Donald Trump's transition moves to right the ship

Story highlights

  • Trump teams for key agencies began making outreach to their Obama administration counterparts
  • The beginnings of normalcy came after a week of confusion within the transition

Washington (CNN)The presidential transition of Donald Trump has started to lay its foundation for moving forward after days of overhaul and uncertainty paused work to build out the President-elect's administration.

On Thursday afternoon, the White House confirmed it had received necessary paperwork from the Trump transition to allow staff members to begin moving into key federal agencies as part of the process to prepare to take over the government, a step that had been stymied by confusion about who would be leading the effort.
    Trump teams for the Defense, State and Justice departments, as well as the National Security Council, have begun to reach out to their Obama administration counterparts, a transition aide and the White House confirmed. The transition team expected to identify those individuals on their website on Friday morning.
    Meanwhile, former Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway was actively directing individuals meeting with the President-elect in Trump Tower to speak with reporters gathered in the lobby, all of them delivering a message that things were moving along nicely. Trump met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, among others.
    On Saturday, Trump will meet with former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney -- a discussion fueling speculation about a possible nomination as secretary of state.
    The process of landing teams had formally been held up by paperwork. The White House needed the transition to provide names of the individuals who would be moving into agencies and have those people make certain declarations regarding a code of conduct and conflict of interest policy. That had been delayed by the change in leadership of the transition last week from Chris Christie to Mike Pence and a new anti-lobbying policy installed early this week.

    Slowing things down

    The beginnings of normalcy came after a week of confusion within the transition brought on by Trump's surprise win.
    Trump himself and his inner circle of advisers had paid no attention to the work that former transition chairman Christie had been supervising for months prior to the election, and discovered on Thursday after a meeting with the New Jersey governor that they were not satisfied with the results, senior Republican and transition officials told CNN.
    On Friday, the transition announced it moved Christie to vice chairman, along with other key Trump surrogates and advisers from the campaign, and declared Vice President-elect Mike Pence as chairman and the former chief of staff to Sen. Jeff Sessions, Rick Dearborn, as the executive director, replacing a close Christie ally.
    They moved very quickly to announce Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus as Trump's White House chief of staff and former Breitbart and campaign executive Steve Bannon as a senior adviser.
    Initially, the team felt announcements about further personnel had to come quickly. But late last week, they realized that time was needed to get organized and figure out how they would search and vet people beyond the inner circle, the sources said.
    The decision was made to slow things down and get a process in place.

    Reaching out to Republicans

    Part of the strategy established was to take a wider look at candidates beyond inner circle loyalists to see who Trump might be comfortable with to round out a Cabinet.
    As with any transition, time was also being taken to vet possible candidates and screen for potential confirmation trouble before naming any names.
    Another part of the redirection was a strategy to reach out to people who did not support Trump to show that he is unifying the party.
    Now, sources say, there is a more organized search to talk to candidates beyond the inner circle and establish protocols and procedures. The sources point to the parade of more establishment-oriented Republicans like Haley, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry and a scheduled weekend meeting with Mitt Romney -- who spoke forcefully against Trump through the election.
    The transition team has begun holding daily press briefings with the media to update the press and tamp down confusion, in addition to making insiders available in Trump Tower.
    The first time there was a printed agenda was at one of the first senior staff meetings Sunday evening, a transition official said. The gesture was seen as a message to everyone that there needs to be an order first before moving to the big things.

    Confusion at the outset

    Christie had been chairman of the transition leading up to the election and had built out a robust team of staff dedicated to agency engagement, policy development and developing and vetting a cabinet.
    But on the Thursday after the election, the Trump team met with Christie to go over the transition memo, which included staffing and cabinet positions for the President-elect's administration. Trump's team considered the memo a non-starter because it reflected the Washington establishment, including lobbyists, a source said.
    Christie was called in on Friday, demoted and marginalized. He was told that this did not reflect the future Trump administration -- that it wasn't what Trump campaigned on and it didn't "drain the swamp."
    It was after that meeting that Pence was elevated to take charge of the transition and effectively was put in a position to start all over.
    Pence on Tuesday moved to ban lobbyists from the transition -- though it was initially unclear in the first few days what that meant.
    CNN obtained an organizational chart of the transition's staff from before the announcement, and at least eight agency leads had been a registered lobbyist, though some had already been let go of the transition for other reasons. On the policy side of the transition, a review of the chart showed that eight out of 17 names listed had been registered lobbyists at one time.
    On Thursday, transition officials told the press that lobbyists on the transition were being asked to sign affidavits that they had deregistered as lobbyists before they could continue working with the transition, and that any former lobbyist that joined the administration would be prohibited from lobbying for five years after leaving the transition.
    But not all sources familiar with the transition said the narrative was entirely accurate.
    Trump himself defended the lobbyists serving with his transition in a "60 Minutes" interview on Sunday.
    "That's the only people you have down there," when asked about the number of lobbyists on his transition. "Everybody's a lobbyist down there ... But everybody that works for government, they then leave government and they become a lobbyist, essentially. I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist."
    He said the goal would be to end the system over time, adding: "I'm saying that they know the system right now, but we're going to phase that out."

    Focus on Christie's role

    A source close to Christie and the transition said the early transition process didn't have a choice but to hire lobbyists, and that Christie was a convenient fall guy to blame.
    The source said some Washington Republicans who joined the transition pre-election were making sort of "back-door bets" to "hedge" their future, meaning they could work on the plans for the Trump administration without tying their career to his campaign. "That backfired," the source said, meaning the individuals involved are now being forced to choose between their current job status and continuing work on the transition and, possibly, the administration.
    The phenomenon of Republicans wanting to have it both ways with Trump, and a "paucity of people to pick" from, led to many lobbyists being on the team. Thus Christie had an "imperfect situation to work with which was in conflict with the campaign post-election," the source said.
    That is being "reconciled" now, the source added.
    Leaks that Christie was pushed out because of lobbyists' involvement came after reports that Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner was rubbing allies the wrong way in efforts to purge the transition team of Christie associates, per other sources.
    The source close to Christie said it could be strategic to spin a narrative that Christie was too reliant on lobbyists and not delivering, saying, the story "has been leveraged to deepen the wound -- particularly in the New York media market."
    Christie himself, once rumored to be a leading contender for a number of Cabinet positions before convictions were handed down to some of his former top aides in the Bridgegate trial, said Thursday he would not be serving in the administration.
    "For everyone worried about what I'm going to do, and what job I should take and where I should live -- let me give you all an update. I have every intention of serving out my full term of governor and I have no reason to believe as we stand here today that I will do anything other than serve out my full term as governor," Christie said in a news conference in New Jersey on Thursday.