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What is the GSA, and what role does it play in the presidential transition?

Trump administration allows Biden transition to begin
Trump administration allows Biden transition to begin 02:30

The peaceful transfer of power from one administration to another is one of the cornerstones of American democracy. Now that process can formally begin, as the leader of the federal agency which oversees the transition has signed a letter of "ascertainment" affirming the victory of President-elect Joe Biden.

Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration (GSA), said in a letter to Mr. Biden on Monday that she was now making "certain post-election resources and services available to assist in the event of a presidential transition."

"I take this role seriously and, because of recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications of election results, am transmitting this letter today to make those resources and services available to you," Murphy said in her letter.

President Trump has refused to concede the election, even as several states have begun certifying their results. In a tweet on Monday, Mr. Trump inched closer to a concession, saying that he was "recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same."

What does the General Services Administration do during a presidential transition?

The GSA is a sprawling bureaucracy established in 1949 that now has 12,000 employees and a $21 billion budget. It works largely behind the scenes to support other federal entities, with responsibility for managing federal office space, procuring supplies and improving the use of technology across the government.

The GSA provides a presidential transition team with Washington office space and coordinates access to federal agencies to plan potential policy changes with current administration officials, using $6.3 million allocated to support its efforts. 

In order to start this process, however, federal law states the GSA administrator must first issue a letter of "ascertainment" determining the likely winner of the race. The move is essentially a formal recognition by the current administration that a new president has been elected and a transition will occur.

Why did it take so long for the GSA to ascertain a winner?

Mr. Trump's campaign has launched lawsuits in several states to discount votes which it considers to be disputed, although these efforts have so far been unsuccessful. 

The GSA said in the weeks following the election that Murphy could not yet ascertain the winner of the presidential race, citing the precedent established after the 2000 election, when court battles over the Florida recount delayed the transition by several weeks. Murphy is a Trump appointee and former Republican staffer on Capitol Hill, and has a reputation as a "diligent professional," according to The New York Times

"GSA and its Administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law and adhere to prior precedent established by the Clinton Administration in 2000," a spokesperson for GSA told CBS News in a statement earlier this month.

However, that race involved a dispute over one state with a difference of 537 votes separating the two candidates, and Mr. Biden leads Mr. Trump by thousands of votes in several states. In 2016, the decision by the GSA acting administrator to begin the transition process occurred on November 9, the day after the election.

The nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, which includes veterans from administrations of both parties, released a statement earlier this month urging the GSA to kickstart the transition process.

"While there will be legal disputes requiring adjudication, the outcome is sufficiently clear that the transition process must now begin," the statement from the center's advisory board said. "We urge the Trump administration to immediately begin the post-election transition process and the Biden team to take full advantage of the resources available under the Presidential Transition Act."

In her letter, Murphy said she "did not receive any direction to delay my determination" and did not make any decisions "out of fear or favoritism."

Why is the transition process important?

The transition process is critical because it allows a new administration to begin considering how it will implement its priorities before taking office, and allows incoming officials to gain access to classified intelligence about threats around the world. 

According to a fact sheet from the Center for Presidential Transition, Mr. Trump's 2016 transition team had 328 agency review personnel engage with 42 government agencies. In 2008, President Barack Obama's transition team had 349 agency review personnel who engaged with 62 agencies.

The Biden-Harris Transition Team announced key members of its agency review teams on its website earlier this month.

"We must be prepared for a seamless transfer of knowledge to the incoming administration to protect our interests at home and abroad. The agency review process will help lay the foundation for meeting these challenges on Day One," said Senator Ted Kaufman, co-chair of the transition team. "The work of the agency review teams is critical for protecting national security, addressing the ongoing public health crisis, and demonstrating that America remains the beacon of democracy for the world."

Delaying the transition process can affect national security. The 9/11 Commission Report found that the shortened transition process after the 2000 election contributed to the nation's unpreparedness for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has not begun high-level briefings for Mr. Biden. He has been receiving a lower-level briefing since he was formally nominated, but is not receiving the Presidential Daily Brief, the crown jewel of intelligence products. In a statement earlier this month, an ODNI spokesperson said that the agency would not act until the GSA makes a move.

"ODNI follows the statutory direction provided in the Presidential Transition Act, which requires ascertainment of the candidate by the administrator of GSA prior to supporting a potential presidential transition. ODNI would not have contact with any transition team until notified by the GSA Administrator," the spokesperson said.

Can transition activities begin before it's official?

Informal transition planning can occur without the GSA's official blessing. In 2000, President Bill Clinton approved classified intelligence briefings for George W. Bush two weeks before the GSA administrator recognized Mr. Bush as the winner.

Mr. Biden has also already begun communicating with foreign leaders, a process that normally runs through the State Department. He has spoken to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It's unclear whether the State Department has listened in on the calls.

The Biden transition team did not wait to begin the process. Mr. Biden's transition team on Monday unveiled members of its coronavirus advisory board, comprised of former health officials and public health experts.

Mr. Biden has also begun to name several key administration officials, filling key positions on his national security team. Mr. Biden expected to announce Tony Blinken, a longtime diplomat and a member of Mr. Biden's inner circle, as his secretary of state.

In an initial statement after the election, a GSA spokesperson said that the Biden transition team is receiving pre-elect services which include office space, computers, and background investigations for security clearances.

Ed O'Keefe and Andres Triay contributed to this report.

Inside the federal agency charged with ensuring a smooth transition in presidential power 04:55

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