U.S. President Donald Trump’s reluctance to concede the race to Joe Biden risks delaying the vital work of handing over the reins of government to the next administration.
Already, what started as a 78-day window for transition work between Election Day and the Jan. 20 swearing-in ceremony has been shortened amid vote counts in battleground states. So far, it’s just a modest trim — nothing like the 37 days that George W. Bush had to formally prepare for his presidency in 2000, after the Supreme Court’s Dec. 12 ruling in Bush v. Gore.
But Trump has signaled that it could get longer.
“The simple fact is this election is far from over,” Trump said in a statement after Biden’s victory was called by major news outlets Saturday. “I will not rest until the American people have the honest vote count they deserve and that Democracy demands.”
Under the 57-year-old Presidential Transition Act, the administrator of the General Services Administration (GSA) — currently a Trump appointee — is empowered to formally ascertain the apparent winner. That allows transition teams to fan across the federal government, access expanded office space, start tapping into $6 million of funding and study detailed agency briefing books.
In this case, it would build on the support Biden has already received, including, since Sept. 1, some resources and government office space that has gone underused because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden’s team has begun the informal work of transition anyway, preparing to name some early White House appointees soon and hold the first meeting of his coronavirus task force on Monday.
No winner yet
After networks and the Associated Press called the race for Biden on Saturday, the GSA confirmed it has not yet ascertained a winner.
“GSA and its administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law,” spokeswoman Pamela Pennington said Saturday. Nothing had changed by Sunday afternoon.
There are no clear standards on how the determination can be made. “The GSA administrator ascertains the apparent successful candidate once a winner is clear based on the process laid out in the Constitution,” the agency said in an emailed statement late Friday.
That leaves the decision up to Emily W. Murphy, who was nominated by Trump and unanimously confirmed by the Senate to run the GSA in 2017. She was formerly a senior adviser to the agency’s acting administrator, and, before that, its chief acquisition officer.
“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,” the Biden-Harris Transition said in an emailed statement.
“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.”
In a statement Sunday, the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition praised the process so far and said it’s now time for the next phase to start. “While there will be legal disputes requiring adjudication, the outcome is sufficiently clear that the transition process must now begin,” the center said.
Federal agencies and Biden campaign staff already have been quietly planning for a potential presidential shift for months, following a decades-old process anchored in the transition law. And Biden launched a website on Wednesday dedicated to the potential White House shift, with the assurance that “the transition team will continue preparing at full speed so that the Biden-Harris administration can hit the ground running on Day One.”
Bush v. Gore
Bush’s handling of the truncated transition in 2000 could be a blueprint for Biden.
Although Bush staffers couldn’t begin interacting with federal agencies, a transition team still assembled in McLean, Virginia, to work on agency appointments and policy plans. Meanwhile, Bush started making hiring decisions at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Bush even named his chief of staff before the election was decided, tapping Andy Card to help him vet potential cabinet-level nominees. Card said he and Bush were focused on “planning what kind of government he wanted.”
While campaign officials were managing the recount, “we were focused on building a White House staff first and a Cabinet second,” Card said during a panel discussion last month. “The president-elect and I had a wonderful time kind of working under the radar screen, because most people were focused on what was happening in Florida.”
Biden’s decades of experience in D.C. could prove an asset and help make up for lost time. His transition team is stacked with Washington veterans and former Obama administration officials who have already been closely tracking agency actions under Trump.
Still, any post-election acrimony could complicate a presidential transition now unfolding amid an economic crisis and a pandemic. The handoff could also be challenged by absences in agencies’ upper ranks.
“The degree of difficulty of this transition is exponential, because of the fact that you have four crises simultaneously: a health crisis, an economic crisis, a political crisis and a social justice crisis,” said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition, in an interview before the election. But the U.S. has seen 223 years of peaceful transitions of power, even amid disputed elections, wars and depressions.
“It’s one area of Washington that has worked pretty well,” Marchick said, “because the stakes are so high, because continuity of government is so critical and because a peaceful transition of power has been a bedrock principle in our democracy since Washington handed the keys to Adams.”
The federal government has been preparing for a potential transition long before Election Day, as agencies assembled documents and prepared to hand over intelligence-gathering and policy making materials to a new administration. Before the election, the process was running smoothly, with all normal transition milestones under the law hit by the White House, federal agencies and the Biden team, Marchick said.
Since May, career officials in every federal agency have been developing transition plans and assembling briefing books to hand over to an incoming administration. A White House coordinating committee was established in September to facilitate similar work. The Justice Department also has been processing security clearances for key Biden officials — an early start meant to ensure that critical staffers have access to intelligence and there are no gaps that could be exploited by adversaries.
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