A little-known agency head who has delayed triggering a formal government transition to the Biden administration has been a top official at the organization when it sided with President Donald Trump in disputes.
Emily W. Murphy, the Trump-appointed administrator of the General Services Administration, has not yet declared Joe Biden as the apparent winner of the presidential election, a decision that would unlock millions of dollars in transition funding but contradict Trump’s unfounded assertion that he won.
Murphy, who declined through a spokesperson to comment, was at the GSA when it decided to keep housing the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington’s Old Post Office Pavilion and when it abruptly reversed plans to relocate the nearby FBI headquarters that could free up real estate for a competitor.
That record is raising scrutiny of Murphy’s role under federal law ascertaining the winner of the presidential contest. Democrats and the Biden transition team have called on Murphy to confirm the projections made by independent media organizations on Saturday based on state vote totals and projections.
“She has a history of being subservient to President Trump,” said Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia who heads a House oversight subcommittee on government operations. Connolly called on Murphy to “do the right thing” and “begin the Biden transition without delay.”
Whenever the GSA makes the call it will launch a new phase of the presidential transition, allowing the Biden-Harris team to fan across the federal government, access expanded office space, start tapping into millions of dollars of funding and study detailed agency briefing books.
The GSA’s role is dictated by the 1963 Presidential Transition Act, which Congress has updated several times in a bid to promote peaceful, orderly handoffs and limit any national security vulnerabilities during the transfer of presidential power.
The ascertainment is usually routine, often happening without fanfare before dawn the morning after Election Day. This year, it’s anything but, as Trump insists “this election is far from over,” and mounts legal battles and recounts in several states.
The controversy over the GSA’s ascertainment is now creating drama for the normally low-profile agency that acts as the U.S. government’s landlord, managing federal buildings nationwide with a staff of about 11,000 and a roughly $30 billion annual budget.
A Biden transition official said the team is considering its options,including legal action, to pressure the agency, but declined to detail the moves it is considering. Federal law doesn’t dictate how Murphy should make the decision, and it’s not clear what legal resource the Biden-Harris team would have to challenge protracted delays.
Murphy could wait until the Dec. 14 meeting of the Electoral College — which would track the timeline under the Clinton administration in 2000. Then, the GSA waited to make the determination until after the Supreme Court’s Dec. 12 ruling in Bush v Gore, which awarded the presidency to George W. Bush.
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“An ascertainment has not yet been made,” the agency said in an emailed statement Monday. “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.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere stressed that “the Trump administration is following all statutory requirements.”
Although the formal transition is on hold waiting for the GSA’s declaration, the federal government has been preparing for months. And the Biden-Harris transition team has begun informal transition work anyway, with a coronavirus task force meeting and plans to soon name some early White House appointees.
Even so, the formal transition efforts — including detailed briefings with agency officials — are critical to continuity, said former GSA Administrator Denise Roth. Delays could limit the new administration’s access to information they will need “to hit the ground running” fighting the coronavirus pandemic and shoring up the economy, she said in an interview.
“Every day that transition doesn’t take place is a potential day that the next administration doesn’t move on with its business,” Roth said.
In 2016, Roth made the ascertainment that Trump had won the contest around 10 a.m. the morning after Election Day — a decision made easier by Hillary Clinton’s concession.
At the time, Roth said she and the agency’s general counsel were weighing several considerations, including calls by major news outlets and electoral votes from the states that has been called or completed their votes.
“The same factors that we’re looking at as a general public are absolutely the ones that the administrator and their team are looking at as well,” Roth said Monday. “We were not waiting for Electoral College to act.”
Murphy, the current GSA administrator weighing the matter, has been in the agency’s upper ranks since 2017. She was a senior official when it decided to continue the federal government’s lease of the Old Post Office Pavilion for the Trump International Hotel, just blocks from the White House.
The government lease was inked withDJT Holdings LLC several years before Trump was elected president in 2016. But the arrangement drew fire after his election because of the potential for conflicts of interest, with Trump potentially profiting from a hotel viewed as a destination for anyone seeking to curry favor with the administration.
The GSA rebuffed calls from Democrats and government watchdogs to cancel the lease, given its preclusion on providing any benefit to an “elected official of the government.” The Constitution’s emoluments clause also forbids federal officeholders from accepting gifts or payments from foreign governments.
But in March 2017, the GSA said there was full compliance with lease terms, after the property was placed in a revocable trust.
That didn’t end the controversy. In 2019, the GSA’s inspector generalconcluded that the agency had “improperly ignored” constitutional concerns and existing precedent in its handling of the lease, saying decision making around the matter was marred by “serious shortcomings.”
It is not clear what role Murphy played in the GSA’s decision around the hotel in spring 2017, when she was a White House liaison at the agency. Murphy was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as administrator in December 2017.
Murphy was also involved in a dispute over the future of the FBI’s dilapidated headquarters in downtown Washington after Trump’s 2017 decision to cancel a decade-old plan to raze the building and relocate the agency outside of the capital city.
House Democrats alleged Trump was motivated to keep a rival hotel from being built at the site of the FBI building on Pennsylvania Avenue, just across the street from the Trump International Hotel. Trump had raised the possibility of bidding on that site before running for president.
Emails released by Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee show that Trump discussed a new, costlier plan to demolish and rebuild at the existing site during a meeting with FBI Director Christopher Wray, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Murphy. The White House meeting occurred less than three weeks before the new FBI headquarters plan was announced.
House Democrats accused Murphy of stonewalling their investigation into the matter,characterizing her response to information requests as “woefully inadequate.” And areport by the GSA’s inspector general in August 2018 found Murphy’s congressional testimony on the plan “was incomplete and may have left the misleading impression that she had no discussions with White House officials in the decision-making process about the project.”
Despite the controversies, Murphy has mostly flown under the radar as a longtime civil servant. She served as the GSA’s acquisition director from 2005 to 2007, in addition to stints at the Small Business Administration and as a congressional aide for House committees on small business and armed services.
A St. Louis native, Murphy is a 1995graduate ofSmith College and a 2001 graduate of theUniversity of Virginia School of Law, according to a White House biography and Senate confirmationdocuments.
She has spent much of her professional life focused on acquisition issues, including as an attorney advising clients on government contracting. Murphy also spent five years in executive positions at a tech startup focused on federal contracting.
— With assistance by Justin Sink, and Ari Natter
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