By Tevi Troy
President-elect Trump is lucky that he has a transition already in motion. The Presidential Transitions Act of 2010 first allowed for post-nomination, preelection government-funded transitions, and Trump is the first nonincumbent candidate to win since that time. He will be happy to have had the head start, as the postelection transition period is a brief one, and does not give incoming administrations time to do everything they need to do.
Historically, transitions are about staffing administrations with loyalists and giving marching orders to incoming cabinet secretaries and their teams. One thing that transitions do not spend enough time on is preparing for the unexpected. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama were hit with unexpected events their first year in office.
Bush famously had to deal with the 9/11 attacks. He had campaigned as a domestic policy candidate and was not seen as someone overly concerned with foreign affairs. The so-called Gorelick wall prevented the FBI and CIA from sharing information about domestic threats. When the attacks happened, the administration appeared unsure of where the president should go if Washington was hit, or what the president should say in case of a terror attack. Bush's press secretary Ari Fleisher held up a handwritten sign for Bush before he spoke to reporters, cautioning him, "Don't say anything yet."
Newly inaugurated President Obama had to deal with the March 2009 swine flu outbreak, which occurred before a single Obama appointee at the Department of Health and Human Services had been confirmed. Obama was fortunate that the Bush administration had developed an avian flu plan, which the Obama team used and adapted to face the swine flu. Most of the career officials at HHS did fine in response to the crisis, but not everyone handled it so successfully. Vice President Biden, who had government but not executive branch experience, made an error when he said on the Today show that he "would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now."
This was the wrong kind of message to convey at that moment, and may have stemmed from the fact that a rookie vice president had not yet had experience talking to the nation at a time of crisis. Obama also had to deal with Somali pirates taking an American ship captive. A frustrated Obama said to his staff, "Who thought we were going to have to deal with pirates?"
The two most recent presidents are far from the only ones to face first-year surprises: Even though Herbert Hoover had experience dealing with emergencies such as food shortages in Europe after World War I and the 1927 Mississippi flood, he was unprepared for his crisis - the 1929 stock market crash that shattered his presidency and signaled the start of the Great Depression. John F. Kennedy had the Bay of Pigs in his first year; and Richard Nixon had to deal with Hurricane Camille - which killed 259 people - in 1969.
All of these crises tested the new presidents, and more experience and advance preparation would have been welcome.
Because of these recurring first-year challenges, transitions in general and the ongoing Trump transition in particular should make sure to have a "black swan" team devoted to how the new president should respond in a crisis. This team can think through possible crises a new president is likely to face and figure out which officials would likely be involved in crisis response. The team could also set up a tabletop exercise so that incoming officials who would likely be tasked with disaster response could meet each other, learn their respective roles and responsibilities, and get drilled on the basics of crisis communication at the federal level.
We cannot know what crises our incoming president and his team will face, but it is a certainty that they are coming. In this precious transition period, a black-swan team can make sure that the senior officials the country is counting on in a crisis are ready to respond.