Donald Trump has operated at the periphery of political power for decades—writing big checks as a campaign donor, meeting foreign leaders as a wealthy businessman, and cutting deals with the U.S. government on real-estate projects.
But as soon as the next few days, he’ll get a glimpse of government life he’s never had before: a classified intelligence briefing.
The Democratic and Republicans candidates—both for president and vice president—are eligible to begin receiving briefings once they have been formally nominated by their parties. The end of the nominating conventions serves both as a kickoff of the general-election campaign and as a turning point in the government-wide effort to ensure a smooth transition to the next president. Beginning this week, the Trump and Clinton campaigns also have access to federally-funded office space in Washington provided by the General Services Administration.
Both campaigns have set up transition teams in the months since they clinched their primary victories. Yet while public-service advocates have worked to cleanse pre-election transition preparations of their “measuring the drapes” stigma, neither campaign is saying much publicly about the work they are doing. Trump named Chris Christie as his transition chief in May, and the New Jersey governor has brought on a pair of allies—his former chief of staff Richard Bagger and a top fund-raiser, William Palatucci—to help run the day-to-day operation. “We will not be discussing the plans or activity of the transition committee,” Palatucci wrote in an email on Tuesday.
Clinton hasn’t formally announced a transition leader or committee, but The New York Times reported that three senior aides—Ann O’Leary, Ed Meier, and Sara Latham—would oversee the planning and report to John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman and the man who led President Obama’s transition in 2008.
Until 2008, presidential transition efforts had largely been informal, even ad hoc, operations. But owing to the enormous task of taking over the entire federal government in a mere 73 days between the election and inauguration, officials in and out of government have worked to formalize the process in recent. Mitt Romney quietly amassed a shadow government of hundreds of staffers (separate from his campaign) in 2012, and advocates have pushed both the Trump and Clinton teams to do the same this year.
It remains unclear whether the campaigns will adopt the Romney model; there are no requirements that they do so, but new legislation passed by Congress mandates that the outgoing administration set up transition councils, coordinate with the campaigns, and provide them office space. Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, called Christie and Meier last Friday to officially congratulate their candidates on winning the nomination and to invite them to meetings with the government’s transition councils. “McDonough emphasized the president's commitment to working with both teams in a non-partisan manner to ensure a seamless transition,” said Brandi Hoffine, a White House spokeswoman.
With the conventions over, the campaigns can begin sending the administration names of officials whom they want to receive security clearances—part of the push to have people in place as soon as the election is over and to begin filling the 4,000 political positions that will be open come January 20.
The candidate security briefings are not new to this election, but they have become more than a formality as the campaign between Trump and Clinton has grown nastier. Democrats have shuddered at the thought of the loose-lipped Republican gaining access to sensitive intelligence and using it, either directly or indirectly, to deepen fears of terrorism among voters or undercut U.S. alliances. House Speaker Paul Ryan, meanwhile, has cited Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state to demand that she be barred from receiving the standard intelligence briefing. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, denied Ryan’s request in a letter last month. “Nominees for president and vice president receive these briefings by virtue of their status as candidates, and do not require separate security clearances before the briefings,” Clapper wrote. “Briefings for the candidates will be provided on an even-handed non-partisan basis.”
The candidates don’t actually receive the same daily briefings that the president does, according to an intelligence official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the process. The meetings occur once or twice and are “strategic-level briefings that provide broad threat overviews,” the official said. “Operational and policy matters are not addressed.”
The briefings figure to be old hat for Clinton, who would have been read in to much higher levels of classified intelligence during her four years as secretary of state (like the raid that killed Osama bin Laden), and perhaps even during her time on the Senate Armed Services Committee. But for a political outsider like Trump, this first taste of government secrets is sure to be a new and heady experience.