There have been numerous news reports of disarray in Donald Trump’s presidential transition process. But by selecting Jeff Sessions to be his attorney general on Friday, Trump made his first Cabinet pick at an earlier date — Nov. 18 — than most of his immediate predecessors as president-elect. According to The Washington Post, just two of the 70 Cabinet picks by newly elected presidents since 1980 had come by that date, both of them by George H.W. Bush.
That period includes one transition team that deserves to get graded on a curve: George W. Bush’s in 2000. Al Gore didn’t concede the election until Dec. 13, and Bush didn’t start naming Cabinet members until a few days later.
Though the disputed election results delayed official Bush Cabinet announcements, they also provided cover for the transition team as it did its work, recalls Ari Fleischer, who was the spokesman for the Bush transition team and later Bush’s first press secretary. “It enabled us to deal in 2000 with a lot of the vetting problems and disputes without anybody watching us,” Fleischer said in a telephone interview. While Bush was considering candidates from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, “no one was watching, no one cared — our vetters were going behind the scenes and doing vetting,” Fleischer said, although he added that the team had “one miss” with its initial pick for secretary of labor. (Bush’s first pick for the job, Linda Chavez, withdrew after it was revealed she had provided housing to an undocumented immigrant in the early 1990s.)
Referring to some of the media reports of turmoil and disarray around the Trump transition, Fleischer said, “You don’t think a similar dynamic happened to us? Of course it did.”
Of course, there were some differences, too. The president-elect in 2000 was a governor with a vast political network. With Trump, whom Fleischer said he didn’t vote for and whose administration he said he doesn’t want to work in, “I think it’s going to be messier than normal,” he said. “I don’t think he’ll ever get the benefit of the doubt from the media watching him, because they don’t care for him. At the end of the day, will they hit their marks and appoint people to the positions? I don’t doubt it.”
Fleischer, who now runs his own press communications company, recently dug through some of his notes from the transition and from his two and a half years as press secretary — he estimated they would be 2 feet tall if stacked — and posted some highlights on Twitter, including data the team collected on timing of previous presidents’ appointments. If Trump follows precedent — a big “if” — we shouldn’t expect many more picks from him until December.
From his stack of notes, Fleischer also tweeted photos of studies of previous presidents’ transition teams, job applications and announcements of administration appointments. “I probably should give them all to the Bush library,” Fleischer said.