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Trump appointee stands between Biden's team and a smooth transition

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – Transition officials for President-elect Joe Biden called on a top Trump administration appointee Monday to end what they said was unwarranted obstruction of the money and access that federal law says must flow to the winner of a presidential election.

The officials, speaking on background to reporters Monday night, said it was nearly unprecedented for Emily W. Murphy, the administrator of the General Services Administration, to refuse to issue a letter of “ascertainment”, which allows Mr Biden’s transition team to begin the transfer of power.

By law, Ms Murphy, the head of the sprawling agency that keeps the federal government functioning, must formally recognise Mr Biden as the incoming president for his transition to begin. It has been three days since news organisations projected that he was the winner of the election, and Ms Murphy has still not acted.

The transition officials said her inaction was preventing Mr Biden’s teams from moving into government offices, including secure facilities where they can discuss classified information. The teams cannot meet with their counterparts in agencies or begin background checks of top Cabinet nominees that require top-secret access.

A White House official pointed out, as several Trump allies have, that the transition after the 2000 presidential election was delayed by the court fight between the campaigns of Vice-President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush of Texas over several weeks. The official said it would be strange for President Donald Trump to send some kind of a signal to allow the transition to start while he is still engaged in court fights.

But Mr Biden’s aides said that the dispute in 2000 involved one state with only about 500 ballots separating the winner and loser, far less than in the current contest. In every other presidential race for the past 60 years, the determination of a winner was made within 24 hours, they said – even as legal challenges and recounts continued for weeks.

They said that they were considering “all options”, including potential legal action, to push Ms Murphy to let the transition begin.

Ms Murphy, who described herself as “a bit of a wonk” at her Senate confirmation hearing in October 2017, and also said that she was “not here to garner headlines or make a name for myself”, so far has chosen to side with the White House and Mr Trump, standing between Mr Biden’s team and a smooth transition.

The president refuses to concede the election and has his campaign contesting results in multiple states. Most Republicans have declined to recognise Mr Biden, much less appointees like Ms Murphy. And so the transfer of power that must take place is in limbo.

A White House spokesperson did not immediately respond to a question about whether Mr Trump was willing to let Ms Murphy begin the transition without a concession from the president, as his court fights play out.

Mr Leslie Dach, who was to lead the transition for the Department of Health and Human Services had Hillary Clinton won the presidency in 2016, said that despite the advance work done by Mr Biden’s team during the campaign, nothing could supplant having direct access to agencies, and that is impossible without Ms Murphy.

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“I think this is Trump sending a clear signal to everybody still standing in the administration that you’ve got to still follow his grievances,” Mr Dach said.

The stalling of the transition is part of an overarching refusal to acknowledge the election results by the Trump administration.

Officials in the White House presidential personnel office, known as PPO, have signalled that they will fire political appointees who search for new jobs outside of the administration during this time, according to two people briefed on the internal discussions. And on a call with USAID staff members on Monday, officials described the election as still happening, according to a recording obtained by Axios.

In a letter on Sunday from the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, veterans of previous administrations warned, “While there will be legal disputes requiring adjudication, the outcome is sufficiently clear that the transition process must now begin.”

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Aides to Mr Biden have been working for months to develop fine-tuned transition plans to help the president-elect quickly make good on his campaign promises. Those review teams made up of people knowledgeable about each federal agency are critical.

Ms Murphy has the legal authority to “turn on” the transition, releasing the US$6.3 million (S$8.5 million) in federal funds budgeted for the effort, making office space available and empowering team members to visit agency offices and request information.

Aides to Mr Biden said that they expected Ms Murphy to act within a few days, but that they were bracing for the possibility that political pressure from the president and his Republican allies would prevent that.

In a statement on Twitter on Sunday, Jen Psaki, a transition official, gently prodded Ms Murphy to make the announcement.

“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,” Psaki wrote.

“America’s national security and economic interests depend on the federal government signalling 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.”

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