Lawmakers, former top government officials and others join the call for the transition activities to begin, citing national security concerns.
It’s been five days since media organizations determined Democratic candidate Joe Biden secured enough electoral votes to become president-elect, but the General Services Administration has yet to give the go-ahead for the formal transition process to begin and more voices are calling on the agency to do so.
Despite the progress the Biden transition team has been making, GSA Administrator Emily Murphy, a political appointee, needs to “ascertain” a winner before the Biden team can send personnel into the agencies, obtain briefing books prepared mainly by career civil servants and access millions in funds.
While Biden has decades of experience in government and has a slew of former government officials on his transition team, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the issue of them not getting briefings from the White House and various national security-related agencies (as President Trump continues to dispute the results of the election) is starting to take center stage.
“Briefings are not only designed to prepare the president-elect and his leadership team; they also help ensure that none of the public remarks made by the president-elect, vice president-elect, or other transition officials inadvertently undermine or creates tension with existing U.S. strategies or activities,” Ryan Goodman, founding co-editor-in-chief of Just Security and former special counsel to the Defense Department's General Counsel, and Kate Shaw, law professor at Cardozo School of Law who worked in the White House Counsel’s office during the Obama administration, wrote in Just Security on Tuesday. Also, “it is important to resolve any uncertainty in who will be the next president so as to minimize U.S. vulnerabilities during a transition.” The 9/11 Commission Report identified presidential transitions as a vulnerable time period.
Also, although the Biden team is on track to raise over $7 million in funds for its transition, transitions can cost between $10 million and $12 million, so the government funding is critical, Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the nonprofit White House Transition Project, told Government Executive on Monday.
Over the last few days many new individuals and groups have called on GSA to ascertain a winner. This comes as the Defense Department, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies have reiterated that they cannot engage with the Biden team until GSA acts, and as the State Department is not sharing messages from foreign leaders with the president-elect. Meanwhile, Biden has been taking calls from foreign leaders on his own, as his transition team has said.
“President Trump is assured the benefit of a fair process and the right to file legal challenges and request recounts in certain states, but his legal claims cannot and must not prevent the transition process from beginning,” said a statement Tuesday from four former Homeland Security Department secretaries from Republican and Democratic administrations. “The pandemic will make any transition more complicated. At this period of heightened risk for our nation, we do not have a single day to spare to begin the transition. For the good of the nation, we must start now.”
The National Coalition on Election Integrity, a bipartisan group of over 40 former elected officials, retired military officials, former Cabinet secretaries, and civic leaders released a similar statement on Thursday. “The laws that govern peaceful transitions in our country require an ‘apparent’ winner in the presidential race,” said the group. “That criterion has been met.”
The incoming Biden administration will “quickly be required to prepare a $4.7 trillion budget; develop a strong policy agenda; recruit 4,000 political appointees, including 1,250 who require Senate confirmation; and assume leadership of a workforce of 2 million civilian employees and 2 million active duty and reserve troops,” it also noted. “Responsible stewardship of our democratic republic requires that GSA and other pertinent agencies be allowed to cooperate with President-elect Joe Biden on appropriate intelligence briefings and transition plans, including the president’s daily brief.”
Another group of over 150 former national security officials––who served under various administrations––sent a letter to GSA on Thursday, saying the delay in the transition is a “serious risk to national security,” Politico reported.
A current agency official even sent a letter to Murphy. “As of yesterday, the pandemic has killed more than 238,000 Americans and is accelerating its rampage across America,” wrote Federal Election Commission Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, on Tuesday. “The basis of your delay is not clear,” she added, and the “delay is damaging the ability of President-elect Biden to fully address the pandemic head-on when he takes office.”
The watchdog group Accountable.US compiled a report about the partisan backgrounds of Murphy and three other top officials at GSA, which it believes calls into question their ability to fairly ascertain a winner. Kyle Herrig, Accountable.US president, told Government Executive on Tuesday that, “Every day the partisan operatives running the Trump GSA dangle critical resources over President-elect Biden’s transition team is a day our national security and public health is dangerously undermined during a global pandemic.”
More Democratic lawmakers are joining the call on GSA to take action, as well as some Republicans, including Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Mitt Romney, R-Utah, as Politico reported. “I don’t think allowing GSA to move forward on some of the transition work in any way prejudices any of the legal claims the president intends to bring,” said Rubio, acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, on Monday.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., a member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told KRMG Radio on Wednesday that he would get involved if Biden doesn’t start getting the presidential daily briefings by Friday. Lankford said it “looks like he is” going to be the next president and “there is no loss from him getting the briefings and to be able to do that.” Meanwhile, on Wednesday night Lankford tweeted that Trump is entitled to ask for recounts and “it is important for the 71 million Americans that voted for President Trump that at the end of all this their questions are answered.”
Then on Thursday, Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said they believe Biden should start receiving intelligence briefings, CBS News reported.
On Thursday, when asked on Fox News if Biden will get access to the presidential daily brief, Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary, said, “That would be a question more for the White House.”
Syracuse University Professor Robert Murrett, who is a former career intelligence officer in the Navy, told Government Executive on Thursday he “would be more concerned” if the president-elect was someone other than Biden since he “is so familiar with the national security arena” from his tenure as vice president and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and it’s “also very helpful” that Harris is on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
However, Murrett said he is very concerned about the “exodus” of top officials at the Pentagon this week along with “the number of non-Senate confirmed acting officials we have across government” during this notably vulnerable time period.
The deadlines for states to certify their election results vary before the Electoral College meets December 14; the inauguration takes place on January 20. With the ongoing lawsuits, which have been unsuccessful so far, it is unclear when Trump will concede and if that will impact when GSA ascertains a winner.