House Democrats also question actions by the White House in the run-up to the election.
House and Senate Democrats are demanding the General Services Administration provide them with a briefing about the delayed presidential transition process by Monday.
On Thursday, four top House members and 40 Democratic senators and one independent sent letters to GSA Administrator Emily Murphy expressing concern that she has yet to ascertain President-elect Joe Biden as the winner of the presidential election, almost two weeks after news outlets called the race for him. The law requires GSA to ascertain the “apparent” winner before he or she can receive certain critical transition services.
“Congress has appropriated $9.9 million to GSA for transition related activities...Ascertainment of a president-elect is also critical for agencies’ willingness to share information with the transition team, including classified information, as well as for the expeditious processing of security clearances for candidates for high-level national security positions,” the senators wrote. “Your delay in acknowledging Vice President Biden’s status as president-elect could undermine efforts by the incoming administration to meet the needs of the American people in a time of national emergency.”
Besides dealing with the public health crisis, they noted that the 9/11 Commission found that President-elect George W. Bush’s shortened transition in 2000 due to the Florida recount and Supreme Court case was “a factor in delaying key national security personnel appointments, potentially hampering the new administration.” As a result, transition laws have evolved over the last 20 years to provide candidates with more support ahead of the election.
The letter from top members of the House Oversight and Reform and Appropriations committees expressed similar concerns and also questioned actions by the White House in the run-up to the election.
“On September 2, 2020, President Trump issued an executive order modifying the longstanding order of succession within GSA to place the general counsel as fourth-in-line to perform the duties of administrator,” they wrote. “Then, less than a week before the election, President Trump installed White House lawyer Trent J. Benishek as GSA general counsel.”
In both letters, the lawmakers asked for a briefing by Monday. The House Democrats said they are also considering holding a public hearing, for which there is “direct precedent” because then-GSA Administrator David Barram was called to testify about his delay in ascertaining a winner during the 2000 election, although in that case there was not a clear winner immediately.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said on Friday morning that the House is ready to step up its involvement in the ascertainment process. “I’m not one to show my hand, but nonetheless, we’re ready,” she stated.
Michael Leavitt, a former Republican governor of Utah who led Mitt Romney's transition effort in 2012 and now serves on the advisory board at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service’s Presidential Transition Center, said the ongoing delay has not come as a surprise to Biden's team. He explained that "a lot of discussion went into" planning for such a contingency. Leavitt said Biden's team could circumvent some of the holdups resulting from GSA's inaction by privately raising money and leaning on former government officials familiar with inner-workings of agencies. They can quickly play catch up before Biden takes office by receiving condensed versions of the briefings prepared by career officials throughout government and adapting to intelligence reports in real time.
“It’s not going to be catastrophic,” said Leavitt, for whom a key piece of transition legislation is named. “It’s just not going to be as good as it could be.”
He pointed to the coordination of dynamic situations as the most imperiled by the lack of formal transition, such as the withdrawal of troops from the Middle East and vaccine distribution plans. By contrast, Leavitt said, Obama’s 2008 transition team knew about decisions the outgoing Bush administration would make regarding the financial crisis before it announced them.
Several Republicans have also been joining the call on GSA to begin the formal transition process and/or for Trump to concede the election.
“If there is any chance whatsoever that Joe Biden will be the next president, and it looks like he has a very good chance, the Trump administration should provide the Biden team with all transition materials, resources and meetings necessary to ensure a smooth transition so that both sides are ready on day one,” Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement on Friday. “That especially should be true, for example, on vaccine distribution.”
During a briefing on Friday afternoon, Yohannes Abraham, adviser to Biden’s transition team, said, “this isn’t a game, who gets to talk to whom” and there could be “real impacts on families across the country” of GSA not green-lighting the transition, despite the progress they’re making. He summarized the national security, business, international and public health leaders calling on the Trump administration to work with the president-elect.
Leavitt expressed cautious optimism for the transition’s final outcome. “What could be a very strong transition will still be a good one,” he said.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a briefing on Friday afternoon––her first since October 1––that the White House has not asserted any pressure on GSA and the agency will make the ascertainment decision alone.
GSA did not respond to Government Executive for comment.
Eric Katz contributed to this report.