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Image: General Services Administration
The General Services Administration (GSA) Headquarters building in Washington.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images file

Official blocking the transition process has an easy decision to make

Emily Murphy should know, there's a difference between a difficult decision and an easy decision that generates politically inconvenient consequences.


General Services Administrator Emily Murphy is probably unfamiliar to most Americans, though her name has popped up in a handful of recent controversies. When Donald Trump, for example, tried to block the relocation of the FBI's headquarters to help one of his businesses, Murphy was accused of providing Congress with incomplete information.

Now, however, the GSA chief is quickly becoming known for something else entirely.

As federal offices go, the General Services Administration is admittedly obscure, largely because its work is entirely administrative, working on behind-the-scenes tasks such as getting office space for federal officials. But part of the GSA's administrative tasks is making a presidential transition process possible: Emily Murphy has to sign a letter acknowledging President-elect Joe Biden's victory and allowing the incoming administration's transition team to formally get to work.

It may seem like a mundane procedural task, and after most elections, it is. But this routine paperwork is actually important: without it, there can be no transition process and no smooth handoff from one administration to the next. The incoming team can't even access federal resources set aside for this purpose without a green light from Emily Murphy.

At a public event yesterday, Biden explained that it's time for the General Services Administration to acknowledge the election results and allow the transition process to move forward. As CNN reported, Murphy still doesn't want to.

...Murphy is struggling with the weight of the presidential election being dropped on her shoulders, feeling like she's been put in a no-win situation, according to people who have spoken to her recently.... Facing mounting pressure from both sides, and even death threats, the sources say Murphy is working to interpret vague agency guidelines and follow what she sees as precedent to wait to sign off on the election result, a process known as "ascertainment" that would allow the official presidential transition to begin.

It may be tempting to feel a degree of sympathy for the Trump-appointed GSA administrator. After all, no matter how she proceeds, she'll be infuriating a sizable group of people. If she acknowledges reality, signs the letter, and allows the transition to proceed, the outgoing president and his allies would be enraged. Trump would likely even fire her.

But if she refuses to sign the letter, and continues to block the transition process, Murphy will be standing in the way of her own country's capacity to govern effectively.

The trouble is, those two competing concerns are not equal.

Inspiring yet another Trump tantrum may be unfortunate, but it's not altogether relevant when compared to the effects of a delayed presidential transition. There's a difference between a difficult decision and an easy decision that generates politically inconvenient consequences.

The Washington Post's Dan Drezner added in a column yesterday:

Without [Murphy's] ascertainment, Trump can continue to block Biden's landing teams from engaging with their departments, deny Biden access to intelligence briefings that would allow a seamless transfer of power, and sabotage any effort to bring an end to the pandemic. Right now, without any apparent logic, Murphy is guaranteeing to make the federal government less efficient, less effective and much less responsive to the American people. I feel her pain. But she seems oddly unaware that it is self-inflicted.

The law says that the transition process moves forward once the GSA ascertains the "apparent successful candidate" in the general election. There are no credible doubts about who the apparent successful candidate is in the 2020 presidential election. The sooner Murphy acknowledges this, the better it will be for everyone.

Postscript: If Murphy is concerned about the outgoing president firing her for making the obvious call, she can take some solace in the fact that she's going to lose her GSA job after Inauguration Day anyway.