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After long, bitter delay, Biden transition kicks into gear

The General Services Administration on Nov. 23 cleared the way for President-elect Joe Biden to begin the transition process. (Video: The Washington Post)

After weeks of delay, uncertainty and lawsuits, President-elect Joe Biden’s team plunged Tuesday into a formal transition, with Biden aides beginning to meet with agency officials in preparation for a head-snapping Trump-to-Biden shift throughout the vast federal bureaucracy.

Uncertainty remains over how much cooperation the Biden team will get from Trump’s political appointees — some of whom are embracing the false notion that the president could somehow still win reelection — as Biden hopes to rebuild a demoralized federal workforce and prepare it to implement his drastically different agenda.

But Tuesday marked a clear shift from delay to action. Following Monday night’s long-postponed decision by a key administration official to approve the transition, Biden aides held at least 20 meetings with Trump officials and were in active discussions with every federal agency, as well as the White House, preparing for the daunting task of taking over a crumbling economy and overseeing the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine. They have been in touch with Anthony S. Fauci, whom Biden has said he would keep as the nation’s top infectious-disease expert.

The president-elect will begin receiving the President’s Daily Brief, a compilation of the most sensitive information affecting the nation, and the secure facilities that Biden’s team has set up in Washington and in Wilmington, Del., can now be used to review classified material.

It was a pivotal moment in a transition that has been held up in unprecedented fashion by a losing president refusing to concede. The transition will be unusually challenging in part because the Trump administration wreaked havoc with many agencies’ procedures and ethics, and Biden aides signaled that the transition’s first job may be determining the extent of the damage.

The Biden team got new email addresses in the hours after the transition became official, along with a new website domain affiliated with the federal government. They prepared to go over voluminous briefing books that provide updates on budgets, upcoming projects and nascent regulations, and the FBI can now begin conducting background checks on Biden’s nominees.

President-elect Joe Biden introduced his Cabinet picks in Wilmington, Del., alongside Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris on Nov. 24. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

In an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, the president-elect put a positive spin on the delayed process, a week after warning that American lives and national security were at risk without a smooth transition.

“I think we’re going to not be so far behind the curve as we thought we might be in the past,” Biden said. “There’s a lot of immediate discussion, and I must say the outreach has been sincere. [It] has not been begrudging so far, and I don’t expect it to be.”

Biden on Tuesday also formally introduced his new foreign policy and national security team, one set to take a much different approach than the “America First” policy that Trump pursued over the past four years.

“America is back,” Biden said at the start. “Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it, once again to sit at the head of the table. Ready to confront our adversaries and not reject our allies.”

He pointed to the past diplomatic achievements of his team, all of whom have spent many years in public service. Despite that experience, Biden sought to focus more on their barrier-breaking qualities.

Alejandro Mayorkas, who held several posts in the Obama administration, would be the nation’s first Latino homeland security secretary if confirmed by the Senate; Avril Haines, a former deputy director of the CIA, would be the first female director of national intelligence; and former secretary of state John F. Kerry will hold a new position as climate envoy.

“They’ll tell me what I need to know, not what I want to know,” Biden said. “To the American people, this team will make us proud to be Americans.”

Several nominees made a point of praising federal workers, signaling they would value diplomatic and intelligence staffers in a way that Trump had not. “I’ve witnessed their passion, their energy, their courage up close,” said Antony Blinken, tapped to be secretary of state. Haines added, “The work you do, oftentimes under the most austere conditions imaginable, is just indispensable.”

The transition continued to pick up momentum in other ways, as Pennsylvania and Nevada certified Biden’s wins, though Trump continued to fight the results in court and insisted that he will “never concede.”

“Joe Biden did win Arizona,” Gov. Doug Ducey (R), who had been reluctant to declare Biden the victor, acknowledged Tuesday during an interview with KTAR radio.

Trump had earlier created a standoff over the transition by insisting, against all evidence, that he had won the election, injecting drama and uncertainty into the typically bureaucratic process of the transfer of power.

The transition could not proceed until the head of the General Services Administration, a low-profile agency that normally handles real estate issues for the government, made an official ruling.

That process had been frozen until late Monday when Emily W. Murphy, an administrator whom Trump appointed in 2017, wrote a letter to Biden affirming that it could proceed. The decision came 16 days after Biden was declared the winner by numerous news outlets, based on projected voting results in the key states.

Biden officials initially tried to work around Trump’s resistance by meeting with outside groups that had kept a close eye on various Trump agencies during his presidency. But without formal approval, the Biden team could not talk directly to the heads of federal agencies or offices, scour their finances or read critical internal documents.

While Trump is still not conceding, he has now allowed the mechanics of the transition to move forward. Some within the GSA had feared he would block them longer or even fire those within the agency involved in the decision.

Instead, the president praised the department while insisting its determination was not definitive. “Remember, the GSA has been terrific, and Emily Murphy has done a great job, but the GSA does not determine who the next President of the United States will be,” Trump wrote Tuesday on Twitter.

Biden, speaking to reporters Tuesday, said he would be willing to meet with Trump, though an invitation appears unlikely. “Of course I would, if he asked,” Biden said.

Biden’s transition will now receive $6.3 million in federal funds that had been held up. Biden’s team has also raised private money to supplement the federal funds, bringing in nearly $7 million even before the election, according to a person familiar with the fundraising who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

Even before Monday’s announcement, Biden’s transition team had received government-issued computers and iPhones. It had also been granted 10,000 square feet of office space in the Herbert C. Hoover Building in Washington, although most of the work is being done remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Biden staffers had temporary security clearances, but their access to information was limited.

On Tuesday, though, the gears began grinding in earnest throughout the government.

At the Environmental Protection Agency, acting deputy chief of staff Wes Carpenter met with the transition team’s point person, Patrice Simms. When it comes to the environment, the transition from Trump to Biden is likely to involve a dizzying effort to halt the deregulatory zeal of the past four years and to reestablish the United States as a global force for tackling climate change.

At the Department of Justice — where some officials were privately frustrated at being unable to work with Biden’s team sooner — Lee Lofthus, the assistant attorney general for administration, was tapped to work with Biden’s agency team, led by Christopher H. Schroeder, a former Justice Department official now at Duke Law School, according to a Justice Department official.

The official said Lofthus would soon coordinate briefings for Biden’s team, to review the budget, department organization and other components affecting the agency.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency’s transition team was scheduled to hold an initial call with the Biden administration’s review committee Tuesday afternoon. NOAA leadership has prepared “extensive” briefing materials on agency operations, a senior NOAA official said.

Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, who had previously ordered civil servants not to talk to Biden’s transition team, were scheduling meetings Tuesday and putting together a briefing book.

Biden’s transition effort is being overseen by Ted Kaufman, one of his closest and longest-serving advisers, and over the past week, the team has focused on naming Cabinet secretaries and top White House officials.

While many of the nominees are well known, at least within Washington circles, Biden on Tuesday sought to introduce them as individuals. Several spoke of their families’ backgrounds as refugees, immigrants or outsiders, setting a tone that was markedly different from the Trump administration.

“My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world, I want to say to you: America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back,” said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s choice for ambassador to the United Nations.

Haines, who would oversee the intelligence community, said she would tell Biden things he may not want to hear — another remark that seemed designed to contrast with Trump, who has often publicly doubted the nation’s top intelligence officials.

“Mr. President-elect, you know that I have never shied away from speaking truth to power,” she said, adding that Biden will value the intelligence community “even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult — and I assure you, there will be those times.”

Blinken, a longtime adviser who was chosen as secretary of state, recounted the journey of his stepfather, a Holocaust survivor from Poland who was saved by an African American soldier after four years in a concentration camp.

“He fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: ‘God Bless America,’ ” Blinken said. “That’s who we are. That’s what America represents to the world, however imperfectly.”

Brady Dennis, Andrew Freedman, Tracy Jan and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.