Donald Trump’s transition team is taking zero chances with the president-elect’s Cabinet picks, assembling a “war room” to promote their strengths and fend off criticism before next month’s confirmation hearings.
The transition team has recruited dozens of Republican public relations veterans and policy experts to help sell the public and the Senate on Trump’s selections, according to sources close to the transition. Their task will be to convince Americans that the billionaires, generals, donors and CEOs chosen by the president-elect have the expertise to manage the federal government — even if they have no Washington experience.
“One of the things Americans wanted was a change election, so you have some unconventional candidates,” said a senior transition official.
Several of those candidates are expected to come under intense scrutiny for their policy views or potential conflicts of interest. While top transition officials say they’re confident that a Republican-controlled Senate will greenlight all of them, they’re taking pains to make the confirmation process as smooth as possible — and to shoot down problems quickly, especially after several early missteps
“With a couple of the nominees, they made sophomoric mistakes,” said a Republican Senate aide, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to anger the incoming administration. “Like [retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael] Flynn’s son being on the transition payroll, or [Steven] Mnuchin going on CNBC the day after he was nominated. They will have a harder time getting confirmed because of it.”
Now, with less than three weeks until the Senate begins holding confirmation hearings, the transition team is dramatically expanding its communications and political operation to guide nominees, with assistance from the Republican National Committee, volunteer public relations executives and The Heritage Foundation’s director of digital strategy.
“Given the insatiable appetite of the public and the media, I think the transition saw this as necessary,” one transition official said.
Sources close to the transition say officials are also concerned that, with minimal internal vetting, the federal government or Senate committees could be the first to uncover potentially embarrassing revelations about the nominees when they dig through tax returns or financial disclosure forms.
To handle potential problems, Matt Well, a partner at The Herald Group, a consulting firm, is standing up the war room, tasked with defending the nominees, conducting research and coordinating with the top decision-makers in New York, one transition team member said.
Rather than employ a single strategy to grease the wheels, the team’s approach will vary from individual to individual — each “is being viewed as its own special project,” said a GOP strategist close to the transition.
Every nominee has his or her own team of sherpas, or guides, to teach them about the inner workings of their agency, help prep them for confirmation hearings and guide them through the process of filing a mountain of paperwork, including financial disclosure forms and lengthy questionnaires from the Senate committees overseeing their nominations.
Since several of the nominees have never worked in the federal government, they face a particularly steep learning curve to get up to speed on the complexities of running a federal agency.
One of Dr. Ben Carson’s top aides acknowledged that challenge before the retired neurosurgeon was tapped to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Dr. Carson feels he has no government experience, he’s never run a federal agency,” the aide, Armstrong Williams, said last month. “The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency.”
The sherpas are in charge of bringing them up to speed: They’ll put together lists of questions they expect the nominees to get. Senators are notorious for using the hearings to press nominees on issues that are important in their home state — from the greater sage-grouse to the Army’s 4-25 Infantry Brigade Combat Team at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson in Alaska — but that might seem obscure to Washington novices.
They’ll also put the nominees through mock confirmation hearings, called murder boards, to help them avoid embarrassing gaffes.
Mnuchin, in particular, is expected to undergo multiple murder boards since Democrats are already targeting him because of his tenure at Goldman Sachs and his ownership of a mortgage company that foreclosed on thousands of homeowners during the recession.
Transition officials are also schooling Mnuchin in the finer points of Washington politesse, urging him to downplay his master-of-the-universe sensibility and act humbly and respectfully to senators, even if they ask tough questions.
The ramped-up transition team effort resembles a Who’s Who of Republican players in Washington: Newly appointed White House press secretary Sean Spicer is at the top of the communications pyramid, followed by other members of the New York-based media team, including Bryan Lanza, the former communications director for the conservative nonprofit Citizens United, and Republican National Committee spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.
The transition has also put together a D.C.-based communications team, which includes Danielle Hagen of the PR firm Nahigian Strategies.
The confirmation process is being overseen by Christine Ciccone, a lawyer who helped President George W. Bush get his Cabinet confirmed, and Eric Ueland, a veteran Republican Capitol Hill aide and top staffer on the Senate Budget Committee under Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Meanwhile, each nominee has been assigned a “media sherpa,” who has been tasked with managing negative stories about nominees, helping to sort out the logistics of meetings with senators and their staffs, and providing background information to reporters.
The media sherpas are working alongside the policy sherpas, who know the agencies the nominees are slated to lead and have deep connections with the Senate committees overseeing the confirmation.
Top transition officials are also meeting with Senate leadership to map out the confirmation process.
In some cases, in addition to the transition teams, outside advisers have stepped in to publicly defend the nominees. Friends and supporters of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for education secretary, for instance, have set up an informal coalition to push back on negative stories. The group’s spokesman Ed Patru, a vice president at DCI Group, sends regular emails to reporters touting DeVos’ record.
The goal of Trump’s transition team is to confirm several Cabinet members before Jan. 20 when he assumes office. But the timetable for securing confirmations is still fluid.
One D.C. lawyer who has spoken to government officials said the transition team has only just begun filing crucial financial disclosures, known as form 278E, to the U.S. Office of Government Ethics. The lawyer said the team is also lagging behind on nominees’ FBI background checks.
It can take weeks to process those forms, raising questions about how many nominees will be approved by the federal government by Jan. 20.
“There’s no way that they’re going to have more than a handful of people who are vetted by Inauguration Day,” the lawyer said, adding, “They’re not even going to get to a murder board unless they have the last share of IBM stock listed on [form] 278E.”
A transition spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on this story.