Effective Democratic Transfers of Executive Power

Nov.1-2, Montreal, QC, Canada
Along with partners at the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, and the Trudeau Foundation, WHTP convened representatives from 22 countries interested in transitions. The two day event brought together party leaders, ngos, current and former government officials, former chief executives and prime ministers from a range of countries from those with long experience with peaceful transfers to countries just transitioning into their first democratic administration.
From the program:
Smooth executive transitions are critical to a country’s continued democratic development, particularly in countries with limited traditions of democratic power, or weak legal frameworks governing these transitions. The symposium aims to achieve the following objectives:

  1. build an international network of professionals who have managed or supported transitions, and who are willing to share their expertise internationally; and
  2. progress in developing an agreed set of international principles regarding the duties and responsibilities of the outgoing administration, the incoming administration, and the civil service, including basic principles and model legal frameworks governing transfers of power, in both presidential and parliamentary systems.

WHTP Basic Transition Services

Since 1997, the White House Transition Project has interviewed a wide range of Assistants to the President about the best ways to carry out the president’s transition to governing. These interviews and the briefing materials from these interviews, compiled by scholars who specialize in the various operations of a White House, provide a guide for the new presidential team based on the experiences of those who have borne the burdens of White House duty.

WHTP’s Original Research (both policy studies and scholarly articles) on Staff Turnover, Press Relations, Appointments, and White House Routine

Current WHTP Studies on White House Staff Turnover

One of the basic principles WHTP emphasizes underscores the stresses uniquely associated with White House work life. See Martha Joynt Kumar’s reports on staff life found in Martha Joynt Kumar and Terry Sullivan’s transition book, White House World. Her latest research project documents turnover among senior White House staff. Here are some of the take-aways:

  • President Trump has the highest turnover of top-tier staff of any recent president at the 17 month mark. The figures for losses at the Assistant to the President level at 17 months are: Trump 61%; Obama 14%; George W. Bush 5%; Clinton 42%; George H. W. Bush 19%; Reagan 29%.
  • As of June 20, 2018, among the designated highest level staff, there are 19 of the original 31 Assistants to the President or the equivalent who have left or publicly announced they are leaving their posts. Additionally, six Assistants who came in as their replacements also left. Total: 25 Assistants to the President have left or indicated they are leaving their White House posts.
  • Twelve people remain at the White House who were the original staff member appointed to hold a position titled Assistant to the President.

Read more here.

Current WHTP Studies On Presidential-Press Relations

WHTP’s latest information on presidential-press relations:

  • Presidents communicate in a variety of ways and forums. [1] There are addresses to the nation and to Congress, weekly radio and television addresses, and speeches and remarks he regularly gives. Additionally, responding to reporters’ queries has been a consistent part of a President’s public presentations. At the 18 month mark for the six most recent presidents, approximately a third or more of their public appearances were ones where they responded to reporters’ questions. The three forums where presidents take questions are: press conferences (joint and solo); short question and answer sessions; and interviews.
  • Adding together the numbers of press conferences, short question and answer sessions, and interviews, there are similarities among the presidents during their first 18 months in office. With the exception of President Clinton who had more press interchanges than any modern President (506), the three most recent presidents have similar numbers for their sessions where they took questions. The numbers are: Trump 372; Obama 308; George W. Bush 318. Their differences lie in the type and balance of forums they favor. President Trump, for example, favors short question and answer sessions while President Obama chose interviews as his preferred forum.
  • Except for President Trump, recent presidents are almost indistinguishable in the total numbers of occasions where they spoke publicly. These numbers include events and occasions where they did and did not answer reporters’ queries. The totals for Presidents Obama, George W. Bush, and Clinton were similar through their first 547 days. Obama: 1,007; George W. Bush 982; Clinton 1,111. With 825, President Trump had substantially fewer public speaking events than his three recent predecessors, but he found Twitter to be a useful alternative to set speeches. By the time he became President, Twitter had a broad reach, which it did not have during earlier presidencies.
  • Twitter is an important part of President Trump’s public communications. His tweets serve as a way to set his narrative for the day. During his first 18 months in office, President Trump had 4,052 tweets from his @realDonaldTrump account going out to 53.4 million followers as of July 30th. These public statements serve as a way to begin his morning often followed by short question and answer sessions where he can expand on his tweets. He used Twitter successfully during the campaign, which made it easy to integrate into his presidential communications strategies.
  • With the rise of cable television in the 1990s and its constant news coverage as well as with the development of alternative ways of communicating with the public through social media, presidents have increasingly spent less time than earlier presidents did answering questions in traditional White House solo press conferences. President Trump held one White House solo session in 18 months while over time Presidents Obama [7], George W. Bush [6], Clinton [16], and George H. W. Bush [29] held decreasing numbers of them.

Read more here.

Additional Information on Presidential-Press relationships

New WHTP Scholarly Research Article on Explaining Presidential Appointments

For two decades, scholarly research has highlighted the role of partisan polarization in stretching out deliberations on presidential nominees, slowing the process though not limiting presidential success in nominations. These studies only concentrate on the length of Senate deliberations (from nomination to floor vote) — just two of the critical steps in the appointments process (see tables below). Now, a new research article by WHTP staff — Heather Ba, Brandon Schneider, and Terry Sullivan — not only considers all the steps in the process but it also evaluates the role of other forces beyond polarization. “The problem with previous research and with its focus on polarization,” notes Terry Sullivan, “is that it is not comprehensive and it concentrates on a cause that social scientists would term ‘not policy relevant,’ meaning there is nothing practical politicians can do about polarization directly.”

What this new research shows, however, is that a number of other forces play a significant role in presidential appointments, have stronger effects in different parts of the process, and that these are policy relevant —  politicians can take a number of steps to improve the appointments process. Most of these significant effects identified in the research relate to practices, like more coordination with Senate leaders and more and earlier transition planning, that administrations can adopt or strengthen their practice. The research also shows that these forces can have a counterbalancing effect on polarization and even can reverse the polarization effects identified in other research (and replicated here). The research paper ends with five recommendations for changes in the process to strengthen appointments so critical to an administration’s critical responsibilities.

See more here.

Current WHTP Studies on Presidential Appointments

See our appointments page for more information on appointments. There you will find basic tracking information on the pace of appointments in the Trump administration by comparison with administration’s dating to the rise of the modern appointments system, effectively President Reagan’s first year. Two headlines from that analysis: Trump delays in critical positions outstrips previous administrations by an ever larger margin. The Trump administration performance on appointments now lags the average administration by eight and half to ten months, depending on the topic. In NASCAR terms, previous administrations are getting close to “lapping” the Trump performance.

The pace of appointments in both the executive and in the Senate accounts for the ability of any administration to carry out its responsibilities to the electorate and to the nation. Appointments fulfill the president’s agenda set by the election and they also stand up the critical functions of the national government, from transportation to space to global economics and national defense.

The analysis reported here concentrates on the pattern of deliberations across the entire appointments process, all four stages, rather than the central focus of most press reports, the president’s recent complaints, and most scholarly research — solely, the Senate’s deliberations on nominees.

The four stages:

  • WH Identifies: The White House search for appropriate nominees from available candidates. Typically, this stage culminates in an announcement of the “president’s intent to nominate” a candidate.
  • Executive Review: The executive branch conducts vetting of the candidate. This stage culminates in sending credentials to the Senate as an official nominee.
  • Sen Comm Vetting: The first of two Senate stages, a committee investigates the nominee, culminating in a committee report and recommendation to the full Senate.
  • Sen Floor Process: The final disposition of a nominee in the Senate, culminating in floor vote to confirm the nominee.

Additional Measures: We summarize the data on nominations with three averages relevant to concerns about delays in the Senate stages. Note, that (100-% total in Senate) equals the percent of time an appointment takes to clear the executive for referral to the Senate for consideration.

  • Avg Length: The average length of appointments from the start in the White House to the final disposition in the Senate.
  • Avg Senate: The average time a nomination is in the Senate.
  • % of Total in Senate: The average time in the Senate divided by the average length.

Brief Headlines on Pace of Nominations

  • Overall, President Trump’s nominations continues to trail previous administrations, now by seven months, the worst performance in 40 years.
  • Overall, President Trump has filled abouta third of the 980 positions WHTP tracks. This pace also continues to trail the average administration but by a bit more than ten  months; again, the worst performance in 40 years.
  • The Reagan administration has pulled a full year ahead of the Trump performance, “lapping” the Trump team. The Clinton administration is 11 months ahead and Obama (at the average) is ten months ahead of the Trump team, both threatening to lap the Trump performance as well.
  • On critical leadership positions, President Trump has closed the gap considerably and now lags previous administrations by three and a half months.

Brief Headlines on Pace of Deliberations

  • Overall, the largest part of delayed deliberations occurs in the executive branch. On average about 80% of the time between the occurrence of a vacancy and the final Senate disposition of a nomination for that position occurs in the Executive search and vetting processes. President Trump’s executive deliberations amount to around 70% or under the average for all previous presidencies.
  • The length of deliberations on critical and normal positions have begun to converge. Earlier, critical positions received more prompt deliberations.
  • President George H. W. Bush’s administration represents the inflection point in lengthening deliberations. For example, the increase in Senate deliberations in the Bush ’41 administration amount to a 9 point increase over that of the Reagan presidency just six years earlier. The Trump experience amounts to another 10 point increase over the HW Bush experience – a 10 point increase in nearly 30 years.

Pace of Deliberations (all positions) – as of 10/22/YYYY

This table covers all those positions that WHTP tracks. The numbers do not include most ambassadorships, US Attorneys, Military Officers, and US Marshals. WHTP considers these to execute policy not make it. (See below and our appointments page for a description)

Locus of Deliberations (980 positions)
President WH
Sen Comm
Sen Floor
% of Total
fr Senate
Reagan 307 34 35 4 381 39 10%
HW Bush 342 20 56 5 424 61 14%
Clinton 239 36 47 9 331 56 17%
W Bush 287 34 59 9 389 68 18%
Obama 275 11 63 33 382 96 25%
Trump 285 13 68 52 418 120 29%

Deliberations on “critical positions” – as of 10/22/YYYY

This table covers those positions that WHTP considers critical to the national government meeting its critical responsibilities — “standing up” the American national government. (See below and our appointments page for a description)

Locus of Deliberations (critical positions)
President WH
Sen Comm
Sen Floor
% of Total
in Senate
Reagan 206 31 18 3 258 21 8%
HW Bush 218 28 42 4 292 46 16%
Clinton 182 39 33 12 267 46 17%
W Bush 179 35 40 7 261 47 18%
Obama 196 16 47 19 278 66 24%
Trump 233 19 59 48 358 107 30%

See our Appointments page for more detailed information and projects out to the end of the first year.

The White House Transition Project documents the pace at which a new administration fills out the American executive branch through its appointments power. WHTP measures the pace of appointments in four ways.

  • First, we track 980 presidential appointments requiring Senate confirmation (known as “PAS” positions). For these appointments, we track the pace of nominations and the pace of confirmations, measuring both against a projected historical average based on the three previous administrations.
  • Second, on these 980 PAS positions, WHTP measures the differences between the vetting process in the White House and the process in the Senate to assess the contributions of each to the overall process. For the White House, we clock the time from an announcement that the president intends to nominate someone to the day that persons credentials show up at the Senate. This measures how long the Executive vetting takes. Then WHTP considers two separate measures of Senate deliberations. Both track nominations from the moment the Senate reports receiving credentials to the day the Senate makes a decision (confirm, deny, or return). WHTP reports that processing in two ways: a 10 day average for how long nominations received during that ten day period have taken (called “processing pace”) and a 10 day average for how long it has taken the Senate for nominations decided on during that period (called “processing time”). The first (pace) looks forward from the moment of nomination and the second (time) looks backward from decision points.
  • Third, WHTP identifies and tracks a core of 213 leadership positions critical to the functions of government. These positions include those concerned with national security, managing the economy, managing the executive agencies, and carrying through on key agenda items.  We believe that successfully filling out this second group of positions effectively “stands up” the American executive.
  • Fourth, WHTP assesses the pace of fully standing up the critical leadership positions, including both presidential nominations and those already in place on inauguration day, using a direct comparison with President Obama’s performance.

WHTP reports these results in 10 day increments. See our Appointments page for more detailed information.

Special Notices


The White House Correspondents’ Association is very happy to announce that it will present The President’s Award to presidential scholar Martha Joynt Kumar at the association’s annual dinner on Saturday, April 28.

The President’s Award honors exceptional service to the WHCA. It is being given on the recommendation of association president Margaret Talev and the approval of the association board.

“Martha is a treasure to White House correspondents — an incredible resource who is uniquely accessible in real time because of her regular presence in the briefing room and press workspace and her ongoing discussions with the administration,” Talev said. “When covering a president who prides himself on upending the status quo and leaving his own mark on traditions, it’s especially valuable to have Martha’s expertise to help put his words and actions in context with past administrations.”

Martha Joynt Kumar is a scholar of the presidency and the press who has spent two decades recording and analyzing the relationship between journalists and the White House.

She has been of great service to members of the White House Correspondents’ Association with her unique statistics on how often journalists get to question the president. She is frequently quoted in news stories in all media. Her authoritative records are used by the association in its work to gain access to the president and administration officials.

Martha represents that special bridge between the “first draft of history” that we do and the presidential- and executive-branch historians who put our work into context.

She is the author of “Managing the President’s Message: The White House Communications Operation” and several other books and articles on the way the press and presidency work. She is an emeritus Professor in the Department of Political Science at Towson University, director of the White House Transition Project, and a board member of the White House Historical Association. READ MORE

MoodyBanner_ScaledFor the 2017 cycle, the White House Transition Project and our partners at Rice University’s Baker Institute and the National Archives have presented a series of conferences covering a range of issues associated with presidential transitions.