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What is the presidential transition process?

By Cora Martin | December 18, 2020

A new publication from the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition outlines the key roles that presidents-elect, transition teams, outgoing administrations and federal agencies play in the presidential transition process.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing legal disputes over the election results make this a unique transition, certain laws and customs guide how new administrations prepare to take office and will continue to do so in the run-up to the 2021 inauguration.

The president engages the president-elect

The outgoing president has historically hosted the president-elect at the White House within a week after the election. The president and first lady welcome their successors for a tour of the White House and for private discussions in the Oval Office.

Ronald Reagan began the tradition of leaving a handwritten note in the Oval Office for the next president. The custom was cemented by George H.W. Bush, who left a courteous note for incoming President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Agency review teams collect information

The president-elect’s transition team typically tells the sitting administration who will conduct agency review just days after the election. Agency review teams gather information about agency operations, flag critical issues and inform early policy and personnel decisions. After the current administration has prepared agencies for the review process, they prepare to welcome and share information with the agency review teams.

In 2016, then President-elect Trump’s transition team sent 328 agency review personnel to visit 42 government agencies. During the 2008 Obama-Biden transition, 349 agency review personnel visited 62 government agencies.

The GSA ascertains a winner

Pre-election transition activities continue until the General Services Administration officially declares the winner of the presidential election through what is known as ascertainment. On November 23, GSA ascertained President-elect Biden as the winner of the 2020 election. Ascertainment then triggers a number of critical transition activities: the transition team receives a budget of $6.3 million for transition staff salaries and federal office space, agency review begins, the White House hosts homeland security and emergency preparedness exercises and the National Archives and Record Administration offers guidance to both administrations on preserving presidential records.

If the GSA delays ascertainment, which happened this year, the president can still initiate certain transition activities. The disputed presidential election of 2000, for example, delayed the GSA administrator’s ability to ascertain a winner. As a result, President Clinton agreed to provide classified intelligence briefings to then Governor George W. Bush two weeks before the GSA administrator, David J. Barram, officially recognized the election results.

The outgoing administration debriefs the president-elect and his transition team

The Presidential Transition Act requires the outgoing administration to provide the president-elect with a classified summary of the nation’s national security threats and major military or covert operations.

Most presidents-elect receive daily or near-daily intelligence briefings during the transition period. President George W. Bush personally briefed President-elect Obama on covert programs, and during the 2016 transition, National Security Advisor Susan Rice spent more than 12 hours personally briefing her designated successor, Michael Flynn.

The law also requires outgoing administrations to host interagency emergency preparedness and response exercises. In 2017, for example, the Obama administration and Trump transition team simulated an emergency response scenario involving a hypothetical global pandemic that had emerged in Asia and spread to the United States.

To learn more about the presidential transition process and how new presidents prepare to take office, visit the Center for Presidential Transition website.

Cora Martin is a former intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.