The presidential transition has officially begun.
On Monday, General Services Administration (GSA) chief Emily Murphy sent a letter to President-elect Joe Biden, officially authorizing the start of the presidential transition. Murphy issued the letter of “ascertainment” after weeks of delay and amid increasing pressure from Democrats, and bipartisan pushback from national security and public health experts to start the process. Some Republican politicians had also begun to speak out, too.
The ascertainment will provide funding for the Biden-Harris transition, and most critically, give Biden’s team the opportunity to meet with their counterparts across federal agencies to prepare for the new administration to take over in January.
“As the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, I have the ability under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, as amended, to make certain post-election resources and services available to assist in the event of a presidential transition,” Murphy wrote in her letter to President-elect Biden.
“I take this role seriously and, because of recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications of election results, am transmitting this letter today to make those resources and services available to you,” she said.
Those “recent developments” most likely refer to President Donald Trump’s failed attempts in court to challenge the election, and battleground states including Michigan and Georgia officially certifying the votes for Biden’s win. In the past, most GSA administrators have made their judgments based on media projections, after which the losing candidate typically concedes. But Murphy had held off on doing so, despite Biden being declared the winner by all major US media outlets and Trump’s legal challenges largely going nowhere in court.
The GSA recognizing Biden’s victory, and the formal start of the transition process will likely quell some of the concern about Trump’s refusal to accept the election results. With Republicans backing away from their defense of the president, and Trump’s legal avenues quickly closing, the reality Trump has tried to keep at bay for weeks is finally catching up to him. Biden will be president on January 20 — and now, at least, he can begin to properly prepare.
The GSA’s role in the transition is normally perfunctory. But this transition has not been normal.
Following most presidential elections — with the exception of the contested 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore — GSA administrators have quickly ascertained the incoming president after news outlets called the race and the losing candidate conceded.
Murphy’s refusal to do so had ramped up pressure from Capitol Hill, including from House Democrats who wanted Murphy to brief them on the transition holdup. And as Trump’s legal losses mounted, some prominent Republicans also broke ranks with the president, congratulated the incoming administration, and called for the transition to begin.
Murphy, in her letter Monday, defended her decision-making, saying she 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 and justified.” Again, the one recent example of the GSA delaying a presidential transition was in 2000 because of the Florida recount.
Murphy also denied that the White House pressured her to withhold the ascertainment. “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. 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,” Murphy wrote. “To be clear, I did not receive any direction to delay my determination.”
But Trump undermined that a bit, saying in a tweet shortly after the GSA acted that “in the best interest of our Country, 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.”
...fight, and I believe we will prevail! Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, 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.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 23, 2020
Though Trump said his case “STRONGLY continues,” this is one of the most direct acknowledgments from the president so far that his tenure in office is ending — even if it isn’t exactly a concession.
Biden’s transition team, meanwhile, has tried to forge ahead without the cooperation of the Trump administration. Biden has begun naming key members of his Cabinet, and has held meetings with state leaders on how to better coordinate the federal and state Covid-19 response. He also received a national security briefing from former officials — though that’s not quite the same thing as a threat briefing from US intelligence agencies. With the GSA ascertainment, the expectation is that both national security and pandemic coordination will begin in earnest.
In a statement, Yohannes Abraham, the executive director of the Biden-Harris transition, called the GSA’s ascertainment “a needed step to begin tackling the challenges facing our nation, including getting the pandemic under control and our economy back on track.”
“This final decision is a definitive administrative action to formally begin the transition process with federal agencies,” the statement continued. “In the days ahead, transition officials will begin meeting with federal officials to discuss the pandemic response, have a full accounting of our national security interests, and gain complete understanding of the Trump administration’s efforts to hollow out government agencies.”