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Officials Start Planning For The Next Presidential Transition

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The 2020 election is now a little more than five months away. And while it may seem too early to prepare for a presidential transition, that is exactly what is happening behind the scenes. Both the Trump administration and staffers for the presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden have begun to prepare, no matter the outcome of the November election. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: In a famous scene in the 1972 movie "The Candidate," the character played by Robert Redford has surprised himself and everyone else by winning a Senate race. On election night, he turns to his campaign manager and asks...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CANDIDATE")

ROBERT REDFORD: (As Bill McKay) What do we do now?

NAYLOR: Chris Lu was Barack Obama's transition director in the 2008 presidential campaign.

CHRIS LU: We did not want to be declaring victory on election night in 2008 and not know what the next step was. And it's one of the reasons we started planning so early.

NAYLOR: Lu says the process was a bit different then.

LU: When we organized our transition in 2008, that was during a much different time where transitions were largely done under the radar. It was considered unseemly to plan a transition. It was considered measuring the drapes. Now, previous presidential candidates had all planned transitions, but it wasn't done openly.

NAYLOR: But now it is. Since 2008, Congress has approved laws formalizing the process and ensuring there is a buy-in by the two major candidates, even at this stage of the campaign. And no, it's not too early, according to David Marchick, who directs the Center for Presidential Transition.

DAVID MARCHICK: A transition project is a huge, huge undertaking whether President Trump wins reelection or whether Vice President Biden wins. If Biden wins, he'll need to appoint 4,000 people, 1,200 of whom need to get confirmed. If President Trump wins reelection, history shows that almost half of the officials in office at the second inauguration leave within six months.

NAYLOR: Earlier this month, as required, Marchick says, the Trump administration named a coordinating council led by new chief of staff Mark Meadows that's supposed to organize the White House's transition efforts and deal with the Biden campaign. The Office of Management and Budget sent a note to agencies, telling them to get ready. Former Vice President Biden has told supporters that his campaign is making plans, too.

Part of the reason for all of the advance work is that a transition is a vulnerable time for government. Martha Joynt Kumar, who heads the White House Transition Project, says that lesson was learned in 2001.

MARTHA JOYNT KUMAR: There were many vacancies in positions in the whole national security area when the attacks occurred on September 11. So they wanted to move up the preparations so that the president-elect has a group of people that have already gotten their security clearances and are ready to go.

NAYLOR: And the unique circumstances of this year's coronavirus pandemic, she says, raises its own set of issues.

JOYNT KUMAR: There is a possibility of a second wave, and that second wave could be occurring around the time of an election. So there's a lot of thought that has to go into it and the preparation even of the office space.

NAYLOR: It's even possible, says David Marchick, that the pandemic may necessitate a virtual transition this year, on top of everything else.

MARCHICK: Today we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression. We add to that a health crisis. We're in a highly polarized political environment.

NAYLOR: Marchick says the combination may make this transition the most consequential since 1932.

Brian Naylor, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.