Trump taps Bush, Romney veterans for transition

He relies on consummate GOP insiders to lay the groundwork for a possible presidency.


08/26/16 12:23 PM EDT

Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by fighting the party’s establishment, denouncing big-money donors and vowing to dismantle a Washington influence-peddling system that he says is “rigged” against ordinary Americans.

But now his transition team is turning to quintessential GOP insiders as it lays the groundwork for his possible presidency.

His ex-rival turned transition chairman, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, is relying on operatives from the campaigns of both Presidents Bush, members of Mitt Romney's sprawling transition effort and two of Christie's closest political confidants, including the New Jersey power broker who helped launch him into political prominence.

The team’s executive director is Rich Bagger, a former New Jersey lawmaker and pharmaceutical executive who spent two years as Christie’s first chief of staff. William Palatucci, another member of the transition team, is a former Christie law partner and one of New Jersey’s best-connected Republican operatives who was a senior campaign adviser for both Presidents Bush.

Other Trump transition staff include William Hagerty, an economic adviser to George H.W. Bush who was a key player on Romney’s transition team; and Jamie Burke, who worked for George W. Bush as White House liaison to Health and Human Services and also served on Romney’s transition team.

The moves, which come amid growing pressure on Trump to professionalize his campaign, are placing consummate members of the GOP establishment in the role of shaping an administration that is able to deliver on the candidate’s promises. They're also tasked with identifying the people who would fill an estimated 4,000 jobs in a Trump administration.

But one Republican not involved in the effort said Trump’s vague, sometimes contradictory policy statements greatly complicate the challenge.

"When the campaign has put forth so little policy, the transition almost has no choice but to be in the business of making policy,” said Lanhee Chen, a top policy adviser to Romney's 2012 presidential campaign who also worked on his nearly 500-person transition team. “And that can create challenges back to the campaign.”

Another Republican pointed to a “tremendous disconnect” between the freewheeling, policy-averse campaign and the buttoned-up transition effort. The strategist compared Christie’s team to “disciplined scientists in a storm-chasing team trying to chase Hurricane Trump.”

Those tensions were apparent on a private call Thursday in which Christie and several aides briefed about 100 Trump supporters, and were pressed to explain the candidate's apparent change in tone on immigration, a person on the call told POLITICO.

Christie reassured the callers that Trump hadn’t dramatically altered his stance and said Trump would clarify his positions in an immigration-focused speech in the coming weeks.

In a sign of Christie’s growing influence with Trump — and the growing clout of the transition team, generally — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani told a New Jersey reporter Friday that Christie was partly responsible for persuading Trump to moderate his stance.

‘A pretty regimented affair’

People familiar with Trump’s transition said the team is culling through résumés to flesh out its still bare-bones staff. They have set a goal of crafting specific policy agendas for Day One, Day 100 and Day 200 of a Trump administration. The team is also putting together a strategy for the 73-day period between Election Day and the inauguration.

"It’s a pretty regimented affair," said one person familiar with the team.

Republicans in New Jersey who know Bagger and Palatucci say they add discipline, political knowledge and policy bona fides to the Republican nominee’s operation.

“I don’t know of anyone more disciplined that these two,” said Jon Bramnick, minority leader of the New Jersey Assembly and a longtime friend of both men. “Those are the two people I would rely on politically above anyone ... They’re just as smart and strategic and measured as you can possibly find.”

"If there is any silver lining for Republicans seeking to support the nominee, Rich Bagger is that silver lining,” said one Republican operative who knows him. “As much as Trump is seen as divisive and bombastic, Rich Bagger is seen as collaborative and works well with other people.”

Bagger spent more than a decade in the New Jersey Legislature, most of it in the Assembly before being elected to the state Senate.

During that time, he was also an executive for the drugmaker Pfizer, working on public policy, public affairs and government relations.

He left Pfizer in January 2010 to help the newly elected Christie set up his administration and served as chief of staff for two years. He left in 2012 to be the executive vice president of corporate affairs and market access at Celgene, a biotechnology company, from which he took a leave of absence in late July.

New Jersey Democratic operative and lobbyist Mike Murphy, who has known Bagger for more than two decades, said he was surprised to hear he is working on Trump’s transition team since he considers Bagger a moderate Republican.

“I personally don’t think Donald is going to be the next president,” Murphy said. “But as an American citizen, someone who cares about the republic, I would love to see more people like Rich Bagger involved.”

Palatucci, who is perhaps Christie’s closest political confidant, is known as one of the best-connected Republicans in New Jersey. In the early days of the Bush administration, Palatucci sent Christie’s résumé to his friend Karl Rove and suggested he would be a good candidate for U.S. Attorney in New Jersey, a move that ultimately paved the way for Christie’s run for governor. Palatucci, in a 2012 interview, said that he merely slapped a cover letter on his law partner’s résumé.

In addition to working on several presidential campaigns in the state, Palatucci was a top adviser to former Republican Gov. Tom Kean, as well as to Christie.

“He is one of those extremely smart political strategists who is extremely loyal,” Bramnick said. “You can count on Bill Palatucci to have your back and support you.”

Some of Palatucci’s work has also been controversial. He was a senior vice president at Community Education Centers, a politically connected company that came under fire as a result of a 2012 New York Times investigation that detailed escapes, violence and drug use in its halfway houses. Palatucci resigned in November 2012.

'A transition team is all about governing'

By all accounts, the transition team is attempting to build out quickly. Yahoo News first reported on Wednesday that Ed Feulner, the former president of the Heritage Foundation, has signed on, a move that boosts the team’s conservative credentials.

The expansion efforts have been complicated in some instances by the refusal of some Republican policy veterans to participate.

Several told POLITICO privately they have zero interest in contributing their time.

A Trump campaign spokeswoman did not comment on the effort, nor did Bagger, Palatucci or other members of the transition team.
Others, however, said that while they wouldn't join Trump’s campaign, they see working on the transition team as a patriotic duty meant to ensure the government runs smoothly should Trump win the presidency.

"Transition teams have a very different purpose than a political campaign," said former New Jersey Rep. Michael Ferguson, a Republican who served on Christie's transition team when he was elected governor. "A transition team is all about governing. It’s not about the politics. A transition team has to be very substantive and very serious.”

Even some Democrats praised the fledgling team’s dedication.

"I’ve been impressed with how serious they are about it," said former Sen. Ted Kaufman of Delaware, who worked on Barack Obama's transition team in 2008 and has met with both transition teams as a member of the advisory board of the nonprofit Center for Presidential Transitions.