Trump-appointed head of little known US agency holds keys to Biden’s transition

The General Services Administration must assist handovers between US presidents after recognising election result

People watch a television news programme reporting on the US presidential election showing an image of US President-elect Joe Biden, at a railway station in Seoul on November 9, 2020. / AFP / Jung Yeon-je
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As President Donald Trump’s legal team continue their multi-state campaign to overturn the US election result, attention has focused on what has been – until now – a well-oiled bureaucratic transition process.

In the run-up to the election, a government agency known as the General Services Administration (GSA) helps prepare how a new government will move into federal buildings and oversee day-to-day expenses before it is officially settled into office.

Once the election result is known, the GSA must sign-off on handing over federal government resources to Mr Biden’s team – effectively, the agency has to confirm who won the election.

When that is underway, Mr Biden’s appointed staff can be vetted by the FBI, set up their offices and begin to work on policy ahead of the January 20 inauguration.

How world leaders reacted to Joe Biden's victory

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According to the non-partisan Partnership for Public Service, which runs the Centre for Presidential Transition, the job of the GSA is to ensure the 1963 Transition Act is followed to the letter, providing, “office space and administrative support (such as information technology and communications capabilities) to a president-elect and vice president-elect and, recognising a growing need for transition activities to start well before election day".

"In the post-election period, GSA is also authorised to pay expenses for staff, experts, postage and travel for the transition team of the president-elect.”

The head of the GSA has to sign off on this handover, releasing the required funds for it to happen ($9.9 million this year) following what is called “ascertainment” of who won the election.

Since Mr Trump is contesting the result, therein lies the problem.

Current GSA head Emily Murphy is an appointee of Mr Trump, which has sparked intense debate on exactly how she will uphold her legal duty.

Will she refuse to sign the letter authorising the handover until Mr Trump concedes? Or will she will ease Mr Biden’s transition by validating the election result now?

As Mr Biden has outlined plans to move quickly on the Covid-19 crisis and other key issues, a delay could be a problem.

Supporters of a smooth handover are not waiting to find out when ascertainment will take place.

In a viral tweet, lawyer Mark Zaid said that he would support journalists seeking to find out if Ms Murphy is deliberately trying to obstruct the handover, offering to assist with Freedom of Information Act requests in exchange for a filing fee.

According to Mr Zaid’s website, the lawyer “represents former/current federal employees, intelligence and military officers, whistle-blowers and others who have grievances or have been wronged by agencies of the United States Government or foreign governments”.

This could quickly mount pressure on Ms Murphy. Mr Zaid’s offer was retweeted by General Michael Hayden, former director of the CIA.

Ms Murphy has so far declined to make a public statement but on Saturday, GSA spokeswoman Pamela Pennington told NBC news: “An ascertainment has not yet been made. GSA and its administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfil, all requirements under the law.”