Joe Biden’s transition team has tried to project calm as President Donald Trump refuses to concede and many Republicans — and even one key part of the federal government — continue to have his back.
But behind the scenes, Biden’s advisers are in the midst of a fierce lobbying blitz to get Trump’s allies to crack. They’re dispatching emissaries from past administrations — Republican and Democrat — along with a wide array of business and interest group leaders to intercede on Biden’s behalf. According to three transition officials, Biden’s team is in talks with multiple Republican leaders and officeholders to end the transition stalemate, warning them of risks to national security and public health if the president-elect isn’t granted access to the government.
Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are also deploying aides and allies to ramp up public pressure on General Services Administrator Emily Murphy, who has refused to acknowledge Biden’s victory and thus allow the transition to officially begin. And Biden’s roster of medical experts is making the rounds on cable TV to argue that the transition needs to get underway now for the country to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to hundreds of millions of Americans quickly next year.
Democratic congressional leaders have joined in, too, criticizing Murphy for holding up the transition.
“At some point, we have to recognize defiance for what it is. And that’s not tolerable. We had an election. Joe Biden won — not, not even close — it’s a decisive win,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, chairman of a key House Oversight subcommittee who has written to Murphy. “I worry about precedent. If this isn’t challenged and dissipated quickly — the denial part here—it becomes a new tactic in dragging out an election and clouding the results in the minds of lots of … voters. And that is dangerous in a democracy.”
Biden’s team is trying to walk a line between blasting Murphy and Republicans — which might cause them to dig in more — and highlighting what they call legitimate dangers of delay.
They want to avoid open partisan warfare, convinced it would only further inflame Trump and his supporters. Instead, the thinking goes, apply pressure privately, and remove enough bricks in Trump’s wall of defenders until it collapses.
“The general posture is every option is on the table, but right now we’re really trying to focus on the public pressure phase and really trying to show the cost of not receiving ‘ascertainment’” — the term for recognizing Biden as the winner — said another Democrat involved in discussions.
But getting Republicans to come around has been a slog.
So far, only a half-dozen Republican senators have backed Biden’s position that the transition should formally begin or publicly acknowledged his victory: Mitt Romney (Utah), Susan Collins (Maine), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Ben Sasse (Neb.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Jim Risch (Idaho).
“I don’t think it would cause any harm to be helpful to the transition,” Rubio said last week. “I don’t think it concedes anything,” referring to Trump’s legal challenges to the election.
Biden aides are trying to frame the issue in real-life terms. If he and his staff aren’t brought up to speed soon, it could leave the nation vulnerable to foreign threats, they say. The massive undertaking of distributing Covid-19 vaccines could be postponed by months absent coordination between Trump’s government and the incoming administration.
Trump’s coronavirus task force is currently drawing up plans for vaccine distribution — a process that by law precludes Biden’s team — when it will almost certainly fall to the president-elect to oversee the actual process. Another adviser pointed to remarks by Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, calling the transition snag a threat to public health.
Several Biden aides and advisers predicted the spike in coronavirus cases and concern about delaying a vaccine will spur Republicans to change their stance. However, Republicans are also feeling pressure to question the validity of Biden’s claim to the White House, and casting doubt on the certification of election results in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan. Trump is also pursuing a recount in Georgia and a partial recount in Wisconsin.
Biden himself and his transition team have repeatedly emphasized the risks if they’re not allowed access to government data on the pandemic. Biden on Monday warned that “more people may die” if the transition doesn’t move forward.
In a Covid-19 briefing call on Tuesday, Biden’s team of medical experts said their ability to draft plans to distribute vaccines will be hampered by a lack of access to official government data on coronavirus cases, hospital bed counts and supplies, including personal protective equipment.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said his department won’t work with Biden’s team before the GSA makes a determination.
“We’ve been unable to get access to the kinds of things we need to know about — the depth of the stockpiles, we know there’s not much at all,” Biden told a virtual meeting of health care workers Wednesday. He said his health advisers are still in the dark about Trump’s plans to distribute the vaccine.
To further highlight the issue, Biden this week met with outside national security experts in Wilmington, Del. to discuss their experiences battling coronavirus. And while Harris received a classified intelligence briefing in her capacity as a senator, Biden noted he is not entitled to such classified briefings until the GSA acts.
The GSA’s refusal to acknowledge Biden’s election victory is also blocking access to millions of dollars in government resources that would cover an array of costs, such as staff, travel, experts and consultants. It would also enable the Biden team to freely contact government officials including Fauci.
While there are legal options available to try to force the GSA’s hand, Biden’s team is avoiding them for now. A court battle could backfire and cause even longer delays, they say.
But Democrats are losing their patience, especially with Murphy, whom they accuse of doing Trump’s bidding throughout his term. Murphy, though a GSA spokesperson, has said she would continue to abide by all legal requirements and adhere to past precedent.
“Everything I’ve seen with respect to the behavior and conduct of administrator Murphy is that she salutes only the one source of power,” Connolly said. “And that is Donald J. Trump.”