Joe Biden won the election more than a week ago. But the But the General Services Administration — the agency that certifies presidential transitions — is still blocking Biden’s transition team from accessing government resources.
“The transfer of power, even reluctantly, is important for the world to witness,” said Andy Card, former chief of staff to President George W. Bush, who was involved in three presidential transitions.
Even in 2000, when a recount fight in Florida kept the nation in suspense for weeks over who would become president, Card said President Bill Clinton’s staff allowed Bush to have national security briefings. Bush’s challenger, then-Vice President Al Gore, was already receiving them.
This year, Biden was declared the winner of the presidential election on Nov. 7, four days after voting ended, and has since received 306 Electoral College votes, 36 more than needed. Yet a Trump appointee, Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration, has failed to affirm that Biden won the election, refusing to trigger a process that would give Biden’s team access to federal resources.
Biden’s team has tried to work around the impasse, hiring staff, naming agency review teams and contacting former federal employees who worked for President Barack Obama. They’ve also reached out to state and local officials, even as many Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have failed to acknowledge that Biden won the election.
Trump, who received 232 Electoral College votes, has not conceded and is fighting the results. “I won the Election!” Trump tweeted on Monday to his nearly 90 million followers, a proclamation he has made regularly.
Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said some outgoing presidents have been “angry” with the outcome of elections but that “never remotely in the founders’ wildest dreams” did they envision a president refusing to concede or leave.
The Trump and Biden campaigns and the Biden transition staff did not respond to requests for comment.
The White House said it’s abiding by the law. “The Trump administration is following all statutory requirements,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere said.
Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, promised an orderly transfer of power if Biden is certified the winner, but some Republican allies of the president, including former Trump staffers, say it’s not clear Trump would attend Biden’s inauguration. If he doesn’t, Trump would become only the fourth president after John Adams, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Johnson to snub his successor by skipping the inauguration, said Thomas Balcerski, a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University who has studied transitions and inaugurations. Two other presidents did not attend for other reasons.
“This is unprecedented in modern times,” Balcerski said. “President Trump has once again managed to politicize an aspect of our democratic governance that is supposed to be depoliticized.”
The Trump administration began planning for a potential transition in May as required by law, establishing groups of career officials to advise departments and agencies on how to prepare. Biden’s team, too, started preparing for a possible administration months ago, focusing on personnel and policy, according to several members of his team.
But until Murphy’s GSA designates a winner, Biden’s team is not expected to be given access to information. It’s an unprecedented scenario, but one Biden officials had contemplated could happen.
“With every day that passes it becomes more concerning that our national security team and the president-elect and vice president-elect don’t have access to those threat assessments, intelligence briefings and real-time information about our engagements around the world because you don’t know what you don’t know,” Jen Psaki, an adviser to the Biden transition, told reporters. “In order to prepare to govern it’s important they have access to that information.”
In the past, the incoming president would send groups of staffers into federal agencies. There, the next administration’s staffers are typically given office space to work while reviewing documents, receiving briefings and meeting existing staff.
In recent days, even some Republican senators have begun to argue Biden should at least be receiving the high-level intelligence briefings called the Presidential Daily Brief.
“The bottom line is our adversaries look at a transition period as a moment of potential weakness which they will exploit if possible,” said Michael Chertoff, former secretary of homeland security under Bush, during an online briefing for the media Monday organized by three groups urging the Trump administration to allow a transition to move forward.
The 9/11 Commission cited a lack of information during a transition as one of the factors contributing to the 2001 terrorist attack the year Bush became president.
In a Monday speech in Wilmington, Del., about restoring the economy, Biden urged the Trump administration to work on a transition so the U.S. can succeed, particularly in the fight against the coronavirus. “More people may die, if we don’t coordinate,” he said.
Chris Lu, who ran the transition for Obama after the 2008 election, recalled that GSA made its designation just hours after the election and that he began to speak twice a day with the Bush official charged with assisting with the transition, deputy chief of staff Blake Gottesman. The two discussed everything from security clearances for incoming aides to staffers accessing computers.
The transition went so well that when Obama signed a bill two years later designed to improve the transition process, Lu — a former deputy Labor secretary who is heading up that agency’s transition team for Biden — made sure to get two extra signing pens from the president to give to Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, and Gottesman.
“We’ve been doing transitions for 200 years in this country,” Lu said. “We’ve done it in war and depression and we’ve done it when there were bitter adversaries on both sides. This is the tradition of our country.”