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Bill Clinton’s Transition Was Worse Than Trump’s (For Now)

The Democrat's own presidency got off to an even rockier start in 1992.

JIM WATSON / Getty Images

There’s been plenty of bad press for President-elect Donald Trump’s transition in its first week. The New York Times reported that the effort “was in disarray on Tuesday, marked by firings, infighting and revelations that American allies were blindly dialing in to Trump Tower to try to reach the soon-to-be-leader of the free world.” Trump’s team “was improvising the most basic traditions of assuming power,” and “American allies were in the meantime scrambling to figure out how and when to contact Mr. Trump.”

Still, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani told the newspaper that the transition was “completely normal,” not a departure from history. “It happened in the Reagan transition,” he said. “Clinton had delays in hiring people.”

Giuliani has a point. Not only is Trump “hardly the first president-elect to preside over a disorderly takeover,” as the Times acknowledged Wednesday, but one expert told The New Republic that the coverage is “a little bit of over-exaggeration.”

“It’s not the smoothest transition, but I don’t think it was the worst transition either,” said University of Vermont professor John P. Burke, author of Presidential Transitions: From Politics to Practice. “I’m not seeing anything that’s outside the margin of what normally happens.”

President Barack Obama’s transition was relatively smooth, as was George W. Bush’s. George H. W. Bush’s was somewhat bumpy. But at least one modern president-elect had more trouble with his transition than Trump is having now, Burke said.

“[Bill] Clinton’s was particularly problematic, because it took him until mid-December to pick a White House chief of staff,” he said, noting that Clinton ultimately chose Thomas F. “Mack” McLarty, a childhood friend with no Washington experience. McLarty would leave in the second year of the administration.

As Vox recounted last month, the entire Clinton transition “is often cited as an example of what not to do.” Transition staffers operated out of both Washington and Little Rock, Arkansas, with all final decisions made in Clinton’s home state. This geographic divide—in addition to the ideological split between liberals and centrists on the team—was just the beginning of the problems. Meetings ran too long. Time was wasted. “An atmosphere of chaos and disorganization permeated,” Richard Skinner wrote.

Both Skinner and Burke stressed that Clinton focused his time and energy on cabinet appointments, but neglected important decisions for White House personnel. As a result, Burke said, the new president didn’t do enough policy planning. Early initiatives like healthcare reform suffered for it.

Clinton’s predecessor also had a tumultuous time taking power. As the Times recalled Wednesday, “The 1988 transition from Ronald Reagan to George Bush was particularly nasty, because many Reagan administration aides assumed—wrongly, as it turned out—that they would be in line to keep their jobs in a government that remained in Republican hands.”

Craig Fuller, who served as Bush’s vice presidential chief of staff and then co-chaired his transition for the presidency, told The New Republic he generally agreed with Burke that Trump’s experience isn’t abnormal. There’s precious little time to do the work that needs to be done. It is a little chaotic,” he said. “I don’t think they’re behind the curve in terms of making announcements.”

On Sunday, Trump chose Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus to be his White House Chief of Staff. The pick was seen as a nod to establishment Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, and had the effect of reassuring Washington insiders that one of their own would help to guide Trump’s presidency. At the same time, the president-elect horrified many with his choice of white nationalist champion Steve Bannon—his campaign CEO and the former chief executive of Breitbart News—as chief strategist.

Burke called the pick “certainly a controversial choice,” and Fuller said it was “certainly unique,” but both suggested Bannon may not end up being as influential to Trump as some members of the press suggest. Burke noted that many in the media assumed that Ed Messe, a longtime Reagan aide, would be the president’s key adviser when he joined the transition in 1980. In fact, James Baker, who had run the presidential campaigns of two Reagan rivals (Bush’s primary campaign earlier in the year and Gerald Ford in 1976), ended up as his closest confidante and chief of staff.

It’s too early to assess the totality of Trump’s transition, and it’s undoubtedly troubling in ways that have nothing to do with orderliness. The United States has never had a president with so many potential conflicts of interest related to his businesses, nor a commander-in-chief who has sought national security clearance for his son-in-law, as Trump is seeking for New York Observer owner Jared Kushner. Beyond Bannon, many of Trump’s other advisers hail from the most extreme right-wing precincts of American politics.

But whether the Trump transition is truly an administrative disaster is “too soon to judge at this stage,” Fuller said, calling the coverage “overblown.” Instead, he advised the press to watch whether Trump hews to historical precedent with the rest of his appointments. If you’re falling behind in those categories, you’re falling behind,” he said.