MSNBC uncritically aired McCain campaign's criticism of Obama for reportedly setting up transition team months before the election -- but Bush did so

››› ››› ERIC HANANOKI

On MSNBC Live, Alex Witt reported on a statement by Sen. John McCain's campaign criticizing Sen. Barack Obama for reportedly having "already set up a White House transition team." Witt did not challenge the suggestion that it is unusual or inappropriate for a presumptive nominee to plan for a presidential transition; indeed then-Gov. George W. Bush did in the summer of 2000. Nor did Witt note that Bush-Cheney transition director Clay Johnson said at the time that it would be "irresponsible not to be doing this."

During the 11 a.m. ET hour of the July 24 edition of MSNBC Live, host Alex Witt said that Sen. John McCain's campaign "is responding to reports that Barack Obama has already set up a White House transition team. A McCain spokesman says, quote, 'Before they've even crossed the 50-yard line the Obama campaign is already dancing in the end zone with a new White House transition team. The American people are more concerned with Barack Obama's poor judgment and readiness to lead than his inaugural ball.' " Witt did not challenge the McCain campaign's suggestion that it is unusual or inappropriate for presumptive nominees to plan for a presidential transition, as the Obama campaign is reportedly doing. Indeed, Clay Johnson, the executive director of the Bush-Cheney transition team, reportedly began working on the Bush-Cheney transition during the summer of 2000 after Bush agreed with Johnson's assertion that it would be "irresponsible not to be doing this." Nor did Witt raise the question during the segment of whether the McCain campaign would agree with Johnson that it would be "irresponsible not to be doing this."

In a subsequent segment during the noon hour of MSNBC Live, host Contessa Brewer read the McCain campaign's statement and asked National Journal / NBC reporter Adam Aigner-Treworgy: "Is this a theme that the McCain campaign is going to push, that Obama is getting ahead of himself?" Aigner-Treworgy replied:

John McCain just sat down with NBC's Kelly O'Donnell just an hour ago and she asked him about this transition team. And he said of course every campaign once you get to this stage, and you're on the verge of securing your party's nomination at the convention, you begin to think of how you transition to the presidency. John McCain said that he, himself, was already of course working on policy and then political proposals so that they could hit the ground running. He's spoken with his advisers about how exactly they would enact those proposals and enact the policies that are forwarded to him. Although he said that on a -- on a specific staff level and on an organizational level, they may not be -- be stepping up to the rate -- the place where Obama's stepping up. He said that the American people will have to decide whether that's presumptuous or not.

In a chapter from The Nerve Center: Lessons in Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff (Texas A&M University Press, 2004), University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill associate professor Terry Sullivan wrote that then-Gov. George W. Bush approved Johnson's program for a White House transition in the summer of 2000. Sullivan sourced the information to a September 2002 interview with Johnson. From Sullivan's chapter:

Beginning in the spring of 1999, Governor Bush reorganized his staff, moving his then Chief of Staff Joe Albaugh into the campaign as director and Clay Johnson, III from Appointments Director to Chief of Staff. Governor Bush then charged Johnson to "develop a plan for what we should do after we win." A year later with the primary season behind him and the prospects of the general campaign settling in, Candidate Bush worried about their planning effort finding its way into the campaign coverage. Having thought through this problem for almost a year, Johnson responded by stressing the necessity of the task. "It has to happen," he recalls telling the Governor, "We just have to figure out the best way to spin it. It's irresponsible not to be doing this." Persuaded and committed to his earlier decision, Candidate Bush took Johnson's advice. Thus, the former Chiefs of Staff reached a second of their goals when, only a few days after the [June 2000, Washington] Forum [on the Role of the White House Chief of Staff] and bolstered by Johnson's own argument, the Bush for President senior campaign staff approved Clay Johnson's program, setting out eight goals for their presidential transition still five months in the future, if at all.

In a March 2002 paper in PS: Political Science and Politics, Johnson wrote:

In the spring of 1999, I was Gov. George W. Bush's appointments director. ... When the governor decided to run for president, he asked me to succeed his chief of staff, who was leaving to direct the campaign. He also asked me to develop a plan for setting up his new administration, or as he put it, "develop a plan for what we should do after we win." ... In the spring of 2000 I also began to visit with the likes of Jim Baker, George Shultz, and Ed Meese, who had been involved in setting up and guiding previous administrations at the highest levels.

During a December 11, 2001, discussion at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), then-White House senior adviser Karl Rove said the Bush-Cheney campaign wanted its transition program "to be very low visibility." Rove further stated: "Clay worked for months before anybody discovered him. And he was looking at how do you go about staffing up an administration? How do you organize a personnel shop? How do you organize a search for the subcabinet? What kind of procedures are there in place?"

From the AEI discussion:

THOMAS MANN (Brookings Institution senior fellow): Let's begin this way. There's a general sense that campaigns typically frustrate good government, rather than enable it. You've been with George Bush for a long time. Could you tell us when you began to think and plan for a Bush presidency as distinct from a Bush campaign?

MR. ROVE: I'm not certain that the distinction is -- that there is a distinction. I mean, Governor Bush -- Candidate Bush, when he ran for governor, talked about four big things he was going to run on for governor, and then proceeded in office to do them. I think his view of a campaign is that the campaign is a prelude to governing, that you talk about in a campaign what you would hope to govern about, and that you seek popular support and a mandate, if you will, to pursue those goals.

So I'm not certain at the distinction between campaigning and governing. When he talked about a tax cut in the campaign, he meant it. When he talked about, went and gave three speeches on education reform, he meant it. So for him there is no distinction between the two. So when he began thinking about running for President, he began to build a rather robust team of advisors on issues for exactly that reason. He believed that campaigning was a prelude to governing, and so he wanted to use the process of campaigning and the development of public policy during that campaign as an integral part of his governance.

MR. MANN: But oftentimes presidential candidates get themselves maneuvered into positions in a campaign that then kind of frustrate what they'd like to do afterwards, and they also end up being reluctant to engage in sort of nuts-and-bolts planning for the presidency because it seems presumptuous to think of aspects of governing while they're still candidates. Were those concerns or difficulties for you at all?

MR. ROVE: Well, there are two different parts of that. The second was a difficulty, I mean, because we did not want to look presumptuous, because this may surprise you, and it may surprise certain members of the audience seated over here, but the members of the press really like to do lots of process stories in campaigns. So they would like to jump on this idea of looking presumptuous. So a lot of what you would do, and to be necessarily prepared for any transition, if you style it as transition, they will cover it as transition, they will turn it into an entire process story. So this is why we were very sensitive about this.

But nonetheless, we recognized, when we began this policy planning process, that this was an integral part of governance, and have transition planning. We hired a policy director for the campaign before we hired a political director. We hired Josh Bolten before we hired a political director for the campaign. And we recognize that these teams of people that we would have in the policy apparatus, you know, people like Rich Armitage, and Paul Wolfowitz, and Dick Cheney, and Don Rumsfeld, and Condi Rice, and Larry Lindsey, would all -- Don Evans -- would necessarily find their -- there was a high likelihood of them finding their way into government -- Glenn Hubbard. We recognized that this was a prelude to transition, but we never called it transition.

MR. MANN: Now, what was the connection between Clay Johnson's operation on the sort of nuts and bolts early on and the broader campaign?

MR. ROVE: Well, it was separate and apart from it. We necessarily wanted it to be so. We also wanted it to be very low visibility, which it was. I mean, Clay worked for months before anybody discovered him. And he was looking at how do you go about staffing up an administration? How do you organize a personnel shop? How do you organize a search for the subcabinet? What kind of procedures are there in place? What kind of rules govern it? What kind of, really, paper flow there's going to be? And one of the early questions was paper flow, because this is an extraordinarily difficult thing to manage. You know, everybody wants to be in government, and how do you simply manage that process and cull out good names from bad and just handle the paper flow? But he began that work during the summer. He's speaking to you at lunch. He'll know exactly when. I was concerned about the Paducah media market at the time, and so I don't remember exactly where it was.

[Laughter.]

MR. ROVE: But he began the work during the summer, and did so, worked for months in stealth mode before he was discovered.

From the 11 a.m. ET hour of the July 14 edition of MSNBC Live:

WITT: John McCain's campaign, everyone, is responding to reports that Barack Obama has already set up a White House transition team. A McCain spokesman says, quote, "Before they've even crossed the 50-yard line the Obama campaign is already dancing in the end zone with a new White House transition team. The American people are more concerned with Barack Obama's poor judgment and readiness to lead than his inaugural ball." Again, this is in response to reports in the media that Obama has already set up a White House transition team, though no confirmation on that yet by NBC News. But we wanted to put the McCain camp statement out there nonetheless.

From the noon hour of the July 14 edition of MSNBC Live:

BREWER: And I know the McCain campaign is also responding to the news that Barack Obama has already set up a presidential transition team. The team that would go from one president to the next, and McCain's statement reads: "Before they've even crossed the 50-yard line the Obama campaign is already dancing in the end zone with a new White House transition team. The American people are more concerned with Barack Obama's poor judgment and readiness to lead than his inaugural ball."

Is this a theme that the -- the campaign is going to push, that Obama's getting ahead of himself?

AIGNER-TREWORGY: Well, that was actually -- the statement that you just read was from a spokesperson from the campaign. John McCain just sat down with NBC's Kelly O'Donnell just an hour ago and she asked him about this transition team. And he said of course every campaign once you get to this stage, and you're on the verge of securing your party's nomination at the convention, you begin to think of how you transition to the presidency. John McCain said that he, himself, was already of course working on policy and then political proposals so that they could hit the ground running. He's spoken with his advisers about how exactly they would enact those proposals and enact the policies that are forwarded to him. Although he said that on a -- on a specific staff level and on an organizational level, they may not be -- be stepping up to the rate -- the place where Obama's stepping up. He said that the American people will have to decide whether that's presumptuous or not.

All right, Adam, good to talk to you. Thanks.

AIGNER-TREWORGY: Thank you.

Posted In
Elections, Government, The Presidency & White House
Network/Outlet
MSNBC
Person
Contessa Brewer, Alex Witt
Show/Publication
MSNBC Live
Stories/Interests
Barack Obama, John McCain, 2008 Elections
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