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Donald Trump's Transition Team Hits Major Speed Bumps

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President-elect Donald Trump's transition team has been characterized by drama, staffing changes and rumors. Members are making very little information public, but their task is well-known. The team is trying to figure out how to run the country beginning in roughly two months. NPR's Scott Detrow reports on the challenges facing the team.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Even under the very best circumstances, planning a presidential transition is a very hard job.

MAX STIER: Our federal government is the most important, complicated organization not just on the planet but in history.

DETROW: Max Stier spends a lot of time thinking about this. He's the head of the Partnership for Public Service which runs the Center for Presidential Transition. He and other staffers study transitions and offer tips to presidential campaigns.

STIER: You've got $4 trillion budget, 4 million people when you count the military, the postal service, the career civil servants. And you have really over 4,000 political appointees that the new president has to make.

DETROW: The center recommends months of planning before Election Day so that teams can be in place and big-picture goals can be figured out in order to get ready for January 20. What they recommend looks a lot different than what's happening right now with the Trump transition. Take one example - the role of lobbyists. Trump ran as an outsider, promising to basically blow Washington up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: When we win tomorrow, we are going to drain the swamp.

(CHEERING)

DETROW: He promised broad bans on government officials turning into lobbyists. But as Lesley Stahl pointed out to Trump when she interviewed him on "60 Minutes..."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")

LESLEY STAHL: Your own transition team is filled with lobbyists.

TRUMP: It's the only people you have down there.

STAHL: You have lobbyists from Verizon.

TRUMP: Can I...

STAHL: You have lobbyists from the oil, gas industry...

TRUMP: Sure.

STAHL: ...have food lobby.

TRUMP: Everybody's a lobbyist down there. That's...

DETROW: But since that interview, there's been another shift. Trump spokesman Jason Miller says Vice President-elect Mike Pence, chair of the transition, is suddenly dismissing many of those lobbyists from the team.

JASON MILLER: When we talk about draining the swamp, this is one of the first steps. And so the bottom line is we're going to get the transition to where we need it to be.

MILLER: The embrace and then rejection of lobbyists is part of a broader staff shakeup. Up until last week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was running the transition. When he got booted from that role and Pence took over, it put a lot of things on hold.

Among other snags, Pence had to resign paperwork that was in Christie's name which allows the Obama administration to share sensitive but necessary information with the transition team. Now many federal agencies are basically sitting around, waiting for the Trump transition to get in touch and begin learning the ropes.

JIM STEINBERG: They'll need to recover quickly.

DETROW: Jim Steinberg worked on President Obama's transition. He says people should view the success or failure of a transition by how things look on January 20, not on an hour-by-hour basis.

STEINBERG: I think it's appropriate for people to have some anxiety and concern about this, but I think we need to make the judgments based on real decisions and not just on the rumors of decisions.

DETROW: One way to calm rumors might be for the president-elect to hold a press conference or make a public appearance. So far, he hasn't done that other than a couple of interviews and a brief trip to Washington.

One thing Trump has done - send several tweets mostly criticizing the media or rehashing election results. That doesn't comfort Democrat Bill Burton, who worked for Obama from the campaign through the White House.

BILL BURTON: President-elect Trump is doing his best to be a statesman and to calm his demeanor, but the truth is he has no impulse control, and he's demonstrated that time and time again.

DETROW: True to form, Trump also seems to be building suspense for a big dramatic reveal. Last night, Trump tweeted this. Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions; I am the only one who knows who the finalists are. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.