancer says

    The question I have is why does the US do it this way? Why is there a two and a half month transition? Is it a hang-over from earlier times, when the new president might have to cross a whole continent to get to Washington DC?

  2. Mark Dowd says

    The election and inauguration dates are set in the Constitution, so yes they’re a holdover from the 18th century.

  3. says

    I think the idea was that the outgoing president would convey wisdom -- but more importantly it gave the incoming president some time to recruit and set up their cabinet.

  4. jenorafeuer says

    As noted above, yes, the U.S. wrote the times for this into the constitution back when horseback was the fastest way to get anywhere and the voting day was set on the assumption that people would use Monday to travel to the voting location, stay overnight, vote on Tuesday and then travel back home. (Because nobody would be traveling on Sunday, no no.)

    Canada holds closer to the British system here; the new Prime Minister is expected to move in right away, though there have been times in the recent past where the new Prime Minister didn’t live on Sussex Drive for a while as the residence was undergoing renovations. Most of the people running the transition are career civil servants, just like the people running the elections. (In fact, being an active member of any of the political parties means you can’t work for Elections Canada. Doesn’t matter which party.) And just because the Prime Minister is in place doesn’t mean that much of anything else is getting done until Parliament opens again.

    Of course, Canada also has the ‘vice-regal’ position of the Governor-General, who acts as the Queen’s voice in Canada for certain purposes, and election transition is one of them. The Governor-General dissolves the previous government, and technically the next election winner isn’t Prime Minister until the Governor-General invites them to form the new government. This ensures there is always somebody nominally ‘in charge’ even in situations where there has been a problem forming the government. (Something which hasn’t really happened in Canada, but has in other countries. The King-Byng affair was probably the closest we had, where the Prime Minister and the Governor-General got into a rather public argument over whether or not to hold new elections as the current government was having problems.) The Governor-General’s terms of office are very deliberately set up to not coincide with the Prime Minister’s so that only one is changing at any given time.

  5. Some Old Programmer says

    The transition used to be even longer. The 20th amendment (adopted in 1933) moved the date of the inauguration from March 4th to January 4th.

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