'A blur of chaos': Former NSC staffers reveal how Trump team disregarded 'legality and ethics' when assuming power during the transition

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In U.S. history, some transitions from a Democratic presidential administration to a Republican presidential administration, or vice-versa, have gone smoothly—Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower replacing Democrat Harry Truman in the early 1950s, Democrat Jimmy Carter replacing Republican Gerald R. Ford in the late 1970s. But the lame duck session of late 2016/early 2017 and the early months of the Trump Administration were a chaotic time in U.S. history, and journalist Nahal Toosi explains just how chaotic in a new Politico article.


Published March 1, Toosi’s piece features interviews with national security  and foreign policy specialists who were in the White House during the early months of the Trump Administration or the final weeks of the Obama Administration—including former staffers for the National Security Council (NSC). “Career staffers,” according to Toosi, “say the atmosphere was ugly” during the “early weeks” of the Trump Administration—and that “their every move was viewed with suspicion from a new leadership prone to believing a ‘deep state’ was out to undermine Trump.”

Toosi opens the article by discussing the “pep talk” that Susan Rice (national security adviser under President Barack Obama) gave her staff, including NSC employees, the day after Trump was elected president. The Politico journalist explains, “What Rice didn’t—couldn’t—tell these government employees was that the dawn of the Trump Administration would be a time of extraordinary personal and professional torment for them; that they’d be asked to make ethically and legally dubious decisions while ignoring facts and evidence on basic issues to fit the president’s whims; that they would be vilified as ‘Obama holdovers’ and treated like an enemy within.”

One of the interviewees is Jeffrey Prescott, a former NSC aide under Obama. Prescott pulls no punches, telling Toosi that “it was so shocking to see” the new Trump team “come in a blur of chaos, disregarding legality and ethics and showing a deep hostility to the career professionals. Whenever I run into somebody who was there during that period, they still seem shaken and appalled by the experience. And it turned out to be a blueprint for the way the Trump Administration planned to govern.”

A former NSC staffer, quoted anonymously, told Toosi that NSC staffers from the Obama years did “extensive preparation for” the incoming Trump Administration in late 2016/early 2017, but “there was absolutely no evidence that any of them had read any of it.” That theme, Toosi stressed, “was a refrain Politico heard repeatedly.”

Another former NSC staffer told Toosi that during the Obama-to-Trump transition, “There was more focus on people, management and organizational structure than substantive policy issues. They were not interested in the material we had prepared.”

Toosi also describes the early weeks of the Trump Administration as being especially uncomfortable for NSC staffers who weren’t white males. According to Toosi, “The mood was especially tough for women and minorities. For the most part, the Trump political appointees were white men, a disproportionate number with military backgrounds. It was a sea change from the Obama years, where many women and minorities held key NSC positions. A Muslim staffer found the atmosphere so unbearable, she quit after eight days.”

Toosi concludes the piece on an ominous note, quoting Ivo Daalder—a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who asserts that if a major foreign policy crisis occurs, the last thing the U.S. needs is a chaotic presidential administration.

“If you don’t have process, then when a crisis happens, you’re not going to be able to pull the right people together for a coherent response,” Daalder told Toosi. “And in this administration, all the crises that we’ve had so far have been self-inflicted. We haven’t had one from the outside.”

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