In this daily series, Newsweek explores the steps that led to the January 6 Capitol Riot.
On Friday, November 20, four leading members of the House of Representatives and 41 senators sent letters to GSA Administrator Emily Murphy expressing concern that she had yet to ascertain President-elect Joe Biden as the winner, almost two weeks after news outlets called the race for him. Ascertainment, the letters said, were critical for federal departments and agencies to openly share information with the transition team, especially classified information.
“Your delay in acknowledging Vice President Biden’s status as president-elect could undermine efforts by the incoming administration to meet the needs of the American people in a time of national emergency,” they said.
A delayed transition in the year 2000, commentators said, was blamed for putting the U.S. at greater risk in the lead-up to the 9/11, according to the 9/11 Commission Report, because it harmed George W. Bush‘s ability to appoint national security personnel.
“The mistake right now of not sharing information with the incoming administration is outrageous,” said Larry Hogan, the Republican governor of Maryland. “I think it’s bad for Donald Trump. It’s bad for the Republican Party, bad for the country and our standing in the world. It’s diminishing the presidency.”
Another concern was that less than a week before the election, President Trump had installed White House lawyer Trent J. Benishek as GSA general counsel. This was after a September 2, 2020 executive order that modified the order of succession within GSA to place the general counsel as fourth-in-line to perform the duties of administrator. If the president fired the top three officials, his man would be in charge.
It all looked like a diabolical plan.
Few people outside Washington had ever heard of the General Services Administration. Established in 1949, the GSA is a federal government agency tasked with managing government buildings and real estate, and “acquisition, technology, and other mission-support services across government.”
In 1963, the Presidential Transition Act then additionally gave the GSA a prominent role in transitions, managing the complex process as well as the most mundane but important tasks, such as moving the incumbents out of the White House and the new president in just hours on the morning of January 20, Inauguration Day.
Caught in the middle of a deeply partisan nation, various election challenges and also reluctant to cross the White House, a week after the 2020 election the GSA established a new website—GSA’s Role in Presidential Transitions—that, according to the snapshot on the Internet Wayback Machine, stressed that the GSA did not “pick the winner in the Presidential election.”
The agency also tried to explain its role: “The GSA Administrator ascertains the apparent successful candidate once a winner is clear based on the process laid out in the Constitution.” The news media declarations and the actual vote count wouldn’t be sufficient. The GSA was saying that it had at least until January 6, when Congress certifies the vote, to formally “ascertain” the winner. But practically, the GSA said that “until an ascertainment is made” the agency would provide office space, networks, and expedited background investigations for security clearances.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said during a briefing on Friday afternoon—her first since October 1—that the White House had not put any pressure on GSA and the agency would make the ascertainment decision alone. And that seemed to be true. Though Donald Trump was still agitating about a stolen election, it is now clear that he never talked to Murphy, and also that he was increasingly distanced from any governing.
The Biden transition team, led by future White House chief of staff Ron Klain, complained that agencies weren’t cooperating with them. The news media was also generally reporting that Trump political appointees had told career officials not to work with the Biden transition team until the GSA ascertainment occurred.
Three days later, Murphy sent president-elect Biden a letter of ascertainment, one that was also deeply personal.
“To be clear,” she wrote, “I did not receive any direction to delay my determination. I did, however, receive 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. Even in the face of thousands of threats, I always remained committed to upholding the law.”
The FBI evidently did not take the threats of violence to a high-level government official seriously. (Neither did the mainstream media, which focused narrowly on Trump himself.) Perhaps the number of threats on social media and in real life made these threats seem like they were run-of-the-mill for 2020. Either way, there was a blind spot regarding the fact that there were U.S. citizens who were seditious—and violently disposed.