Information on Ethics, Funding, and Agency Services
GAO-17-615R: Published: Sep 7, 2017. Publicly Released: Oct 10, 2017.
The change from one presidential administration to the next is a complex process requiring coordination among many parties, including the outgoing President, federal agencies, the President-elect, and a Transition Team. During a transition, the President-elect and his or her team begin to decide upon more than 4,000 political appointments and prepare to manage the federal government, an entity with more than 4 million civilian employees and military personnel and a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion. In this report, GAO was asked to examine five areas related to the Trump-Pence Transition.
The change from one presidential administration to the next is a complex process requiring coordination among many parties, including the outgoing President, federal agencies, the President-elect, and a Transition Team. During a transition, the President-elect and his or her team begin to decide upon more than 4,000 political appointments and prepare to manage the federal government, an entity with more than 4 million civilian employees and military personnel and a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion. GAO was asked to examine five areas related to the Trump-Pence Transition:
Legal and organizational framework: The Presidential Transition Act of 1963 (PTA), as amended, outlines the legal and organizational framework used during the Trump-Pence transition. The framework includes several mechanisms that guided this presidential transition. For example, a Federal Transition Coordinator was designated, federal funding was appropriated to carry out transition activities, and the outgoing administration negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Trump-Pence Transition Team.
Applicable ethics provisions: The President-elect and Vice President-elect are not subject to the ethics provisions applicable to executive branch employees. A private citizen who becomes President-elect or Vice President-elect remains a private citizen until sworn in on Inauguration Day. Transition Team members are generally not federal government employees except for specified purposes unrelated to coverage under ethics-related provisions. However, Transition Teams may include members of Congress or federal agency employees on detail to the team who would continue to be covered by applicable ethics provisions. Once inaugurated, the President and Vice President are subject to some, but not all, of the ethics provisions applicable to executive branch employees. Under certain circumstances, the Department of Justice, Office of Government Ethics (OGE), Congress, and the courts may have a role in addressing potential ethics violations by a President or Vice President.
Office of Government Ethics’ information and services related to ethics: OGE provided information and services—such as training, briefings, and resources—to both major party campaign teams prior to the 2016 election to assist them in preparing for ethics-related aspects of the presidential transition. After the election, OGE assisted the Trump-Pence Transition Team primarily with the nominee financial disclosure review process, working with agency ethics officials to determine whether, and to what extent, prospective nominees may have potential conflicts of interest. OGE made recommendations on the information and services it could provide to the Transition Team, which, according to OGE officials, were not requirements but were intended to expedite the ethics review process and establish a strong ethics program in the White House. According to OGE officials, the Trump-Pence Transition Team applied some aspects of OGE’s recommendations, such as obtaining an ethics expert to assist with the nominee process, but not other recommendations, such as working with OGE to resolve the President-elect’s potential conflicts of interest.
Funds for the presidential transition: As authorized by the PTA, fiscal year 2017 appropriations acts provided $9.5 million to the General Services Administration (GSA) for post-election activities of the recent presidential transition, including $2.5 million for the outgoing administration, and $7 million for the incoming administration. The funding provided for the President-elect and Vice President-elect is primarily available for 180 days after the inauguration. The funds are available to use as they prepare to assume their official duties, and can cover costs such as office space, compensation of staff, and travel expenses, among other things. According to GSA, as of July 31, 2017, expenditures made with funds available for the incoming administration for the recent post-election presidential transition totaled $4.4 million. According to GSA officials, as of July 31, 2017, none of the $1 million in funds available to the Trump-Pence Transition Team for appointee orientation activities had been obligated. The Trump-Pence Transition Team also reported collecting $6.5 million and spending $4.7 million in private funds on the transition through February 15, 2017.
Department of State’s information and services related to communication with foreign leaders: According to Department of State (State) officials, as private citizens before the inauguration, the President-elect and Vice President-elect do not have protocols for their communication with foreign leaders. During the transition, State provided the Transition Team with telephone support and written and oral briefing materials. For example, after Election Day 2016, the Operations Center within State collected incoming congratulatory calls from foreign leaders, provided the information to the Trump-Pence Transition Team, and arranged phone connections between the Vice President-elect and foreign leaders when requested. The Operations Center did not connect any calls between President-elect Trump and foreign leaders. State provided similar information and services during the Obama-Biden transition.
Scope and Methodology
To address questions on the legal and organizational framework, we reviewed the PTA and related laws and executive orders.
To address questions on applicable ethics provisions, we reviewed ethics provisions and described their applicability to the President-elect, Vice President-elect, transition team, President, and Vice President. We reviewed ethical codes of conduct established for the Trump-Pence and Obama-Biden transitions.
To address questions on OGE’s information and services related to ethics, we reviewed relevant OGE documents on information and services made available to, and used by, President-elect Trump, President-elect Obama, and their Transition Teams.
To address questions on funds for the presidential transition, we reviewed the PTA, appropriations laws, GSA and Transition Team memorandums of understanding, and conducted walk-throughs of GSA processes to manage the federal transition funding. We reviewed transactions data for types and amounts of transition spending from November 9, 2016, through January 31, 2017, reconciled the total amount of expenditures against the Department of the Treasury’s data, and verified the classification of transactions. We also summarized information the Trump-Pence Transition Team provided GSA on private funds collected and spent on the transition.
To address questions on State’s information and services related to communication with foreign leaders, we reviewed relevant State documents on information and services made available to, and used by, the President-elect, Vice President-elect, and Transition Team. We analyzed data from State and from the Trump-Pence Transition Team website on calls with foreign leaders.
For all areas, we also interviewed officials from GSA, Office of Management and Budget, OGE, and State. We contacted the White House Counsel and the Office of the Vice President to solicit the perspective of the Trump-Pence Transition Team, but they did not respond to our requests for an interview. We also contacted the Executive Director and the Chief Financial Officer of the Trump-Pence Transition Team. The Transition Team declined our request for an interview.
We provided a draft of this report to GSA, OGE, OMB, State, DOD, DHS, and the White House Counsel for comment. We also provided relevant sections of this report to the Department of Justice. In its comments, OGE generally agreed and also provided technical comments orally, which we incorporated as appropriate. GSA, OMB, State, DHS, and DOJ responded that they had no comments. DOD and the White House Counsel did not provide comments.
For more information, contact J. Christopher Mihm at (202) 512-6806 or StrategicIssues@gao.gov.