On the day of the Capitol insurrection, January 6, 2021, Chris Liddell, then President Donald Trump’s deputy chief of staff, came within a hair’s breadth of resigning.
At the time, I was serving as the director of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition. My team and I had spent the past year and a half working with Democratic presidential candidates and the Trump White House to ensure that the 2020 transition to either a new Democratic administration or a second Trump term went smoothly. As part of that work, I had been working closely with Chris.
Chris, now 64, had perhaps the worst job in Washington—planning the departure transition for a president who neither wanted to leave nor accepted the election results. Chris had other important responsibilities: He served as deputy chief of staff for policy and led the planning for a potential Trump second term. But this component of his job—planning for Trump’s exit and facilitating Joe Biden’s entrance—would test Chris’s skill, grit, and ethical core.
Presidential transitions are incredibly complicated endeavors in the best of circumstances. A president transitioning from one term to the next must navigate personnel turnover, a new political environment, and battle inertia after an exhausting campaign. A new president’s transition is even more challenging. Their team must rapidly familiarize itself with the massive federal government and be prepared to steer it in a direction that delivers on the president-elect’s promises. It needs to draw up legally viable executive orders, a management agenda, a budget proposal, a wish list of federal legislation, and a strategy for communicating with the federal workforce, political appointees, Congress, the media, and the American people. The president-elect must also appoint the senior White House staff, the cabinet, and the senior leadership of all the major agencies, before turning to a vast number of other presidential appointments—some 4,000 in all.
While the president-elect’s team bears much of the responsibility for the transition, cooperation from the outgoing team is essential. Without the incumbent’s goodwill, an incoming team can face endless roadblocks. Thankfully, the modern American presidential transition has become increasingly cooperative and nonpartisan, something Chris was well positioned to appreciate. As the former chief financial officer of Microsoft and General Motors, the New Zealander had seen his fair share of corporate transitions. He knew how to plan, execute, and present good and bad news to the boss. He was well versed in politics, too. In 2012, he had played an integral part in planning Mitt Romney’s presidential transition, supporting former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, the transition lead. While the Romney and Barack Obama teams hardly became fast friends, when it came to the transition, the governor and the president recognized their shared responsibility to ensure that whoever was in the Oval Office on January 20, 2013, would be prepared to lead. Obama won election to a second term, of course, so the Romney transition to the presidency never sailed. But Chris and Mike Leavitt felt that their transition planning was so important that they published a book creating a template for future transitions. Leavitt, not only a governor but also twice a cabinet secretary, felt that his presidential transition planning was the most challenging and exhilarating work he had ever done.
On January 6, Chris was one of the many people leaving me voicemails and texts. With protestors violently storming the Capitol, attacking Capitol Police, threatening members of Congress, and announcing their intention to “Hang Mike Pence,” Chris struggled with continuing to work in the White House. He would resign, he said. While his impulse was understandable, I, along with a mutual friend, former George W. Bush Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, encouraged him to stay. Whether to stay or go had daunted many Trump staffers and appointees throughout the presidency. The question is often whether things would be worse if you resigned. Would your replacement be unwilling to draw lines with a norm-busting president?
My work with Chris had begun a year earlier, in January 2020, when Josh and I had eggs and sausages with him in the White House mess. The focus of our morning discussion was planning Trump’s second term. A second-term chief of staff for “W.,” Josh noted that few presidents took planning for a potential second term seriously. He advised Chris to approach year four of the Trump presidency like a transition. A second-term president deserves fresh eyes and fresh legs, Josh said, and turnover is not only likely but can be reviving for an administration entering its second term.
That was the easy part of the conversation. Josh, a seasoned, savvy, and measured Washington professional, was used to raising difficult questions. Near the end of our breakfast, Josh turned to Chris and asked him what he was planning in case Trump lost. Chris paused, looked down at his empty plate, and said, “I guess I need to figure that out.”
That breakfast began a series of meetings, walks, phone calls, and late-night texts with Chris, often in collaboration with Josh. One night in September 2020, the two men joined me for a socially distanced dinner in my backyard. When a monsoon-like summer rainstorm overtook dinner, we moved to my garage, where, for three hours, we discussed five possible Election Day scenarios: a blowout win for Biden or Trump; a narrow win for either candidate; or a truly unclear result. Chris’s “nightmare” was a Biden win that Trump refused to recognize. As we know, that nightmare came true.
During the lead-up to 2020—before Election Day—Chris effectively coordinated the administration’s transition efforts. But after the election, when Trump started objecting to the results, all of Chris’s work was put on hold. Like many frustrated White House lawyers and political appointees, Chris had no control over Trump’s cadres, such as Rudy Giuliani and Mike Flynn, seeking to undermine the results. Chris, who trained as an engineer, could keep planning the transition to make sure it went smoothly even if the president determined that there would be no transition at all. But for weeks after the election, until the formal transition was green-lighted, his hands were tied.
Along with his trusted aide Nick Butterfield, a former aide to Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, Chris organized the White House Transition Coordinating Council—a body essential to any smooth handover of power—and authorized the creation of the Agency Transition Directors Council (actually two multi-agency committees), which helped ensure that transition preparation across the government proceeded smoothly. Chris also reviewed and approved regular reports to Congress and provided detailed guidance to agencies on preparing briefing materials and succession plans.
No transition can be successful without this basic preparation by the incumbent. Many of these actions are mandated by the Presidential Transition Act of 1963 and other legislation. If Trump had understood the details of this work, Chris would surely have been in the White House’s doghouse or worse, regardless of the legislative or constitutional requirements. He had to both do his job and somehow avoid raising the ire of a president who could derail his critical work.
With the acknowledgment and acquiescence of the Biden team, Chris, Josh, and I developed a strategy: First, keep preelection transition planning low-profile, out of the press; second, embrace the career staff—which Chris did, speaking directly to the federal transition coordinator, Mary Gibert, the lead civil servant preparing for the possibility of an outgoing transition, instead of through myriad layers of political appointees; and, above all, keep the transition out of the Oval Office. In this way, we hoped to create space for Chris to do his crucial work quietly.
Unintentionally, I almost blew it, undermining the strategy. I had briefed the press many times—all off the record—that preelection transition planning by the Trump White House was going well and by the book—a statement of fact. On September 23, Nancy Cook, then the chief White House correspondent for Politico, called me for a story on the White House transition and how effective it was. Would I comment on Chris’s role? I demurred to consult Chris and the Biden team. They said it would be helpful. So, speaking on the record, I told Nancy that Chris and his team were “very, very focused on implementing the law and doing it by the book, and they are doing a good job.”
The next day, Politico’s story, “Trump Team Plots His Departure—Even If He Won’t,” made my stomach churn. Jeff Peck, a longtime friend and a senior Biden transition adviser, inadvertently copied me on an email to a large group of top Biden officials. “Marchick knows better than this,” Jeff wrote. That email stung, but he was right. Even with Biden team members giving my talk with Nancy a thumbs-up, I should have anticipated the fallout from highlighting the transition and praising Chris—a tip of the hat that could also infuriate the president. I texted Chris to see if he still had a job. With his classic dry humor, he told me, “I think I will just avoid the Oval Office for a few days.” The story, however, was accurate: Preelection transition planning was the most organized and efficient part of the White House. Chris had done an excellent job.
Despite Chris’s good planning, however, we knew well before January 6 that a Biden transition to the presidency wouldn’t be smooth. Soon after the election, Emily Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration, refused to “ascertain” the “apparent outcome” of the election. Key elements of the transition depended on this determination from the GSA. Without Murphy’s say-so, the Biden team was unable to receive critical national security briefings or stay abreast of the federal response to COVID-19. Indeed, COVID peaked during the transition, with 172,000 Americans dying between Election Day and the inauguration. Fortunately, the Biden transition had anticipated such a delay and prepared for it.
Much of the credit goes to Senator Ted Kaufman, the most prepared transition leader in American history. A longtime Biden adviser appointed to fill Biden’s Senate seat in 2009, Kaufman had extensive transition experience, representing Biden during the Obama-Biden transition and advising subsequent efforts. In 2012, an amendment to the Presidential Transition Act was named in honor of Kaufman and Mike Leavitt. In the lead-up to the 2020 transition, Kaufman built a talented team, hiring, among others, Jeff Zients, former head of the Office of Management and Budget and the National Economic Council, as transition chief. He’d go on to lead the federal efforts to distribute COVID vaccines. There was also Yohannes Abraham, a Harvard MBA and Obama administration alumnus, as executive director. Together, the team reviewed prior transition efforts, built the largest-ever transition apparatus, and developed strategies to mitigate the challenges posed by the pandemic and the Trump administration’s potential refusal to cooperate. While Murphy’s decision to delay the transition was damaging, the Biden team’s skill helped blunt some of its worst effects.
When Murphy relented on November 23, Chris faced another monumental challenge: carrying out a transition on a compressed schedule and corralling the federal agencies to cooperate with the Biden team. Most agencies did, but some simply refused. The holdouts included the Office of the United States Trade Representative and, scarily from a national security standpoint, the Department of Defense.
Even as Trump fought to stave off the election results and remain in office, Chris kept plugging away at the work of keeping the transition running. And he kept his watch through January 6—surely the bleakest day in modern transition history.
When I interviewed Chris on the Partnership for Public Service’s podcast on January 19, 2021, Trump’s last full day, he reflected on his preparations and challenges, finally seeming relieved as the end approached. The next morning, Trump left the White House as the only president impeached twice, and with a lower average favorability rating than any modern president—even Richard Nixon was more popular when he left the White House for San Clemente following his 1974 resignation. Trump has never recognized the election outcome, of course. He never met with or congratulated the president-elect, and—for the first time since the departure of another disgraced president, Andrew Johnson—a president refused to attend his successor’s inauguration.
History will judge the roles of those close to Trump, and when it does, Chris should be applauded for staying. He tried to create order amid chaos and pushed for the faithful implementation of the Presidential Transition Act. He was the direct liaison with the Biden team once the formal transition began. As chaotic and dangerous as the roughly 75 days between the election and the inauguration were, I shudder to think what would have happened had Chris not been there.
There is no guarantee, however, that there will always be a Chris Liddell in the White House. To protect the democratic process, Congress must reform the rules governing presidential transitions. It should clarify the standard for “ascertainment,” or formal launch of the transition; make fewer transition services dependent on the ascertainment decision; and start the formal transition process even earlier. It should also transfer authority from political appointees to career officials to further depoliticize transitions, require the outgoing administration to cooperate with its successor on budget issues, and mandate that the incumbent share more intelligence with the president-elect and their team.
These technical fixes, however, are only of limited use. A determined president will try to subvert and manipulate even the most well-designed guardrails. Ultimately, the fate of our democracy rests on the American people’s commitment to its fundamental principles, and their willingness to defend those principles at the ballot box.
Author: David Marchick