'It's a terrible situation': Inside a government bureaucrat's pressure-filled decision to delay the transition
As the only obstacle between President-elect Joe Biden and the formal start of the presidential transition, General Services Administrator Emily 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.Posted — Updated
This was never a position that Murphy thought she would find herself in, the people said. But as the government official in charge of signing off on the election result, President Donald Trump's refusal to concede the election has thrown Murphy into the middle of a political firestorm.
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.
Still, Murphy's stalled sign-off is one of the more confounding decisions made since the election, since it's clear Biden won and Trump's legal challenges won't change the outcome. Biden's team has warned the delay has real-world consequences to national security and their Covid-19 response.
Sources who spoke to CNN could not say whether Murphy has been in touch with the White House on the issue.
"She absolutely feels like she's in a hard place. She's afraid on multiple levels. It's a terrible situation," one friend and former colleague of Murphy's told CNN. "Emily is a consummate professional, a deeply moral person, but also a very scrupulous attorney who is in a very difficult position with an unclear law and precedence that is behind her stance.
"She's doing what she believes is her honest duty as someone who has sworn true allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and the laws that govern her position," the friend added.
Murphy declined an interview request for this story, and GSA declined to comment.
A technocrat with a lengthy career
Sources close to Murphy describe her as a technocrat and policy wonk, with a lengthy career as a congressional aide and at GSA. It's not clear what specific actions Murphy is waiting on before granting ascertainment. Sources tell CNN she is basing her decision on what she sees as the precedent set by the 2000 election, where there was not a clear winner for more than a month.
Two sources close to the transition told CNN that Trump's disastrous day in court last Friday had moved the dial forward, but days later there was still no ascertainment letter from Murphy.
The impending results from Georgia's recount, which are expected to be certified Friday with no dramatic shift in results, along with other states beginning to certify the election are also factors in Murphy's decision, these sources said. But Murphy has not publicly said what the definitive line will be.
"My experiences with Emily have led me to believe she is an ethical and moral person, but I strongly disagree with her current decision not to ascertain the election," said a former administration official and colleague of Murphy's who had spoken to her in recent days. "I think she's absolutely making the wrong decision. President-elect Biden clearly won. And there really is no question about that... It is wrong to delay, even by another minute, the signing of the ascertainment."
It's been more than a week since CNN and other news organizations called the presidential election for Biden, and the Trump campaign's lawsuits challenging the result have been repeatedly tossed out of court, while failing to challenge enough votes that would change the result.
But Trump has continued to make repeated false claims that he did not lose the election, and Murphy's decision not to ascertain the result has locked Biden and his team out of access to contacts with the federal agencies, funding to help ramp up government hiring for the new administration and access to classified intelligence briefings.
The Biden team also does not have access to the federal government's coronavirus vaccine distribution efforts. "More people may die if we don't coordinate," Biden said Monday. There are also concerns among national security experts that a delayed transition could leave the government vulnerable to security risks, both domestic and abroad.
Speaking to her predecessor
Democrats are furious with Murphy for playing into Trump's false fantasies that the election was stolen from him. At the same time, Republicans are pressuring her to stand firm and not sign the ascertainment.
Previous colleagues of Murphy told CNN that despite being a political appointee, she was not an avid Trump supporter or loyalist.
"She's going to be really thoughtful about both the letter of the law, any guidelines, explicit guidance, any precedence, as well as the overall intent. She comes out of contracts, where that is the whole nature of the work," the friend and former colleague said.
In a sign she sensed the post-election trouble awaiting her, Murphy held a call before November 3 with one of her predecessors, David Barram, who was in charge of GSA during the 2000 election, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the call. Barram, a Bill Clinton political appointee, eventually ascertained Bush as then winner of the 2000 election after the Supreme Court ended the Florida recount. The call was set up by mutual associates as a way for Barram to discuss his experience and the difficult position he was put in, the sources said.
The Associated Press first reported the call.
While GSA has compared the current situation to the standoff between George Bush and Al Gore, Barram said in a podcast last week that this election was "dramatically different" than what happened in 2000. "It was all about Florida. One state, and something like 537 votes. Everyone knew that once Florida was settled, the winner would become clear," Barram said.
From the Hill to GSA
Murphy has been in charge of GSA since 2017, making her one of the longer-serving Trump appointees. Before her nomination, she served as a senior adviser to her predecessor at GSA, as an aide for the House Armed Services and Small Business Committees, as a lawyer in private practice and as GSA's chief acquisition officer during the George W. Bush administration.
Multiple sources described Murphy as a political person, but not a Trump person and "not a partisan hack."
Originally from Missouri, Murphy was introduced at her confirmation hearing by former Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who praised her lengthy career in government. She was confirmed in the Senate by voice vote.
Suzette Kent, the Federal Chief Information Officer appointed by Trump in 2018, co-chaired a government board with Murphy, and described her as a professional who "demonstrated a high degree of integrity" and "extremely competent."
Since the election was called, Democrats on Capitol Hill have demanded Murphy explain why she hasn't granted ascertainment, sending her a letter last week that she's yet to respond to. But Biden's team is arguing to congressional Democrats that it makes the most strategic sense for now to let public pressure build on Trump preventing the transition, rather than trying to subpoena Murphy.
Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said last week that he would "step in" last Friday if Biden was still not receiving intelligence briefings that are supposed to be given to the president-elect. That deadline has come and gone. On Tuesday, Lankford said he and his staff have been in touch with GSA, and defended Murphy's decision not to grant ascertainment.
"I did step in, I did talk to them on Friday," Lankford said, though he did not say if he'd spoken to Murphy.
"There's no way they can ascertain," Lankford added. "GSA is not the electors."
Controversy over FBI HQ
This isn't Murphy's first brush with controversy as a Trump appointee. In 2018, she was part of a controversial decision to scrap plans for a new FBI headquarters outside Washington, DC, and instead rebuild on the same location -- across the street from the Trump International Hotel. She faced questions at a 2018 congressional hearing over whether the White House was involved in the decision, which critics charged Trump influenced in order to keep a competitor from gaining the space across from his hotel.
Murphy had spoken to Trump about the project in the Oval Office, which she did not disclose to lawmakers. The GSA Inspector General charged that her testimony "left the misleading impression that she had no discussions with the President or senior White House officials in the decision-making process about the project." Murphy said the inspector general's conclusion was "unfounded and unfair."
"Despite a rocky start, we developed a constructive, productive, ongoing relationship," Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees GSA, told CNN. "It's my fervent hope she will do the right thing here."
Alan Chvotkin, a senior executive at a Washington, DC, trade association who has worked with Murphy for more than 20 years, said he was a strong proponent of her nomination because of her deep understanding of how the agency operates and her commitment to understanding the nature of the issues she's dealing with.
He said when Murphy faced a decision, she would consult broadly, ask others for research, and ensure she knew the scope and ramifications of a decision before making it.
"In a heightened political atmosphere, many people don't know her, and they certainly don't know the job that she's responsible for," Chvotkin said. "If you just isolate one or two topics it's easy to reach the wrong conclusion."
Former Republican Missouri Sen. Jim Talent told CNN he has known Murphy 25 years and that she worked for him when he chaired the House Small Business Committee during the Clinton administration. Talent praised Murphy's integrity, blaming the law for putting the onus on the GSA.
"Something is wrong with the system where the responsibility for declaring the winner of a Presidential election seems to devolve upon the General Services Administration -- it's the Government's landlord. They buy furniture," Talent said. "I understand people's frustration, but the problem is an electoral system that cannot come to a finality. It's not Emily or the GSA."
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