GSA Gives Green Light for Presidential Transition to Biden Administration to Formally Begin

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The Biden team can now meet with agency personnel, receive briefing materials and access millions of dollars in funds.

Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration, “ascertained” Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election on Monday, thus formally allowing critical transition activities and funds to be made available to Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. The news was first reported by CNN. 

Murphy’s decision comes more than two weeks after all major news outlets declared Biden the president-elect and she was under enormous pressure to sign off on the release of funds. The Trump campaign continues to dispute the results of the election. It has filed dozens of lawsuits, almost all of which have been rejected by the courts, and the campaign has requested recounts in several states.

“I have dedicated much of my adult life to public service, and I have always strived to do what is right. Please know that I came to my decision independently, based on the law and available facts,” GSA Administrator Emily Murphy wrote in a letter to Biden. “I was never directly or indirectly pressured by any executive branch official—including those who work at the White House or GSA—with regard to the substance or timing of my decision. To be clear, I did not receive any direction to delay my determination. I did, however, receive threats online, by phone, and by mail directed at my safety, my family, my staff, and even my pets in an effort to coerce me into making this determination prematurely. Even in the face of thousands of threats, I always remained committed to upholding the law.” 

Yohannes Abraham, Biden-Harris transition executive director, said in a statement that GSA’s decision was  “a needed step to begin tackling the challenges facing our nation, including getting the pandemic under control and our economy back on track.” 

Murphy was under pressure from lawmakers of both parties, the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service (a vital source of transition information and resources), former Homeland Security Department secretaries, former top government officials from both parties, watchdog groups, business leaders and many others to formally begin the transition. 

GSA was also in a standoff with top House lawmakers over a briefing about the transition process. While GSA denied a request from House and Senate lawmakers to brief them by Monday, the agency said the deputy administer would brief them next week, then House lawmakers countered with a demand for a briefing on Tuesday. 

Post-election activities for an incoming administration include: sending teams to meet with agency personnel and review documents; making personnel and Cabinet appointment decisions; getting security clearances for incoming personnel; and cultivating policy and management agendas as the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service outlined in its 2020 transition guide. 

“The GSA administrator’s role under the act is extremely narrow: to make resources and services available in connection with a presidential transition,” Murphy said in the letter. “As stated, because of recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications of election results, I have determined that you may access the post-election resources and services described in Section 3 of the Act upon request. The actual winner of the presidential election will be determined by the electoral process detailed in the Constitution.”

Murphy, a political appointee, had to ascertain Biden as the winner before he could send teams into the agencies, obtain briefing books prepared mainly by career civil servants and receive access to certain facilities and funds. In its required report to Congress six months out from the election, GSA noted it requested $9.9 million for transition related activities ($6.3 million of which is designated for a potential new administration), which was included in the continuing resolution enacted on September 30. “Funding will be managed on behalf of a new president-elect and vice president-elect, and specifically becomes available when the administrator ascertains an apparent winner of the general election that is not the incumbent,” said GSA. 

In her letter, Murphy also suggested that Congress amend the transition law because of the gray areas.

“Unfortunately, the statute provides no procedures or standards for this process, so I looked to precedent from prior elections involving legal challenges and incomplete counts. GSA does not dictate the outcome of legal disputes and recounts, nor does it determine whether such proceedings are reasonable or justified,” she said. “These are issues that the Constitution, federal laws, and state laws leave to the election certification process and decisions by courts of competent jurisdiction. I do not think that an agency charged with improving federal procurement and property management should place itself above the constitutionally-based election process.”

Laws have been enacted over the last 20 years to give candidates more support ahead of the election and allowed the Biden team to continue its transition work while waiting on election results. Many experts and former transition officials told Government Executive they believed his team will be ready to take over after the inauguration in January. 

Since Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence she continued to receive briefings on classified matters, but was legally prevented from sharing the information with Biden, as Politico reported

While the transition team is staffed with well-connected and experienced officials and was doing its best to mitigate the impact from the lack of formal recognition, briefings on intelligence matters and the novel coronavirus pandemic (specifically vaccine distribution) were lacking.  

The Trump administration met its statutory deadlines ahead of the election, but in September Trump didn’t commit to a peaceful transfer of power, asserting the false claims that vote-by-mail is susceptible to widespread fraud, and at his rallies ahead of the election suggested he wouldn’t cooperate with the Biden team on a potential transition. He’s also falsely accused Democrats of engaging in fraud and “stealing” the election from him. 

The Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council and Sector Coordinating Council Executive Committees, which includes top state and federal election officials, released a joint statement on November 12 saying “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history” and “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” The president fired Chris Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (a member of the former council) via tweet on November 17. 

In a tweet on Monday evening Trump thanked Murphy for her service amid getting “harassed, threatened, and abused,” which he said he doesn’t want her or anyone else at GSA to face. 

“I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same,” he said. “Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail.”

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