Managing Partner, Argentière Capital; Former White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama
Chairman, McLarty Associates; Former White House Chief of Staff to President William J. Clinton
Managing Director, Rock Creek Global Advisors; Former White House Chief of Staff to President George W. Bush
Staff Writer, New Yorker
Former White House chiefs of staff discuss the challenges facing the incoming administration as it enters the White House, as well as lessons learned from the three previous U.S. presidential transitions.
DAVIDSON: All right. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations meeting with Josh Bolten, Bill Daley, and Mack McLarty. I won’t go over their long biography, if you have them. And the main thing you might want to know is that they’ve all served as chief of staff in the White House. And we’re so lucky, because I can’t imagine people who know more about presidential transitions at a moment when we have a very uncertain presidential transition.
I’d also like to welcome CFR members around the nation and the world participating in this meeting through the livestream. And we’ll hear from them during the question-and-answer session.
And I’m also asked to let everybody know that the next meeting is on “Domestic Security in the Age of ISIS,” and that’s on November 28th.
You know, this panel is about navigating the transition, but there are really a lot of transitions that are going on at once. There is this handing over of so many institutions from one set of hands to another. There is the transition that the president-elect has to make from being a candidate to being somebody who governs. In this case, that’s a big transition for somebody who’s never been in government before. And there’s also the transition that all the people around him have to make, and that we as a country have to make from a moment of a very intensely-fought campaign to a moment of government when the choices are different. And not everybody may want to make that transition.
Mack, let me start with you. Since—we’ve never had a transition quite like this, but of the three of you I think your experience is the closest. In early 1993, you and a governor from a small Southern state arrived in the White House after 12 years with the other party in power. Talk about that. How disorienting and transformative is it? And what do you wish someone had told you?
MCLARTY: Well, I survived, number one. (Laughter.)
Well, Amy, first of all, it’s good to be here. It’s always a pleasure to work with CFR and, of course, with Chief Bolten and Chief Daley.
I think you hit it just right. The real key to any transition—of course, it’s the hallmark of any working democracy peaceful transfer of power—is pivoting from a campaign—and this was certainly a hotly-contested one, to say the least—to governing. That’s the key pivot that a transition entails.
And there’s so much to do and so little time to do it. You really have a number of stakeholders in terms of getting a government in place. That’s what you alluded to: your Cabinet, your White House staff. You’ve got the press to immediately engage with. You’ve got to be sure you remember those that brung you, as the old saying goes—your supporters. Then you need to reach out and try to broaden that base. And then there’s the member of Congress, each of whom think they are a pretty important individual. And in Governor Clinton’s case, just like with Donald Trump, you’re stepping on the world stage for the first time, and that’s a—such an important and sacred step. So there’s all these things to do with so little time to do it—less than 80 days.
DAVIDSON: Well, what’s the one thing that you wish somebody had told you before you walked in there?
MCLARTY: I kept asking Jim Baker to give me some granular detail on transitions and so forth, and finally Jim said, you just have to be there to fully understand. (Laughter.)
DAVIDSON: Josh, you’re—I have to say, you’re kind of a transition legend; that your—the transition—the handoff that you managed from the George W. Bush administration to the Obama administration is considered to be one of the—very smooth. So how much of that, though, is something that would have been the case if not for your experience on September 11th?
BOLTEN: Well, first, thank you. Thank you for having us, and it is a privilege to be here with Bill and Mack.
9/11 had a lot—a lot to do with it. The tenor and the substance of the transition that we worked on as President Bush was leaving office in 2008 was very much a product of the terrorist attack of 9/11 in the sense that President Bush called me in probably a year before the inauguration—and maybe even a little more—and he said he wanted to be sure that, whoever was elected president, that his White House executed the best, most effective, deepest, most cooperative transition in modern history, in large part because this was the first transition in modern history during which there was a really keen sense that the homeland itself was under threat. And this period of transition is a—is a real point of vulnerability for the country.
Those of us who had either left the White House on January 19th or arrived on January 20th—and I’ve done the former twice and the latter once—you know that the West Wing is completely empty on the night of January 19th. There is nothing on the walls. There is nothing on the desks. There are computers, but their hard drives have been taken. There is no one in any of the offices except some watch people in the Situation Room and the Navy people who serve the food in the mess. Otherwise, it’s completely blank. And so the people that come in to take over our government are doing it with—at least as far as the White House is concerned, and many other places are concerned, are doing it with a completely new team. And if the outgoing White House doesn’t help the new one get as prepared as possible, there is a real moment of vulnerability for our country.
DAVIDSON: Do you think that that window of vulnerability has closed somewhat compared to where we were on 9/11?
BOLTEN: Yeah, it’s closed a lot. There have been two waves of legislation that have made it much, much easier for candidates—the two major-party candidates to begin the transition planning, which used to be considered measuring the drapes. It’s now basically legally required, which is excellent. And as soon as the nominee has the nomination of his or her party, the GSA makes office space available, there’s money available to pay staff. So it’s now in our law, thanks to some really good work by a lot of groups, including the Partnership for Public Service, former Senator Ted Kaufman, former Governor Mike Leavitt. There’s the Kaufman-Leavitt Act, which puts a lot of this into law. And so now it’s standard operating procedure to get prepared and to have the resources to get prepared, hopefully without being accused of measuring the drapes.
DAVIDSON: But if you’ve got all the resources there, do you have a sense that they’ve been used this time? If you have all these offices, are they being productively occupied?
BOLTEN: Well, I mean—(laughter)—
DALEY: We’ll see.
BOLTEN: Yeah, we’ll see. (Laughter.) Bill says we’ll see.
I interacted with both the Clinton and the Trump transition teams several months ago at events sponsored by the Partnership for Public Service. And they have a whole book and, you know, all this kind of stuff. And I was impressed that the Trump people seemed to be paying even more attention than the Clinton people, because I think the Clinton people felt like, oh, yeah, we’ve done this, you know, dozens of times before. (Laughter.) We got this. The Trump people were very professional, very serious, very well-prepared. So I was—I was optimistic about both.
The concern that arose in my mind is that, two days into the transition, the Trump—the president-elect’s team basically decapitated their transition team. They purged a certain number of folks who were associated with Governor Christie, and so took out some of the leadership of the transition that had been going through all of this training, so they lost several steps. My sense now is that they are—they’ve regained their footing. They have time. As Mack was saying, it’s an enormous amount of work to do. It’s a big scramble. But hopefully they’re well-positioned to do it properly.
DAVIDSON: Bill, you’ve had the experience of going through confirmation as a Cabinet secretary, for Commerce. Talk a little bit both about what that’s like to have your life examined and—(laughter)—and also how you also, as chief of staff, saw the confirmation process playing out for other administrations.
DALEY: Well, I doubt there’s many people in this room or in this town who don’t think the nomination process for so many spots has gotten totally ridiculous—the amount of information, the number of people; you know, the general counsel of Commerce having to go through a full nomination, all due respect to the lawyer. (Laughter.) You know, this has gotten crazy.
So the whole process is unbelievably time consuming, gets people off-track, could be—it can destroy one’s reputation for something minor. And there always seems to be, whether it’s a Cabinet spot—generally a Cabinet spot or oftentimes at lower levels, there’s always one or two people who suddenly get the prize of being the target that somebody’s after, whether it’s the press or the political.
DAVIDSON: There’s always going to be somebody who is—
DALEY: There’s somebody. And you always hope there is somebody that gets identified real early, before you get queued up. (Laughter.) So I remember, as I went through between when I was announced on December 13th and then—and the hearing, I kept, you know, waiting every morning when I get the paper to hopefully see an article on somebody else that—(laughter)—that was terrible, that meant they were going to be the target.
But it—and it ends up almost being like a(n) oral bar test. You know, you go before the members—at least I had never done it, so it was kind of strange. And I remember one of the senators finally saying to me, why do you—why do you seem some nervous, as I was going up to see them. He said, they don’t really care what you say. (Laughter.) They don’t care what your answers are. It’s the question they want to ask. And it’s not what you—and I kept thinking that it was some sort of exam, that I had to know everything, and all these briefing books they give you all about the department. And basically, I think it was John McCain said to me, they don’t want to know—they don’t want to know what you know; they want to know who you are. And suddenly the lightbulb kind of went on then, and it was a very different, then, process, for me at least, through the hearing.
But it’s no fun, let me—(laughter)—I mean, it sounded like it was fun. It was not, trust me.
DAVIDSON: Well, let me ask you about another way that Congress might have a role, particularly in this transition. There have been a couple of names mentioned—General Mattis, for example—who would need a waiver, statutory waiver, because he’s not been out of the military all that long. What’s your perspective on that?
DALEY: First of all, I have enormous respect for him, obviously, his service to the country and his talents, and he’s a remarkable person.
I personally think that’s a bit—I think it’ll be more of a fight than people think for that waiver. It I think the last time was done when Harry Truman recommended Bradley/Marshall.
MCLARTY: Mmm hmm. I think that’s right.
DALEY: So it’s not something that’s done often. And very often, presidents or president-elects, you know, think about a military person for Defense because oftentimes you get highly visible, highly talented people, but they kind of step back because there seems to be somewhat of an inherent conflict in that. And so I personally think that—it may be too soon, but I think he’ll—I assume he’ll go for it, nominate him, and probably win the vote just because of the political dynamics of it. I don’t know if that’s good precedent. That’s my personal opinion.
Now, one job that doesn’t need confirmation is chief of staff. I wonder if you all have the impression that the chief of staff job, as you experienced it, is even going to exist in this administration. We have Reince Priebus, obviously, but we also have Steve Bannon, who was simultaneously announced as the chief strategist/senior adviser, and a sense of it’s not really clear what—the balance between those. Is that—is that normal? Is that—is that a good way to run a White House? (Laughter.)
DALEY: OK. You get it.
MCLARTY: Josh, why don’t you start? (Laughter.)
BOLTEN: Well, I was going to say yes, but the shorter and more correct answer would be no. (Laughter.) And you know—well, but let me—let me answer that: no, it doesn’t sound right. It sounds like a big mistake to have them announced—to have the senior strategist or senior adviser and the chief of staff announced as coequals in the White House. That on its face sounds like a real mistake, in the sense that you need the chief of staff to be the emissary to and from the president, and only one person can really be the final word on setting—below the president—on setting the president’s calendar; on deciding which issues are going to go to him, in which format; on setting the strategic course for the White House; and, very importantly, on reflecting a definitive word on what the president has decided. I mean, imagine a situation in which the president says something to his senior advisers—you know, all right, go do it—and Steve Bannon says it means bomb Iran and, you know, Reince Priebus says it means he was, you know, mouthing the words to a Beach Boys song. (Laughter.) And—
DAVIDSON: Is this more of an issue because of who Steve Bannon is?
BOLTEN: You know, it would be—it would be an issue anywhere. I think having a—having someone of the provocative past that Steve Bannon has makes it worse.
But let me—let me add the note of caution to everybody in assuming that that’s how it will work out, because you can say they are coequal, and I think be setting up a rational structure if by “coequal” you mean they are coequal advisers to the president—that I, Donald Trump, as president will listen to these people equally and give their advice equal weight. That’s not a problem. You know, there are plenty of people in a White House who, as advisers—as private advisers to the president, can have equal weight.
I served as chief of staff with the senior adviser in that position, in what sounds like a similar position, was Karl Rove. President George W. Bush had no closer, smarter, more astute and effective adviser than Karl Rove. And I’d be the first one to say that if I were the president, I would probably listen more closely to Karl Rove’s advice than I would to Josh Bolten’s. But there was no doubt when I served as chief of staff that, when it came to running the White House, when it came to interpreting and executing the president’s instructions, President Bush empowered me to do that and not Karl Rove.
So if they mean coequal in the sense of advice, fine. If they mean coequal in the sense of equal authority within the White House, potential disaster.
DALEY: Let me just add, I firmly agree with the way Josh answered that question. I would say it really does depend. And we don’t really know his management style yet, the president-elect. And it’s one thing to—you know, you could dismiss the announcement of coequals as I’m satisfying my base when I appointed Priebus—announced Priebus, instead of just doing Priebus as chief of staff, where you—he would have gotten a lot of blowback from the sort of alt-right crowd and the very conservative crowd. So he satisfied that political problem he could have had. My guess is that’s more likely the case, whereas Josh said somebody’s really got to be responsible for the day-to-day. I don’t know Mr. Bannon.
MCLARTY: Yeah, real—just a grace note. I mean, to build on what both Josh and Bill have said, I think Josh articulated how kind of the coequal could be viewed. Every White House, I think, clearly has influence centers more than just the chief of staff position: certainly the vice president is a major player; the first lady always has influence, regardless of the president; and others, including senior advisers. I think the real key to any effective chief of staff, it has to fit with the president. I mean, it’s a—it’s a position that has to fit kind of hand-in-glove with whomever is the president and how he wants to—or she wants to operate the White House. But the key is authority and responsibility. You’ve got to have the authority and responsibility, and you can’t have people undercutting the management of the White House. And you would certainly think someone coming from business would understand kind of the chain of command in authority and responsibility.
DAVIDSON: You might, except, to go back to what you said about what we do know about Donald Trump’s management style, and one of the few clear things we don’t know—that we do know is that he relies a great deal on his children, his adult children. There are nepotism rules that mean he can’t quite give them jobs. When you talked about authority, there’s also an element of accountability when you’re an actual government employee. Do we have models for this? Is there precedent for it? How do you see the—
DALEY: I don’t think there’s a precedent for adult children who, you know, also have a business that they’re running. And at least so far, it seems as though, from what I’ve read, they are going to continue to run their business and take the business over from their father. That’s unprecedented. And I think they’re—
DAVIDSON: Is it tenable?
DALEY: Well, he won and he’s going to be there for four years, so it’s tenable. (Chuckles.)
Will they take a lot of heat for it? Sure. My guess is that it is fraught with potential, if not real issues, appearance issues, if anyone cares.
DAVIDSON: If anyone cares. That’s a really big question. Are all of our standards, our expectations of what makes somebody confirmable, what’s acceptable conflicts of interest moderation, have those been thrown out a little bit in this transition, in this election? For example—
DALEY: I didn’t mean to imply that they’ve been thrown out, at least during this transition. But there’s no question in my mind we set a new bar in this election, this campaign. Whether you want to say we took the bar up or took it down to the floor, the bar has been changed on a lot of things that we never thought we’d see in campaigns.
MCLARTY: Yeah, we’re in—we’re in uncharted waters. There’s no doubt about it. (Laughter.)
DALEY: That’s very kind. (Laughter.)
DAVIDSON: Do you recognize this transition process, the way we’ve seen the parade of people to Trump Tower, the very open acknowledgement of who the candidates are? Is that—is that—
MCLARTY: Certainly different. Josh, we talked about it earlier. Certainly different, I think, than the transitions that we were involved in. Whether it’s good or bad, that can be, I think, debated. But it’s certainly different.
BOLTEN: I like it. I think it’s refreshing.
Now, I came from an administration that held the names of people that were being considered very tightly, and it was basically a genuine secret until it was announced, each Cabinet announcement that President-elect Bush made at the end of 2000 and 2001. The Obama folks handled things a little bit differently. They also kept it secret, but then they would leak the name of the—of the likely nominee a day or two before they planned to announce it and see how things went, which was—(laughter)—a pretty smart way to do it, and I think everybody made it through.
But I like what the Trump people are doing in very publicly parading folks in and out of—
DAVIDSON: So we have a positive.
BOLTEN: Yeah. Well, I’m doing my best here, Amy. (Laughter.) But let me—but let me say why. You know, it’s—you know, Trump has promised to bring kind of a new feel to governance and to Washington. And if one of the new things that he brings is a greater sense of transparency and access, I’m all for it.
And there’s also—there’s also something about the Trump candidacy itself, about which many people were frightened, that it would be, you know, a narrow, non-inclusive range of people that would be giving advice to the—to the new president. And I think it’s—you know, even if they don’t pick some of these folks, I think it’s great that we’re seeing this diverse crowd—including Democrats; including Mitt Romney, who said such horrible things about Trump during the campaign, and Trump about him—I think it’s great that we’re seeing him going through the front door, being considered for secretary of state, even if he’s not appointed. I mean, it suggests to me that there’s an open-mindedness and a sensitivity to inclusiveness that was not evident to many people during the campaign.
DAVIDSON: Inclusiveness at the cost of there being, for example, a counterweight to Trump and his policies and his philosophy within the Republican Party, or without the Republican Party? I mean, you were very publicly a “NeverTrumper” for a long time. Do you have any reservations? People have probably—people have come to you asking about whether they should join the Trump administration. It’s a real question, I would imagine, for people: Do I stay outside and speak as loudly as I can about where I disagree, or do I sign on with an idea that I can influence policy when maybe all I am doing is making it look prettier?
BOLTEN: Well, that’s a lively debate among establishment Republicans, which I wasn’t aware I was—I was one. Apparently I am. And a lot of the people with whom I served in the Bush administration, especially some of the younger people whose time would be now to step into important positions of responsibility, and I’ve told every one of them that if they—if they feel that they can go into a position in the Trump administration without compromising major principle—
DAVIDSON: But can they?
BOLTEN: Yes, I think they can. You know, without compromising major principle, at least on a regular basis. You know, you go—(laughter)—well, you go into government and you always end up having to do things you disagree with. There’s no question about that, but you certainly don’t violate any moral principles. But I think people can go in and give this administration a chance, see how it goes. I think it’s their—these are public-spirited people. I think it’s their—it’s their duty to go in and serve and help make this administration the best it can possibly be. So I’m not ambiguous on that question for—you know, most of the people with whom I served in government strenuously opposed Donald Trump. I’d be thrilled to see most or all of them serving in the Trump administration.
MCLARTY: Amy, I think it will be interesting to see how President-elect Trump reaches out to the Democratic side, not only from a Cabinet post—as both President Clinton and President Obama did choose member of the Cabinet from other parties—but also from a legislative standpoint. How are you going to govern? How are you going to get things done in the legislature? Even with the Republicans having a majority in the House and the Senate, and the White House, you still are going to need votes from the Democratic Party to get much of your legislation passed.
DAVIDSON: Bill, do you want to speak to that?
DALEY: I would agree with Josh in the way he laid it out about helping the government, and I would say that to someone who came to me unless they were a real close friend, when I tell them exactly—(laughter).
DAVIDSON: I wonder if—(laughter)—
BOLTEN: I guess—I guess I’m not going to be encouraging Bill to join the—(laughter)—the administration.
DAVIDSON: I wonder if part of that conversation is talking to people honestly about how comfortable they feel with things like quitting, with things like leaking if they see that the Trump administration, for all the reasons that you opposed him, might go out of bounds on its own.
BOLTEN: Look, and I would say never leak, always be prepared to quit if you feel like the law or your moral principles are being violated. But that’s true whoever is president. And I say to my former colleagues: give these folks a chance.
You know, as a Republican, there—as an establishment Republican, there are some very exciting prospects to the current configuration of governance. We have a real chance to do serious tax reform that has evaded us for 30 years. It’s been literally 30 years since a major tax reform has successfully been done in this country. You know, there’s a chance to dial back on what we Republicans think is a lot of stifling regulation. There’s a chance to do infrastructure spending. I think there are remarkable—remarkably good things for the United States that can be accomplished in a Trump administration, but the administration needs good people to effect that good policy. And so that’s why I say without hesitation go in, see what you can do.
DAVIDSON: We have talked about inclusiveness so far in terms of bringing in other Republicans, maybe a Democrat or two. This has been a campaign in which actual bigotry has been on the table in a way that we’ve rarely seen. How crucial is it that this transition makes some gesture or shows something about the question that, for example, has been asked, like, what place Muslim Americans, black Americans, women have in Trump’s vision of America? Is that something that the transition—any transition can address?
DALEY: I think that burden is totally on the president’s shoulders. And so, you know, there would have to be—and I haven’t seen it yet, and I haven’t seen it speculated about—certain appointments that would convey that—the reaction to that. I think the challenge will be to him. And I think when you tweet about a play and actors in a play like that’s the real world—
DAVIDSON: Great play.
DALEY: —is kind of, to me, a little different.
DAVIDSON: We’re going to turn to questions from members in a second, but I just want to ask a really quick question to all of you. We’ve been so focused on the Cabinet positions. There are 4,000 jobs that have to be filled. Give us a tip for a non-Cabinet job that we should keep our eyes on, as somebody who’s crucial, who’s telling, who might say something about where this administration is headed, if you’ve got one.
MCLARTY: Well, we had talked earlier about the USTR, something Ambassador Hill knows a lot about. With trade being such a central issue in the campaign, both the head of USTR and how that lean organization is structured, I think that’s kind of a bellwether to how a President Trump will proceed regarding trade.
DALEY: Below the—I would have to think about it, frankly. Nothing comes to mind that would—now, having been a Cabinet person, most of the people under them do all the work. So they’re much more important than the person who becomes Cabinet secretary. So I can’t think of someone. But I agree with Mack. I think a real indication on the economic team won’t be so much the Treasury secretary as it will the USTR.
BOLTEN: Agree. And I’d also keep an eye on some of the other White House appointments, none of which require a confirmation, but all of which—at least at the assistant to the president level, of which there are about 15 positions that really count—at that level those are positions worth watching, because those are the people who will have an opportunity to speak to the president on an at least weekly if not daily basis.
DAVIDSON: Great. Let’s open up to questions. And if you say who you are and where you’re from. And why don’t we start.
Q: Julia Moore with Carlton Strategies.
Picking up on Amy’s last question, what about the appointment of the presidential science advisor? What kind of bellwether or signal will that tell of the incoming administration?
DAVIDSON: Obviously that also goes to the climate change issue. Who wants to take that?
MCLARTY: Well, I can only comment in the Clinton administration, the fact that Vice President Gore was so interested and knowledgeable about that subject, including climate change, but science innovation, research more generally. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of portfolio Vice President Pence takes on in this administration. It appears to be a pretty substantial one. May not be in the policy area as much as reaching out to the Hill and then taking over the transition, which Josh noted earlier. But I think people are going to be looking at how broad gauged a Trump administration is. But he, like every president, will have to prioritize coming in for the first 100 days, the first year. You can’t do everything at once, as much as you would like.
DAVIDSON: Either of you? Right there.
Q: Gary Horlick. I’m a lawyer here.
Josh said the magic word: confirmation. (Laughter.) I saw this from the congressional side, so I want to ask all three of you, with the Republicans controlling the Senate, how easy or hard a ride will nominees have through the Senate? I’m referring to Cabinet officers, not the longer trail.
DAVIDSON: You’re referring to Cabinet officers, but let’s throw in the Supreme Court nominees—
Q: No, no, no, please. (Laughter.) Let’s stay with the first—you can answer that question later.
MCLARTY: One at a time.
DALEY: It’s a whole nother world.
Q: About just the Cabinet officers. I include USTR in that.
DALEY: Well, I would assume he’ll have a fairly easy time. As I said earlier, generally one person kind of gets—and they’ll be grilled. There’ll be tough hearings for some people. I think Senator Sessions will get a tough hearing. I would be surprised, unless something comes up that we haven’t seen, that he’ll be—he’d be denied. But I think you could pretty much be assured. And I think—I think it’s a good thing that presidents get the call—if there’s a close call, should get the call to put his people into these spots, unless there’s some glaring issue. So I would be shocked if the vast, vast majority don’t go through really quickly.
DAVIDSON: Back there.
Q: Thank you. Oriana Skylar Mastro, Council on Foreign Relations.
You discussed whether or not you would advise friends, colleagues to serve in this government, serve this president. For those of us that are in the military, we’ll be serving this president regardless if we want to or not. And so, given that, my question is the advice that you potentially gave the presidents you served about that transition specifically to the role of commander in chief, and if there’s anything in the particular we should be looking for to see whether or not this president takes that responsibility seriously. Thank you.
DAVIDSON: That’s a great question, since we’ve have a whole series of presidents who’ve never served in the military.
MCLARTY: Yeah. Well, I’ll start it and let Bill and Josh give their thoughts.
First of all, thank you for our service to our country. Secondly, even though that 1992 campaign many, many years ago—it was the economy, stupid—had a real domestic focus, it becomes very clear the night before the inaugural when the football is passed, the nuclear codes and so forth, even well-before 9/11 has become, I think, even so much more paramount and right before us. But that’s the most sacred responsibility the president of the United States and commander in chief is the security of the American people. I think candidate Trump talked a lot about the military. He talked a lot about security. I would think that would be a high priority with him. I think he will engage pretty actively with the military. That’s certainly the signals he sent.
DAVIDSON: Do either of you want to add to that?
DAVIDSON: Let me just ask—following up on that—we’ve had discussion about things like the definition of torture. And we’ve heard before the election some thoughts that there might be moments when people in the military would refuse orders they viewed as unlawful. What’s your view on that, or your—any experience you might have had thinking about those questions? Josh, do you want to?
BOLTEN: Well, I think regardless of who the president is, it’s the responsibility of every person in uniform and all the civilian employees of the federal government, who now number combined about 4 million—so it’s a quite a large number—it’s the responsibility of every one of those people to question and satisfy themselves that the questions they’ve been giving—given are consistent with our laws and Constitution. And if they’re not, they should be disobeyed. That applies regardless of who you’re serving.
DAVIDSON: Back there.
Q: Matthew Goodman from CSIS.
We’ve talked a lot about personnel, but I wanted to ask about two other Ps that are part of this whole thing, which are policy and process. To what extent are policy shaped during the transition, as opposed to prior to or after the transition. And to what extent is process—you know, the White House relationships to agencies, interagency policy coordination mechanisms and so forth—discussed? And how much is that important to the performance of an administration?
DAVIDSON: Bill, do you, or?
MCLARTY: Well, Matt, you know the answers to that, your question. How are you?
Q: Great. (Laughter.)
MCLARTY: No, I think both are shaped during the transition, without question. I think the priorities are set in terms of policy. In terms of the process, certainly in our case the president’s relationship with the Cabinet was really established during the transition with decisions that were made and, frankly, how the chief of staff position was set up during that transition process with the Cabinet members. And we had very active Cabinet. Richard Neustadt, the historian, talked about the lull in effectiveness. I think that’s very, very critical, very essential. And all of that, I think, grew out of the transition. It will be very interesting to see how a President Trump organizes his Cabinet and what real authority that those Cabinet members have to implement policy.
DAVIDSON: We’ve heard sometimes—Elizabeth Warren has said lately personnel is policy. Do you think that’s why they happen at the same time, that when you’re picking your people you’re—
DALEY: Well, you’re sending a message, just as Josh was talking about. Romney coming in, if he was to be picked as secretary of state, that’s a very different sort of message and a policy, I would assume, or the stridency would be less likely to be implemented with a Secretary Romney as opposed to a Secretary Giuliani, maybe, or a Secretary Bolton—not this Bolten. (Laughter.)
DAVIDSON: Not that guy. Not that guy. (Laughter.)
DALEY: No relative.
DAVIDSON: Right here.
Q: Gene Procknow, Deloitte.
Donald Trump would be the first president elected without governmental experience. So as key leaders and key executives in previous administrations, what advice would you have for him for dealing with how to better manage our government?
DAVIDSON: And maybe to narrow that down, specifically what somebody who’s never be in government wouldn’t know.
DALEY: Know what you don’t know. (Laughter.)
MCLARTY: Yeah, no kidding.
DALEY: Know what you don’t know before you—lookit, I’m one who takes a different tack around—even though I’ve spent much of my career in the private sector—that this idea that a CEO is somehow therefore magically able to be a better president or has a unique talent—first of all, and I don’t mean this in a disparaging way, running a real estate company, a development company, is not like running General Motors, or JPMorgan, or some major institution with global and lots of thousands of people and management issues, and where you get the experience of actually managing a broad thing. So, you know, it’s a relatively small company. So I don’t think you can necessarily take those so-called talents into it.
But I think it’s a very difficult situation, when you go from a privately owned—held company, where what you say gets done, you know, period—you know, whether it’s right or wrong do it—and then you go to the government and say that and everybody goes, pfft, you know. (Laughter.) Or many people do, I should say. I don’t know. Anyway.
DAVIDSON: Does anybody else want to address that one? Or not?
MCLARTY: Well, I think Mr. Trump’s art of the deal will be tested in his congressional relations and deal making, number one. The only thing I would add, I think you raised a great question and Bill responded to it. I do think even though Donald Trump comes from the private sector, from business, he’s had an unusual amount of media experience, press experience. That was evident in the campaign. So he will much more comfortable in that environment than many other business leaders or CEOs would be. But the real—
DAVIDSON: Maybe a little comfortable? (Laughs.)
MCLARTY: Maybe too—maybe he enjoys it too much, yeah, possibly.
DALEY: Mack, could I raise a little bit of an argument—a difference, I should say, not an argument. Can you envision President-elect—President Trump having a, like, formal press conference in the East Room for an hour, hour and a half?
MCLARTY: That’s a long time. (Laughter.)
DALEY: So if it’s 140 characters, you’re right. That works. (Laughter.) But if in the traditional sort of—and now maybe tradition’s all out—but in the world that President Bush, President Clinton, President Obama, most modern presidents have deal with, you know, having that sort of access by the media, unfiltered—filtered to a degree—that’s hard to envision in this administration. Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s bad. I don’t know.
MCLARTY: We’ll see, seriously.
DAVIDSON: Back there.
Q: Harry Duggan (ph), World Bank.
I was wondering, especially for Chief Bolten, you were there when U.S. pulled out of the Kyoto Accords. How was that decision made? And how do you think a decision on Paris and UNFCCC will shake out this time?
BOLTEN: I can answer the first part. The second part I’d be speculating. But it goes back to Amy’s earlier question about—or, actually, it goes back to Matt Goodman’s question about policy and process formulation. In the case of the early Bush administration, the policy was set during the campaign. I was—I was the policy director of that campaign and I started my work in Austin, Texas in February of 1999, so almost two years before the inauguration itself. And we developed a very serious, broad, and deep policy agenda that toward the end of the campaign we ended up publishing into two books that totaled about 400 pages of President Bush’s speeches during the campaign and the fact sheets that backed them up.
So when we entered governance, we had a manual of what President Bush’s policies were. And so it wasn’t in the—it wasn’t in the transition, Matt, that the policy formulation was done. It was done over the course of the campaign. And I’m very proud of my association with that campaign, because that’s the way I think—at least, I believe that you would want—you would want the campaigns run. Now, how much attention people pay to that stuff, you know—
DAVIDSON: Do we think there’s a book like that for the Trump—
BOLTEN: No, there isn’t. But this was a different kind of campaign. And we had the blessing, I always say, in the case of the Bush campaign, which is that much of the American people suspected that George W. Bush was not bright. I knew different. The people who were close to him knew different. But we had a political imperative to prove it. And so it was a fantastic job to be in a campaign where we had to prove the policy bona fides of our candidates. The political strategists were on board with that. The candidate was on board with that. And we had a really substantive agenda when we came in.
So the answer to your question is, how was that decided? It was decided during the campaign that the United States would withdraw—would formally withdraw from the treaty that had been rejected by the Senate, I forget what the vote was, 90-something to—
BOLTEN: It was 90-something to one or two or three. And just sort of put a punctuation mark on that, and then go forward with an agenda to address environmental and climate issues.
How the Trump administration now goes forward with that, because Amy’s—you’re right in your question. This was not a detail-heavy, substantive campaign—candidly, on either side. Although Hillary Clinton is, you know, backed up with volumes of policy stuff she didn’t really campaign on that stuff. It didn’t seem to be what the American people were interested in hearing about. But they come in now with some sort of top line statements, and then have the challenge of figuring out how to implement those.
So in this case, Matt, the transition I think may be important to policy formulation. But I suspect that a lot of the policy formulation, it’s not going to be possible to accomplish without the personnel in place during this transition period. And many of the details in the Trump administration are going to be filled in in the early weeks of the presidency. And I think it’ll be a very interesting, hopefully productive, time in American politics and policy. But it all does remain to be seen.
Q: I’m curious—I’m Mitzi Wertheim with the Naval Postgraduate School.
I’m curious how you feel about Trump’s desire to have his children get security clearances so they can sit in on these policy meetings, that apparently they’re going to run his corporate interests, and the connections he have—he has overseas with corporate people, and they’re going to stay at the Trump Hotel and figure—I find it very disturbing, quite honestly. (Laughs.) I don’t know how other people feel about it. But somehow it doesn’t seem to me as if it’s right.
DAVIDSON: Who wants to start?
DALEY: Well, first of all, I think the Trump—the transition team has been very emphatic in saying no one has requested a security clearance for the children—for his children. So I think that was speculated about, not unrealistically considering the closeness of all of them. I think just the president-elect’s daughter sitting on the meeting with Abe is a different picture. Now, on the one hand, he obviously is very close to his children, and that’s great. But I think we’re in uncharted waters, having adult children who have a real business, and the closeness of it all. And they’re going to have to work that through, both from an appearance point of view and an honest conflict, that ends up possibly resulting in some sort of major issue. I assume that—I’d hate to be White House counsel, I tell you that. (Laughter.)
DAVIDSON: Is he—is he basically in the end going to have to choose between having his children around him and his children still being involved in the business? Is that what it’s going to come down to, if he wants them—does the whole family have to—have to divest in some way, or distance—take themselves out of the management of the company?
MCLARTY: Well, this is totally unprecedented. You just never really had this kind of dynamic with a large business enterprise, privately held, the children of those ages that have been active in the campaign, and how do you kind of square all that up? And particularly in this day of 24/7 news cycle? I think Bill’s got it right. I mean, I think you’ve got to put—you’ve got to really give this a lot of serious thought and somehow draw some lines and definition, or I think it will be potentially a serious and almost overwhelming issue, ongoing issue, with the American public. And I think you’re going to have to address it in a very careful, thoughtful, serious manner.
As far as his children being advisors, obviously Robert Kennedy is the example many of us think of. But that was a different time and place and legislation’s been passed since then—Josh had spoken earlier about then before George W. Bush was president he was an informal advisor to his father, but on the outside not on the inside. I think if Jared Kushner, for example, decided to take a White House position and leave the business interest, that that probably could be accommodated in one way or another. Those are just major issues that, in my view, must be addressed and resolved in a very serious manner.
Q: Walt Cutler, former U.S. Foreign Service.
Since we’re at the Council on Foreign Relations, focus on foreign policy. Over the course of years, the NSC has grown from a handful of people—I think it’s more than 400 now. It’s a big bureaucracy in the White House. How important is this in the terms of transition? And also, should this be coordinated with the selection of secretaries of state and defense and others?
DAVIDSON: That’s a great question. Josh, do you want to?
BOLTEN: Sure. Yeah, I think the NSC has gotten way too big. And I know that the agencies feel that way, because they feel like they’re being micromanaged, which is not what the White House ought to be for. The White House ought to be there to set the direction of policy, to tee-up issues for decision by the president, and to coordinate among agencies when they disagree, as they often—as they often do in the foreign policy area.
My own view is that that coordination—that coordination role, that role of teeing things up properly for the president is better accomplished with the smallest possible number of people, who are well-informed, who know each other, who understand the agencies with whom they’re interacting, and hopefully have a good relationship with those agencies because, I mean, there’s—you know, there’s thousands of important decisions made in government every day. Only a few of them deserve to be considered at the White House. And the White House ought to be focused on those things.
So my advice to the Trump transition would be, if you can manage it, if you figure out how to pry those folks out of there, reduce the size of the NSC and rely on—rely on the State Department, the Defense Department, the CIA all the more. By the way, those 400 people—having been the budget director I know, and having been chief of staff I know—that those 400 people don’t show up in the budget of the president. Every president wants to show that they are, you know, even tighter with the—you know, with the taxpayers’ dollar than the previous ones.
The Clinton folks did this. They announced that they were cutting the White House staff by, you know, 20 or 30 percent or something like that when they came in. What they actually did was they took a couple of agencies that had been considered part of the executive office of the president and they moved them out of the executive office of the president. You know, whammo, 100 people less turned out to be working for the White House. And the rest is you staff the NSC with detailees that you force the State Department and the Defense Department and everybody else to pay for. It’s a preposterous system. The White House ought to be staffed by the number of people the White House has the budget to pay.
MCLARTY: Do I get rebuttal time? Or, no, no, I’m kidding. (Laughter.) No, let me just one very quick add on to what Josh said. I think he’s got it right and I would agree with him on most of his points there. (Laughter.)
But I think, Walt, you make a very good point about the NSC. I would also say that the NEC or how economic policy, trade policy is going to be coordinated, there’s so much integration now between traditional foreign policy issues and international economic issues that they have to be carefully coordinated at the White House. But it really goes to how effectively are you going to use your Cabinet, and how much are you going to pull in the White House. I think that goes to much of Josh’s point.
DAVIDSON: Great. Let’s go to the back, where we haven’t really been before. Whoever’s at the very, very back.
BOLTEN: By the way, can I add a footnote that Mack has brought to mind with his wisdom? And that is to say that the National Economic Council and the Domestic Policy Council, which are the—you know, the counterparts supposedly of the NSC inside the White House, operate in each case with about one-tenth the staff that the NSC does.
DAVIDSON: Thank you.
Q: Yeah. Good evening. Stefan Grobe, Euronews, European television.
On this problem of a conflict of interest, isn’t that a ticking time bomb, if you think about it, the president operating one of his hotels out of a government building? He owes money to the Bank of China, to Deutsche Bank. And there are reports almost every day pointing to real problems. How damaging could that be, and how should he address this right now?
DAVIDSON: This is the financial transition now. I don’t know who wants to start with it. I would mention that The Wall Street Journal recommended that he liquidate everything.
MCLARTY: No thanks. (Laughter.)
DALEY: You know, he is president-elect. He’s not president yet. He’s got nine weeks to figure this out. They’ve got to figure something out. They cannot stand there at the Capitol and be sworn in and not have some game plan that will be implemented by then. It can’t be ignored. The world he’s in right now cannot exist after the 20th of January. So I think it’s a big problem, as we talked earlier. But I think they have got—whether it will be credible or whether you will think it’s credible or not, or the American people do—will be known to everyone how this is going to work.
DAVIDSON: I think we have time for one more quick question. Let’s take it right here.
Q: Thank you for being here. Christine Vargas, Control Risks.
With Sessions and Bannon in play, minority communities across this country are extremely concerned for their safety, whether they will be discriminated against, especially in the face of a laissez-faire attitude towards a lot of hate crimes, which are being very adequately tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In your opinion, with the way the country is going right now, what can we see in the future for both policy from Bannon and Sessions if they are confirmed—well, Sessions—as well as how do you think the country will react?
DAVIDSON: Who wants to start with that?
DALEY: (Laughs.) Mack, you want—or, I’ll start. I’ll answer it.
MCLARTY: Of course.
DALEY: Here’s my opinion. You know, we just have to wait and see. I mean, I hate to—you know, the president has said certain things about policy. And whether he’s able to implement them—whether it’s build a wall, deport 2 million people, or 20 million people, or have a registry or—not that he has said that. I apologize. He didn’t. Others have said it. You’ve got to see that develop. I don’t think we should assume—I think there—I think the republic will be fine. It will be different. And elections have consequences.
DAVIDSON: Is that one part of the—function of the confirmation process, the advise part? Is that where some of these—where you’re not just waiting and seeing, but really—you said Sessions would go through easily, but is this a moment for him to be pushed?
DALEY: The president’s been confirmed. It starts with him. He’s been confirmed.
MCLARTY: Well, you raise a very serious and topical question, for sure. And I think what you hear from Josh and Bill and me is basically let’s give the president-elect, whether we supported him or not, an opportunity to go forward with his policies and with his—with his Cabinet and his White House team and his people. Certainly President-elect Trump’s first comments, public comments after his election were positive and unifying. And I think the vast majority of this country has respect for the individual—dignity of each individual, a sense of fairness. And what’s called for now is to unify the country. And if the president-elect is—and the president is not successful in doing that, he will not have, in my view, a successful presidency.
DAVIDSON: Josh, you’ve got about five seconds to add to that.
BOLTEN: Yeah. I can say in five seconds that I don’t think I can improve on what Bill and Mack just said. (Laughter.)
DAVIDSON: All right. This has been really fascinating. And thank you all so much for taking part in this meeting. (Applause.)