The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Under pressure, Trump appointee Emily Murphy approves transition in unusually personal letter to Biden

“I was never directly or indirectly pressured by any Executive Branch official — including those who work at the White House,” Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, wrote in her letter to Joe Biden.
“I was never directly or indirectly pressured by any Executive Branch official — including those who work at the White House,” Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, wrote in her letter to Joe Biden. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

After 16 days teetering between her duty to President Trump and the methodically unfolding reality that Joe Biden won the election, Emily Murphy declared the Democrat the apparent victor Monday in an unusually personal letter to him.

Day after day, as her boss tried to subvert the election results with fraud claims and legal challenges, the embattled head of the General Services Administration held off on making what is usually a routine call after a presidential election. The administrator declares the apparent winner, and transition resources flow.

This would be different. Murphy, a by-the-book expert in federal procurement policy, consulted with her senior staff and her attorneys. The transition law dating to 1963 that was supposed to guide her in determining when a candidate has won had little to offer in the current case, with a president refusing to concede and a Republican Party standing by him.

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

As pressure grew, the low-profile head of the government’s real estate and procurement agency became a stand-in for the divisions engulfing the country. Trump said Monday he had recommended that Murphy start the transition, but she insisted that she acted on her own.

“I have always strived to do what is right,” she wrote to Biden. “I was never directly or indirectly pressured by any Executive Branch official — including those who work at the White House or GSA — with regard to the substance or timing of my decision.”

Murphy, 46, who was appointed by Trump in 2017, wrote that she had received threats “online, by phone, and by mail directed at my safety, my family, my staff, and even my pets in an effort to coerce me into making this determination prematurely.”

Read GSA Administrator Emily Murphy’s letter to Joe Biden authorizing the presidential transition

Several media outlets projected Biden as the winner on Nov. 7, four days after Election Day, but Trump maintained that he had won.

Her Democratic friends told her that the president could still challenge the election results in the courts, even if she authorized transition resources to Biden and allowed him to start building a new government. More than $7 million in taxpayer money and access for his team to federal agencies were on the line as Biden officials prepared for the arduous task of distributing a coronavirus vaccine and shoring up the economy.

But Murphy wanted more certainty before triggering the transfer of power, those close to her said, even as her resistance was upending hundreds of years of peaceful handovers. She considered the mileposts to come. Battleground states would certify the vote and Trump’s legal fight would play out, she told colleagues.

Then there was the president’s anger, and the risk that he would fire her and her top aides if she moved forward. Republicans in her party, while privately acknowledging that Trump had lost, were sticking with the president in public. Murphy had little cover.

Then threats came in as furious Trump critics demanded that she release the money. The GSA had to provide her with a security detail. Democrats on Capitol Hill were summoning Murphy to brief them and threatening to haul her to a public hearing.

Eventually the tide shifted. In recent days, more and more Republicans have urged Trump publicly to accept his loss. And as Michigan certified its votes Monday following the president’s legal defeat in Pennsylvania, her decision became clear, friends said. She would close one chapter in the election’s messy aftermath with a two-page letter to the next president.

While Trump did not concede in response to Murphy’s action and vowed to continue fighting the results, her action was a concrete acknowledgment by the administration that the ground had shifted in Biden’s favor.

Her team had notified the White House Counsel’s Office on Friday that she planned to designate Biden the winner on Monday, one friend said. Murphy did not hear anything back.

Murphy and her senior staff were bracing for a tweet from Trump announcing that they were fired, two people familiar with their thinking said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the discussions.

Yohannes Abraham, executive director of the Biden-Harris transition, in a statement called Murphy’s decision “a needed step to begin tackling the challenges facing our nation, including getting the pandemic under control and our economy back on track.” He said the transition team would begin work in the coming days to learn what’s going on at agencies across the government, hinting at the massive changes the Trump era has brought.

“In the days ahead, transition officials will begin meeting with federal officials to discuss the pandemic response, have a full accounting of our national security interests, and gain complete understanding of the Trump administration’s efforts to hollow out government agencies,” Abraham wrote.

The president, who has falsely claimed since the results started coming in on Election Day that he won and pushed conspiracy theories about fraud in voting, said on Twitter that he accepted Murphy’s decision. But he vowed to continue his fight to overturn the results. “Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail!” he wrote. “Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am 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.”

The Trump appointee who can start the Biden transition is in no hurry

Murphy had confided in friends and colleagues that without a concession from Trump, she was hard-pressed to acknowledge Biden’s victory as the president demanded recounts and mounted legal challenges, and as battleground states had not yet certified their results.

She told people close to her that the White House did not call her to pressure her, although Chief of Staff Mark Meadows called to inquire about her safety, one friend said. In recent days, the mounting anger and threats from Trump critics saying she was blocking the transition led her to fear for her safety, and the GSA provided her with a security detail, this person said.

Several of Murphy’s allies had told the president that she was a loyal aide but was receiving threats for not declaring the election for Biden, one senior White House aide said. Another White House official said dual fears — for her safety and of testifying before Congress — weighed on Murphy.

In her letter to Biden, she lamented the vagueness in the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, which guides the transition and declaration of the winner.

“Unfortunately, the statute provides no procedures or standards for this process, so I looked to precedent from prior elections involving legal challenges and incomplete counts,” Murphy wrote. “GSA does not dictate the outcome of legal disputes and recounts, nor does it determine whether such proceedings are reasonable or justified.”

Murphy was blunt when she said she did not think that “an agency charged with improving federal procurement and property management should place itself above the constitutionally-based election process. I strongly urge Congress to consider amendments to the Act.”

Josh Dawsey, Carol D. Leonnig and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.