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What Role Does Federal Agency Play In Presidential Transition?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President-elect Biden may have started thinking about how to implement new policies, but one thing he cannot do at this point is move into any government office space or receive government funding for the transition because a key, if little-known, Trump administration official has yet to formally determine that Biden won the election. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Under the 1963 law the Presidential Transition Act, it's up to the General Services Administration, the GSA, to determine or ascertain the winner of the presidential election, at least as far as starting the process of turning over the keys to the new administration goes. Robert MacKichan served as general counsel to the GSA during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. He says the law is kind of vague about what this actually means.

ROBERT MACKICHAN: There's no legal standard contained within this act as to what constitutes, you know, the ascertainment.

NAYLOR: The GSA issued a statement saying that the GSA administrator ascertains the apparent successful candidate once a winner is clear based on the process laid out in the Constitution. It cites the 2000 election, which George W. Bush was declared the winner over Al Gore. But that came only after a December Supreme Court ruling. Still, MacKichan thinks GSA administrator Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, has so far acted properly.

MACKICHAN: If I were in her shoes right now, given what has been, you know, publicly made available, I think it would be premature. If you look at the 2000 situation with Bush versus Gore, I don't believe the administrator of GSA at that time made the determination until the results of Florida were finally certified.

NAYLOR: But Chris Lu, who was President Obama's transition director in 2008, says the process then was much different.

CHRIS LU: This was not an issue at all in 2008. The election was called at about 11 p.m. on election night. And within about two hours, I received a letter from the GSA administrator ascertaining that Senator Obama was the president-elect. And I'm not aware that this has really ever been an issue in previous elections.

NAYLOR: Being ascertained as the winner means the president-elect gets office space and each government agency to begin the transition process along with computers and $9.9 million to begin hiring and support. And while the logistics are nice, David Marchick, who directs the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition, says there are important real-world implications for a delayed transition. He points to the delay in the transition to the George W. Bush administration after the Supreme Court ruling.

DAVID MARCHICK: That slowed the process of the Bush administration getting their national security team in place. Eight months later, we had 9/11. When the 9/11 Commission did their autopsy on what went wrong, one of the things they pointed to was the slow pace of the Bush administration getting our national security team in place. And they said it impaired our ability to react.

NAYLOR: Marchick says Americans want the outgoing administration and the incoming one to collaborate on national security and issues such as getting a COVID-19 vaccine distributed and that the sooner that collaboration starts, the better for the nation.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF A FOREST MIGHTY BLACK'S "REBIRTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.