Pence Role as Transition Leader Hints at Insider Mix

Pence Role as Transition Leader Hints at Insider Mix
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Donald Trump campaigned as an outsider who would shake up Washington, D.C. But to lead and shape his administration, the president-elect is not shunning insiders deeply entrenched in the capital culture. 

Trump’s transition team will now be led by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, the president-elect’s office announced Friday, replacing New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Prior to serving as Indiana governor, Pence was a member of House Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, and he maintains close relationships with many GOP lawmakers in Washington. 

Joining Pence in the effort as vice-chairs will be a roster of familiar names from the campaign, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Dr. Ben Carson. The transition effort will also include an executive committee comprising Trump’s adult children, half a dozen members of Congress, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, and Trump’s campaign chairman, Steve Bannon.

Christie’s removal suggests an uneasiness with the New Jersey governor, whose popularity and reputation have taken a hit after the conviction of two former allies in the “Bridge-gate” scandal.

“President-elect Trump will bring about fundamental change in Washington,” Pence said in a statement, “and these are the right people to make that happen.”

If the transition team represents a mix of old hands and new blood, many of the people being discussed to fill key Cabinet and staff positions boast résumés heavy on inside-the-Beltway experience. 

Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has been floated to lead the Department of Homeland Security, a source told RealClearPolitics. Sessions, a two-decade Hill veteran, and Gingrich are said to be leading candidates for other Cabinet posts. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, is in the running for Treasury secretary, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

For Trump, selecting his Cabinet and his White House team presents a unique challenge. As a first-time elected official, now elevated to the country’s highest office, he would benefit from advisers with broad networks and a sense of how the government operates. But Trump also ran his campaign as an outsider, promising to “drain the swamp” of career government officials. 

“I think the trick for him as he builds his White House team or Cabinet team is to have a mix,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary in the George W. Bush White House, who also worked on Bush’s transition team. “But I think he needs to make sure … to have more outsiders than insiders.” 

The tension between Washington experience and outsider credentials is playing out also in Trump’s pick for his White House chief of staff. Reports suggest leading candidates for the influential role include two very different men: Priebus, a committed GOP team player with deep connections in Washington, and Bannon, a populist flamethrower who joined Trump’s team from Breitbart News.

The chief of staff role, said Fleischer, is “a job where I think you do want to have somebody who understands Washington.” 

“You have to understand Washington to change it,” he continued. “You can’t antagonize the people you need to carry out your agenda on the Hill.”

Priebus might best fit this description, given his deep familiarity with Washington’s corridors of power and his relationships with Republican lawmakers. Bannon surely understands Washington also, but, as someone who has sought to undermine GOP leaders, his selection as chief of staff could signal a confrontational approach by Trump’s administration.  

Indeed, decisions made during the transition to a new presidency can be used to telegraph the priorities and the tone of a new administration. During the transition to George W. Bush’s presidency, the first Cabinet pick announced was Colin Powell as secretary of state — a move intended to showcase the incoming administration’s focus on diversity. 

The order in which the selection process unfolds is also important, signaling what issues will be central the president-elect’s agenda. 

An added question for Trump and his team will be whether to include Republicans who did not support him during the campaign. 

“I would like to see him bring people in from other parts of the party that weren’t necessarily supportive of him,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who did not back the nominee. “That would send a message that this is bigger than the campaign.”

Indeed, some preliminary discussions suggest Trump’s transition team is open to the idea of a “team of rivals.”

Two members of the transition effort reached out this week to Joshua Claybourn, an Indiana attorney who forfeited his slot as a delegate at the GOP convention in protest of Trump’s nomination. The Trump aides sought to gauge Claybourn’s interest in a legal role in the administration, Claybourn said, suggesting his involvement would be “good for unity.”

“My concerns I voiced in the spring remain,” he added, “but I am first and foremost a patriot, and if I felt there was an opportunity to help the country in a time of significant uncertainty and need, I would have to give it a serious look.”

Still, some measure of buy-in is essential, particularly among those advisers who will be in closest proximity to the president. President George H.W. Bush did not stack his White House with like-minded loyalists, also incorporating dissenters -- “people in the Cabinet who fought for their views as opposed to the boss’s views,” said Fleischer. That decision, he said, was a "big mistake."

“Loyalty to Trump is first and foremost important,” Fleischer added. “He needs to have people around him who know what makes him tick and supports his views.”

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at


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