House Homeland Security Committee Chairman, Bennie Thompson, and Management, Investigations, and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Christopher Carney are questioning DHS’s lack of communication with the presidential campaigns as was expected to be one of several efforts to smooth the presidential transition process for the Department. CQ reported this morning that a letter sent Friday from Thompson and Carney to Chertoff asked “why the department was confused” about whether DHS should contact the candidates. One reason may be some conflicting advice from the policy community and from the White House.
What started this debate was a hearing last week at which Undersecretary of Homeland Security for Management Elaine Duke told the Senate Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, that while the routine transition briefing books are being compiled for the presidential nominees, neither campaign has been contacted. She also noted that nor has either campaign reached out to them.
The implied concern is that the campaigns want to avoid being perceived as presumptuous by engaging executive agencies on the subject of transition planning. So why won’t DHS just reach out to them? The National Academy of Public Administration urged this, the DHS’s own Administration transition planning recommends it, and just about any pundit would suggest it goes without saying.
The problem may rest in a White House memorandum sent to all executive agencies – including DHS – on April 22 that requires they limit any contact with the presidential campaigns. The memorandum is from the President’s Counsel, Fred Fielding. DHS General Counsel, Gus Coldebella, distributed the memo to all DHS personnel two days later. The memo from Fielding explains in essence that no contact with the presidential campaigns may take place without White House approval from one of the following individuals:
• Chief of Staff to the President,
• Deputy Chief of Staff to the President for Policy,
• Deputy Chief of Staff to the President for Operations,
• Counselor to the President, or
• Assistant to the President for Strategic Initiatives and External Affairs
No wonder the Department of Homeland Security is reluctant to reach out. The campaigns won’t initiate contact for political reasons mentioned above. DHS is told not to share any information with the presidential campaigns that isn’t publicly available without going to the White House first.
This level of control is perhaps to be expected, but DHS is under unique demands to make sure that the incoming President’s team is ready to execute a seamless hand-off during a heightened level of risk to the homeland. It seems odd that the White House wouldn’t make a deliberate exception to these constraints in the case of DHS.