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In Unprecedented Move, Key Federal Agency Hesitates On Declaring Biden Winner

The White House in Washington, is seen early Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, the morning after incumbent President Trump was defeated by his Democratic challenger, President-elect Joe Biden. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
The White House in Washington, is seen early Sunday, Nov. 8, 2020, the morning after incumbent President Trump was defeated by his Democratic challenger, President-elect Joe Biden. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The General Services Administration, specifically a little-known President Trump appointee named Emily Murphy, is hesitating to sign a letter that would declare President-elect Joe Biden the winner of this year’s election.

As a result, millions in key funding, email addresses, and even office space are being withheld from the Biden administration, which could impact how hard they hit the ground running come Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.

It’s an unprecedented move by the GSA that even some Republicans are criticizing. An advisory board for the transition commission, a group of people who have been involved in past administrations, have signed a letter urging the Trump administration to initiate the post-election transition process. Typically, outgoing administrations start the hand-off process to the new administration right away.

The transition period between Election Day and Inauguration Day is crucial to the success of the president-elect, says Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-partisan organization that thinks a lot about peaceful transitions of power.

The U.S. government — the “most important, largest and complex organization” — employs upwards of 4 million people, manages hundreds of operating units, and controls a budget in the trillions, he says. That means U.S. presidential transitions of power take — and need — a lot of time and effort, he says.

While the GSA does not ultimately decide the election, Stier says they do decide whether Biden gets access to “critical resources” that he’ll need to tackle the nation’s most pressing issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment and the economy.

“In order for the Biden team to be ready on day one to govern and to address the many problems we face,” he says, “they need to have all these resources, access to the agencies, their people and processes in place, and the financial resources to do it.”

Interview Highlights

On the role of the GSA and administrator Emily Murphy

“There’s a law, a statute, that governs the way transitions work, and it requires that the General Services administrator ascertain — the word that’s used in the statute — a winner in order for the support that the government can give to a transition effort to allow it to happen. And so the GSA administrator, Emily Murphy, has that responsibility to ascertain a winner. And historically, there’s been no problem here. There’s been a lot of clarity about who’s won and no real argument about it. And that has been a pro forma decision on the part of the GSA administrator.

“The only time where that was not the case was in 2000, where you had the disputed election with Al Gore and [George W. Bush]. And there the GSA administrator did wait until there was a resolution by the Supreme Court before ascertaining a winner. So what’s important to understand here is the ascertainment does not actually decide the election, but it does decide whether the Biden team gets access to critical resources that we should all want to see happen.”

On whether the U.S. has seen a transition being held up for a president-elect who has hit 270 electoral college votes

“The answer is no, and I think you rightly note that this is different than what occurred in 2000 [in the Al Gore vs. George W. Bush race], there is a consensus certainly on the media side and with the states that are at play. The issue from my perspective is that President Trump still has his legal avenues that he can pursue without interruption, whether or not the GSA administrator ascertains Biden as the president-elect.

“So the key issue, in my view, is we don’t even have to resolve whether any of that litigation that he wants to conduct is worthwhile or not. What we should understand is that by interrupting the ability of the Biden transition team to effectively prepare to take over the government, that increases the risk for all of us. It increases the risk that the Biden administration will not be able to move as fast to address big problems like the pandemic, like the economic issues we face, and like problems that we can’t anticipate or not yet in front of us, but are undoubtedly going to come.”

On the outgoing administration cooperating with transitioning the president-elect

“There certainly have been prior handoffs of power where the incumbent leaving is not happy about the person coming in. And there have been times in which there has not been a great deal of cooperation or interest sometimes on the incoming president to learn, I think, essential things from the outgoing. There hasn’t been an example such as this one where the basic preparation work is held up on the basis of, again, a desire to litigate specific things, and despite the fact that there’s been a calling of the election by the media. So this is a unique situation and one that I think is troubling because it does once more reduce the ability of the Biden team coming in to do everything possible to be ready on day one.”

On the nuts and bolts of transitioning presidential power in the U.S.

“The symbolism sometimes matters, but the reality is the more fundamental issues are the need for the Biden team coming in to really have a concrete and in-depth understanding about what is happening in each of the agencies. So we have a very complex government and there is a lot one can learn about from the outside. But it’s ultimately not a complete substitute for hearing from the people inside the government. And the second important aspect of this is the ability of the Biden team to process the leadership that they need to bring in with them into each of these agencies — what are so-called the political appointees — and those political appointees often require work with the Office of Government Ethics to ensure that they are not holding any financial conflicts of interest [and] that they can resolve those. They will need security clearances in many instances, and that requires FBI investigations, etc.

“And ultimately, we should all understand that we have elections, that’s how we ensure that our government is accountable to the people, but we need a professional government to be able to address these key problems and that depends ultimately on cooperation between political leaders who are handing out power and a recognition that all those political leaders need a professional career workforce that they are engaged with in a positive way to be able to get key work done. You look at Dr. [Anthony] Fauci, in our view, the best example of a fantastic public servant who is a career civil servant doing amazing work. We need more Tony Faucis that are respected and that will solve big problems for us.”


Cassady Rosenblum produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Tinku Ray. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.