President-elect Donald Trump and his top aides pushed back aggressively Wednesday at accounts of a rocky transition, with Trump attacking the New York Times and his staff making efforts to assure the public that accounts of internal turmoil had been greatly exaggerated.
Despite the focus on public relations, there was little indication the team had progressed toward assembling an administration, and questions remained unanswered about the level of influence that Trump’s family would exert in the new White House.
Rooms set aside for Trump staffers at the Pentagon, for example, remained vacant Wednesday, an indication that Trump’s team had yet to begin the complicated process of getting up to speed on the details of taking over the military and other sectors of government. The State Department had also heard nothing from Trump’s emissaries, even as Trump’s staff released an extensive roster of foreign leaders who had spoken with Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
Trump’s aides promised on Wednesday evening that they would start on Thursday to name members of teams that would visit federal agencies to begin transition efforts. The first teams would focus on the State Department, national security, the Department of Justice and the Department of Defense, with teams devoted to economic and domestic policy beginning next week, Sean Spicer, a top official at the Republican National Committee, said in a call with reporters.
Democrats, meanwhile, still absorbing last week’s electoral rebuke, took further steps toward defining how they would operate as an opposition party, voting in a leadership team in the Senate with a few new names, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, aimed at broadening their appeal to white working-class voters who defected the party for Trump. But they were also still reeling from internal party divides; across the Capitol, House Democrats postponed their leadership elections until after Thanksgiving.
Visitors, including New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, Silicon Valley financier Peter Thiel, Trump’s relatives, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and a few members of Congress streamed in and out of Trump Tower in New York, giving little indication of whether they were coming to give advice, apply for administration roles or simply offer congratulations.
Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, whose role in the new administration remains undefined, was one of two top aides to speak with reporters in hopes of changing perceptions.
“You don’t form a federal government overnight, and these are very serious issues, very serious appointments, very serious considerations,” she said.
Conway said reports of firings and disorganization were false.
Yet she offered little clarity about who would be taking roles in the administration, including Trump’s son-in-law, 35-year-old real-estate investor Jared Kushner. She said she did not know whether Kushner would be getting security clearance to attend top-secret briefings, but left open the possibility when asked whether it would be appropriate.
“It’s appropriate for whoever’s going to get the presidential daily briefing to have a security clearance,” she said. “It’s not just appropriate, [but] necessary."
Jason Miller, Trump’s campaign communications director, tried to answer another set of criticisms, promising that Pence, who abruptly took over the transition team leadership from Christie on Friday, had begun “making good on President-elect Trump’s promise that we’re not going to have any lobbyists involved with the transition efforts.”
“When we talk about draining the swamp, this is one of the first steps,” Miller said. The team did not name any lobbyists who had been dropped from the group. Spicer announced that Trump would ban those who work in the administration from lobbying for five years after they leave government service.
Despite the lack of apparent progress, Trump received a vote of confidence from an unlikely source: Vice President Joe Biden, who met with Pence at the U.S. Naval Observatory, the vice president’s official residence, where they dined with their wives.
“No administration is ready on Day One. We weren’t ready on Day One. I’ve never met one that’s ever been ready on Day One,” Biden said. “But I’m confident on Day One, everything will be in good hands and they’ll be able to handle everything."
Pence will huddle with House Republicans on Thursday and meet with Democratic leaders as well.
Trump took out his frustrations over media accounts on the New York Times, angrily tweeting Wednesday morning about the paper’s coverage of his transition.
“The failing @nytimes story is so totally wrong on transition,” he wrote in one of several tweets criticizing the paper this week. “It is going so smoothly. Also, I have spoken to many foreign leaders.”
The paper did not report that Trump had failed to speak with foreign leaders. Rather, it said that prominent allies were “scrambling to figure out how and when to contact Mr. Trump” and had been, at times, “patched through to him in his luxury office tower with little warning."
Even some Republicans acknowledged that they had concerns about the transition, however. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the second-ranking leader of the Senate, said he had received no direct information from the transition team about its work, even as the Senate will be in charge of confirming Trump’s Cabinet picks, according to the Texas Tribune.
“Obviously, this is my impression that the Trump team was not completely prepared for the transition,” he said. “And after the election, they’ve had to scramble quite a bit.”
Democrats, just as surprised by the election result, were doing their best to plot their own path. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York was elected minority leader, replacing retiring Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada. The move, along with the approval of Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Patty Murray of Washington in the spots behind him, was expected.
But Schumer broadened the Democratic leadership tent with the intent of improving the party’s standing with its progressive wing and its working-class base, two groups whose frustration with the party and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton contributed to Trump’s victory.
Joining the leadership team were Sanders, who challenged Clinton for the presidential nomination, conservative Sen. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin. Populist Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts also kept a top spot in the group that will help steer the party.
“There’s a debate going on about whether we should be the party of the diverse Obama coalition” — referring to the minority voters, women and independents who helped put President Obama in office — “or the blue-collar American in the heartland,” Schumer said.
“We need to be the party that speaks to and works on behalf of all Americans and a bigger, bolder, sharper-edged economic message that talks about people in the middle class,” Schumer said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California will take over as ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, a key role as Trump moves to nominate a justice to fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the February death of Antonin Scalia.
Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak and W.J. Hennigan contributed to this report.
6:55 p.m.: This story was updated with Trump’s lobbyist ban being announced.
This story was originally published at 4:20 p.m.