Report

Trump Appointee Stonewalls Congress on Transition Progress

The General Services Administration is ignoring congressional deadlines for answers about the stalled transition that has forced the Biden team to improvise.

This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.

The General Services Administration (GSA) Headquarters building, where the Washington presidential transition offices for US President-elect Donald Trump are located, are seen in Washington, DC, November 21, 2016.
The General Services Administration (GSA) Headquarters building, where the Washington presidential transition offices for US President-elect Donald Trump are located, are seen in Washington, DC, November 21, 2016. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The General Services Administration has failed to meet a deadline to share with Congress its plans to certify the election results, Foreign Policy has learned, setting up a further standoff between Democrats on Capitol Hill and the Trump administration, which has pushed back on letting the presidential transition process begin as it continues to tout baseless allegations of voter fraud.

After GSA Administrator Emily Murphy refused to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s election victory last week, a move that typically takes place immediately after a winner is declared, three House Democrats, Reps. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, Gerry Connolly of Virginia, and Dina Titus of Nevada, requested answers by Wednesday as to why the outcome was not apparent, what actions the agency had taken to ascertain the victor, and whether President Donald Trump or the White House had directed the agency to block a potential transition.

But Murphy failed to respond to the letter, sent on Monday, or to provide an immediate briefing to Congress on efforts made to initiate the transition, a silence that could prompt further questions from Capitol Hill. “If the GSA does not recognize President-elect Biden’s victory, the House is looking at its options to stop GSA’s dangerous games,” a House aide said. The aide did not respond to follow-up questions.

While it was not clear what ability Congress would have to intervene to force GSA’s hand, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Lankford said he would intervene by Friday if the Trump administration does not give Biden access to daily intelligence briefings, and other colleagues, including acting Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Marco Rubio, have also echoed the need for Biden to receive classified briefings. The House aide did not respond to follow-up questions. In a letter to Murphy on Thursday obtained by Politico, more than 150 former top officials who served under Trump and other administrations warned that the certification delay could have grave implications for national security.

Access to transition resources “is essential to ensure continuity of government from one administration to the next, and each day the Administrator delays is another day that the Biden team will be without critical information to prepare to combat the threats that the nation faces,” wrote the authors, including former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden.

Biden has already named a detailed transition team to prepare for the inauguration, and on Wednesday night chose veteran Democratic operative and longtime aide Ron Klain to be his White House chief of staff. But with the official U.S. certification still up in the air, the president-elect has yet to receive the President’s Daily Brief, the intelligence community’s high-level national security rundown typically provided to all incoming U.S. administrations. The move is also preventing federal funds from flowing to the Biden team, as well as the arrival of “landing teams” at agencies across the government that will map out and fill politically appointed positions.

“The American people resoundingly voted to remove Donald Trump from office. By failing to ascertain Biden’s and Kamala Harris’ clear victory, you are undermining the urgent need for a prompt and effective transition of power in the midst of a global pandemic that must be focused on the safety and well-being of our citizens,” the lawmakers, led by Pascrell, wrote on Monday. Virginia Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine also asked Murphy to explain the delay, as the White House reportedly began to plan next year’s budget in a sign they are likely to continue to defy the transition.

The effects of the delayed transition have already been felt this week, as the Trump administration has overhauled key agencies while failing to grant access to the incoming Biden team.

Over the past two days, the Trump administration has remade the Pentagon’s leadership by booting officials seen as insufficiently loyal to the outgoing president, such as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and his chief of staff Jen Stewart—who was slated to lead the Defense Department’s transition effort for the departing team—with loyalists preparing for an unlikely second term. CNN reported on Wednesday that the Trump team is also preventing Biden officials from getting messages from foreign leaders to the president-elect that are piling up at the State Department, though Biden has begun taking calls with foreign leaders.

Meanwhile, the Biden team has started to look at end-arounds to pursue a transfer of power despite the current legal limitations, including reaching out to former Trump administration officials willing to help aid the transition, a former senior Trump administration official said. Members of Biden’s team are under strict orders not to have contact with current Trump administration officials and also lack the ability to field sensitive phone calls on secure lines, according to The Washington Post, which also first reported on the outreach effort to recently departed officials.

“They’re reaching out to people they think would be willing to partake in some form of transition and either aren’t partisan or are willing to work [with them],” the former official said, adding that the effort extended to most of the key strategic regions of the world where a future Biden administration will be adding staffers.

Update, Nov. 12, 2020: This article was updated with further details on members of Congress and former U.S. officials pushing to give President-elect Joe Biden access to daily intelligence briefings.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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