Tell Them Where the Landmines Are


President George Bush and President-elect Bill Clinton shake hands during a stroll around the White House grounds, in a post-election visit by Clinton, Nov. 1, 1992. (Photo by Cynthia Johnson | The LIFE Images Collection)

President George Bush and President-elect Bill Clinton shake hands during a stroll around the White House grounds, in a post-election visit by Clinton, Nov. 1, 1992. (Photo by Cynthia Johnson | The LIFE Images Collection)

The morning after President George H. W. Bush lost the election to then President-Elect Bill Clinton, I was driving to work at the Pentagon when my 11-year-old son called me on my mobile phone.  He knew the election results meant I had lost my job in the Defense Department and wanted to cheer me up. As both of our voices cracked, I realized how lucky I was: No matter what happened during my upcoming, unexpected job search, my family and I would be OK.

 

I had worked in the Bush Administration since Day One in both the White House and the Pentagon. I was serving as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the department’s massive global counter-narcotics effort. It was an exciting, important job, and I loved every minute of it.

 

That morning, President Bush had invited all his appointees from the various departments and agencies to a gathering on the White House’s South Lawn. The grounds filled with a somber crowd of several hundred staffers. As President and Mrs. Bush walked on to the hastily arranged platform, the crowd erupted – many of us with tears running down our cheeks.

 

The President spoke of the pride he had in his administration’s accomplishments and thanked us for the part that each of us had played in trying to do good things for our nation. Most importantly, he wished his successor the greatest of success and charged each of us with doing whatever was necessary to ensure the “smoothest transition in Presidential history.” Departing the White House grounds, I felt buoyed by the President’s words.

 

Upon returning to the Pentagon, my boss, a no-nonsense Assistant Secretary of Defense, made sure that we had gotten the message from President Bush: we had a duty to the new administration to help them take over this mission. My work in the DOD’s counter-drug program was a complex and controversial one and, at the time, a new mission for the military.  My boss told me that I had to make sure, in a manner of speaking, to “let them know where the land mines are.” Accordingly, I called my division directors into my office and tasked each of them with preparing comprehensive briefing books in each of their areas. With an annual counter-drug budget approaching $1.5B, it was particularly important to make sure the next team understood how the budget was constructed and allocated.

 


Outgoing President George H.W. Bush left his letter in the Oval Office for President Bill Clinton on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 1993.

Outgoing President George H.W. Bush left his letter in the Oval Office for President Bill Clinton on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20, 1993.

My staff worked day and night for several weeks until we had a series of briefing books that we were proud of. A transition office was established in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which was staffed by members of the new administration. It is a source of great pride to me that one of my last official acts before leaving office was to deliver these documents to the incoming team. When I walked to my car in the Pentagon parking lot for the final time, I did so with a clear conscience and an eagerness for the new challenges ahead.

 

My experience was not unique. The same process was occurring in hundreds of government offices throughout Washington. We were all motivated by the President’s insistence that it was in the national interest to make sure that we prepared the new administration to face the challenges that lay ahead. No one grumbled or blew it off. To borrow a nautical phrase, we were not going to let the “Old Man” down.

 

President Trump’s kneecapping of a proper transition to the Biden administration is without precedent in American presidential history. Indeed, it may be a new low in what has become a norm-shattering, ethically indifferent, dishonest, and scornful presidency. Although predictable, President Trump’s refusal to concede is pathetic and embarrassing, but that’s not all. His refusal to allow for a transition to an inevitable new administration puts all of us at risk. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we live in a dangerous, unpredictable, and unforgiving world. Trump’s behavior is shameful and unconscionable.

 

There is a fundamental responsibility, recognized by virtually every former President, to prepare his successor to be as equipped as possible to lead this great nation. While Trump ignores this sacred duty, Republican allies, GOP leadership, and senior advisors either avert their collective gaze or, worse again, issue statements of support. Is there no one who can convince Trump to work with the new administration? Will there be someone who will show the Biden team where the landmines are? I fear that there isn’t.

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