WASHINGTON: Whoever is elected the next president of the United States must stand ready for crisis to strike “at 12:01 on January 20th,” the Secretary of the Navy warned today, lest America’s adversaries see a window of opportunity. What Ray Mabus and his fellow service secretaries didn’t say, at least out loud, speaks volumes. With Russia meddling in what’s already the most contentious presidential election since the “hanging chad” fiasco of fall 2000, a smooth transition may be harder than ever.
Mabus, the senior service secretary with an unprecedented eight years in office, spoke this morning at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel alongside Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James (three years) and Army Secretary Eric Fanning (six months with the Army but other senior service since 2009) — an extraordinary trifecta of luminaries. Hosting them was Center for a New American Security co-founder Michèle Flournoy, whose name remains the most bruited-about for Hilary Clinton’s Defense Secretary.
“As Michèle knows better than anyone here,” Mabus said, “there can’t be a seam. There’s no luxury of having a couple of days after the inaugural to figure things out….You’ve got to be ready at 12:01 on January 20th to meet whatever comes.”
Limited transition preparations have already begun, the three secretaries emphasized, but work kicks off in earnest when the votes are counted November 9 — assuming the loser concedes — and the candidates can think beyond campaigning.
At this stage, said James, “it’s a centralized effort. Each of us has thoughts about what the next team needs to know about, and so at the moment all of that is being given over to the Office of the Secretary of Defense…. OSD is running this effort, gathering up these papers and documents” for the transition teams.
“Debbie and I were both in the (Bill) Clinton administration the first day,” Fanning said. “There are really two phases to transition. There’s a whole bunch of work that’s taking place now, where you gather up documents, information….but it kicks into high gear the day after the election, when teams actually show up, in our case, at the Pentagon.” Senior officials are already clearing their calendars to be available, he said.
All three service secretaries emphasized they’ll still have their day jobs to do Nov. 9. “I don’t want to say it’s a day like any other day… because we’ll know — I hope we’ll know, — who our next president will be,” said James. “I’ll get up, and I’ll come to work on November 9th, and of course we’ll all discuss the returns, but…there’s still work to be done.”
James expects to spend a lot of her time that month working with the lame-duck Congress on pending policy and spending bills, which should have been (but seemingly never are) passed before the federal fiscal year began October 1st. Currently, the government is limping along under a stop-gap Continuing Resolution. James and her colleagues will also keep laboring on the Pentagon budget request for 2018. Since the new administration takes office in January, the new budget may well get reworked, although a Clinton administration may not make substantial shifts to Pentagon spending, depending on how many senior officials are replaced.
“To mix sports metaphors, ‘don’t take your eye off the ball’ and ‘run through the tape,'” Mabus said. “It’s not over until the day you walk out.”
While a Trump administration might not want to keep “losers” on the payroll, it might need to, given Trump’s thin bench of seasoned policy apparatchiks. And either potential president would struggle to get their appointments through the Senate.
That uncertainty is something Eric Fanning knows intimately after an agonizing confirmation process, during which he was forced to stop serving as Acting Secretary over what might be considered either a technicality or a crucial constitutional principle. “Based on my own — uh — confirmation experiences, we have no way of knowing how long it’s going to be until the new team’s in place,” Fanning said to rueful laughter.
In the slightly longer run, James stressed, the next administration must conduct reviews of global strategy, nuclear posture, major modernization programs, and ongoing personnel reforms such as Secretary Ash Carter’s force of the future. All three secretaries talked about the usual suspects as their top concerns: a resurgent Russia, proliferating drones, cyber warfare. But arguably the biggest challenge is at home.
“Something I didn’t understand quite as well as I might have going in (was) just how difficult it is now getting things done in Washington,” James said. “We’re in a very divisive situation, especially around sequestration, continuing resolutions…. We have to get back to the art of compromise in this town.”