WASHINGTON – A Trump administration appointee is refusing to sign a letter allowing President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team to formally begin its work this week, in another sign the incumbent president has not acknowledged Biden’s victory and could disrupt the transfer of power.
The administrator of the General Services Administration, the low-profile agency in charge of federal buildings, has a little-known role when a new president is elected: to sign paperwork officially turning over millions of dollars, as well as giving access to government officials, office space and equipment authorized for the taxpayer-funded transition teams of the winner.
It amounts to a formal declaration by the federal government, outside of the media, of the winner of the presidential race.
But by Sunday evening, almost 36 hours after media outlets projected Biden as the winner, GSA Administrator Emily Murphy had written no such letter. And the Trump administration, in keeping with the president’s failure to concede the election, has no immediate plans to sign one. This could lead to the first transition delay in modern history, except in 2000, when the Supreme Court decided a recount dispute between Al Gore and George W. Bush in December.
“An ascertainment has not yet been made,” Pamela Pennington, a spokeswoman for GSA, said in an email, “and its Administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law.”
The GSA statement left experts on federal transitions to wonder when the White House expects the handoff from one administration to the next to begin – when the president has exhausted his legal avenues to fight the results, or the formal vote of the electoral college on Dec. 14? There are 74 days, as of Sunday, till the Biden inauguration on Jan. 20.
“No agency head is going to get out in front of the president on transition issues right now,” said one senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The official predicted that agency heads will be told not to talk to the Biden team.
The decision has turned attention to Murphy, whose four-year tenure has been marked by several controversies involving the president, an unusually high profile for an agency little known outside of Washington.
“Her action now has to be condemned,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., who leads a House oversight panel on federal operations. “It’s behavior that is consistent with her subservience to wishes of the president himself, and it is clearly harmful to the orderly transition of power.”
The delay has implications both practical and symbolic.
By declaring the “apparent winner” of a presidential election, the GSA administrator releases computer systems and money for salaries and administrative support for the mammoth undertaking of setting up a new government – $9.9 million this year.
Transition officials get government email addresses. They get office space at every federal agency. They can begin to work with the Office of Government Ethics to process financial disclosure and conflict of interest forms for their nominees.
And they get access to senior officials, both political appointees of the outgoing administration and career civil servants, who relay an agency’s ongoing priorities and projects, upcoming deadlines, problem areas and risks. The federal government is a $4.5 trillion operation, and while the Biden team is not new to government, the access is critical, experts said.
This is all on hold for now.
“Now that the election has been independently called for Joe Biden, we look forward to the GSA Administrator quickly ascertaining Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as the President-elect and Vice President-elect,” a Biden transition spokesman said in an email. “America’s national security and economic interests depend on the federal government signaling clearly and swiftly that the United States government will respect the will of the American people and engage in a smooth and peaceful transfer of power.”
As the campaign wound down, President Donald Trump gave signals that he would not easily hand over the reins to his successor, if there was one. But for people who have been through them, a presidential transition is a massive undertaking requiring discipline, decision-making and fast learning under the smoothest circumstances. Each lost day puts the new government behind schedule.
“The transition process is fundamental to safely making sure the next team is ready to go on Day One,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, which has set up a presidential transition center and shares advice with the Biden and Trump teams. “It’s critical that you have access to the agencies before you put your people in place.”
The Biden team can move forward to get preliminary security clearances and begin FBI background checks on potential nominees requiring Senate confirmation.
Another senior administration official who was not authorized to speak publicly said each agency has drafted detailed transition plans for a new administration, but they will not be released to the Biden team until a winner is formally declared.
Trump has been resistant to participating in a transition – fearing it is a bad omen – but has allowed top aides to participate as long as the efforts do not become public, administration officials said. He is unlikely to concede he has lost or participate in traditional activities, the officials said.
In a call on Friday with administration officials, Mary Gibert, the head of the presidential transition team at the GSA, told colleagues the agency was in a holding pattern and not to host people from Biden teams until there is “ascertainment.” She gave no specific timeline on when it was expected.
The delay has already gummed up discussions on critical issues, including plans to distribute a possible coronavirus vaccine, this official said.
GSA has been part of transition planning since the Presidential Transition Act was signed in 1963. Since then, the agency has identified the winner within hours or a day of media projections, and weeks before the results were made official by the electoral college.
Chris Lu, who served as former president Barack Obama’s transition director in 2008, recalled that after Obama was declared the winner over the late senator John McCain on Nov. 4, he went to sleep to get up early the next morning to open the transition office. He missed the call from GSA’s acting administrator, Jim Williams, informing him that he had signed over transition resources to the Obama team.
“Jim left the call at 1 a.m.,” Lu said. “There was simply no controversy involved.”
Robert MacKichan Jr., an attorney who served as GSA general counsel for presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said that because Trump is contesting the election and the electors have not yet voted, it’s too early for Murphy to make a call. Once the administrator issues the letter, the funds can be spent and can’t be recouped.
“I don’t think, at this point, I would feel comfortable making that determination now,” MacKichan said. “It’s premature.”
MacKichan said he was confident Murphy would handle a difficult situation fairly. “As an attorney and as a procurement official, I think she has the highest standard of integrity,” he said.
Murphy has not sought the limelight during her tenure and was described by former colleagues as a by-the-book person. She’s regarded as well-qualified, an expert on contracting with experience both at the agency, where she had previously served as chief acquisition officer, and on Capitol Hill, where she had been a staffer for multiple committees. Heading a federal agency unknown to most Americans seemed like an ideal assignment.
But under Trump, two issues of personal importance to the president became almost constant sources of controversy for her: the lease Trump’s company holds with the agency for its D.C. hotel, located in the federally owned Old Post Office Pavilion, and the planned consolidation of the FBI headquarters.
Both projects have pressed Murphy into duty defending the president, and her actions elicited criticism from the agency’s watchdog and withering criticism from congressional Democrats.
Trump’s hotel lease was signed with the agency before Trump took office, and he resigned his position with the company when he entered office. But he retained ownership of his business, allowing him to profit from the property while in office.
Democrats held repeated hearings to get a better explanation of how the agency decided to allow Trump to keep the lease given that the Constitution bar presidents from accepting gifts of payments from foreign governments, which often patronize the hotel. Under Murphy, the GSA repeatedly declined to provide documents to House Democrats, including the monthly income statements it receives from Trump’s company.
Last year, the agency’s inspector general determined that GSA “improperly” ignored those concerns in allowing Trump’s company to keep the lease. GSA defended itself by saying that the investigation “found no undue influence, pressure or unwarranted involvement of any kind by anyone.”
Trump has personally intervened in the most prominent real estate project in the agency’s entire portfolio: the plan to build a new FBI headquarters that would allow the bureau out of the crumbling and insecure J. Edgar Hoover Building. During his first year in office, Trump and the GSA abruptly canceled a decade-long bipartisan plan to build a new suburban headquarters for the agency, infuriating Democrats who had worked more than a decade on the project and who alleged that Trump canceled the project so a competing hotel could never be built in place of the Hoover building, a site down the street from his hotel.