President Donald Trump implied Tuesday he would continue contesting election results for at least another week, forestalling for days the required steps to transition government to President-elect Joe Biden and signaling to his administration that any moves toward a hand-off are on hold.
Trump’s refusal to concede has prompted senior officials across the government to spread word that any cooperation with Biden’s team is forbidden, officials at agencies and the White House said. The President’s budget office is continuing to advise agencies to prepare submissions for Trump’s upcoming budget proposal as if nothing is changing, people familiar with the plans said.
The White House, while offering little formal or explicit guidance, has nonetheless made known throughout the federal government that no steps should be taken that would imply Trump lost the election, according to people familiar with the matter.
The nation’s top diplomat, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, refused to accept Biden’s victory as President-elect during remarks at the State Department.
Instead, he said there would be “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”
“The world should have every confidence that the transition necessary to make sure that the State Department is functional today, successful today and successful with a president who’s in office on January 20 a minute after noon will also be successful,” he said at a midday briefing.
The reluctance to begin the formal transition process has prompted increasing concern among Biden’s team, who said Monday evening they were mulling legal steps to force the process that would allow them access to federal money and information.
Biden himself, however, shrugged off the delay as more of an inconvenience than a major hurdle in his efforts to assume power.
“I don’t see a need for legal action, quite frankly,” he said at a news conference in Delaware, where he has been holding meetings and speaking with foreign leaders, adding he believes he can get through the transition without federal funding.
Far from appearing angered by the situation, Biden offered only mild annoyance.
“I just think it’s an embarrassment, quite frankly,” he said of Trump’s refusal to admit defeat. “I say this tactfully: I think it will not help the President’s legacy.”
At issue is the official step of “ascertainment,” a formal determination by the General Services Administration that Biden won the election. That would unfreeze more than $6 million in funding and allow agencies across the federal government – including those responsible for providing highly classified briefings – to begin working with Biden’s teams.
Trump White House
Senior officials at federal agencies have determined their transition plans cannot proceed until that step is taken, according to people familiar with the matter. That means the thick briefing binders prepared by officials before the election are sitting unopened and office space reserved for Biden’s incoming team is dark and vacant while Trump continues to insist his loss isn’t real.
“WE ARE MAKING BIG PROGRESS. RESULTS START TO COME IN NEXT WEEK. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Trump tweeted on Tuesday.
Trump has made no mention of the steps underway by Biden’s team to launch a transition even as he contests the election results and had been only vaguely aware of the work his administration was doing in preparing for a transition over the past several months, though did have to formally sign off, officials said. While he did not put up any roadblocks in the planning stages, he was not involved and provided little or no direction.
But privately Trump has taken notice of Biden’s enhanced schedule of presidential-style briefings and speeches, which contrast sharply with his own mostly vacant daily agendas. Trump made a last-minute appearance in briefing room last Thursday but has otherwise not held an official event in a week.
Expectations in the White House
Inside the White House, there is no expectation steps toward a transition will move ahead until Trump either acknowledges his loss or the government formally declares Biden the winner. A senior official at one federal department said they have not received any guidance from the White House on the transition process since Biden was declared President-elect on Saturday, nor have they received any guidance from the GSA.
The team inside the White House has been led by deputy chief of staff for policy coordination Chris Liddell, who is a close ally of Jared Kushner’s. Chief of staff Mark Meadows is technically responsible for the transition planning team, but has left much of the work to Liddell. Before the election, Liddell oversaw efforts across the federal government to prepare briefing documents and designate teams to assist in the transition in the event Trump lost with the aim of providing Biden’s team the best and most accurate information so he could begin governing the day he took office.
Even should he acknowledge his loss, officials question whether Trump would participate in any transition efforts, even symbolic ones such as meeting with Biden in the Oval Office. No invitation has yet been extended.
Four years ago Tuesday, Trump sat for a 90-minute meeting with then-President Barack Obama days after his election win. Other members of his team also visited the White House, including Vice President Mike Pence, who met with Biden in his ceremonial office; Kushner, who strolled the South Lawn with Obama’s chief of staff; and Hope Hicks, Trump’s then-communications chief who met with members of Obama’s press staff.
Another senior administration official involved in the effort said while there haven’t been explicit instructions from the President or senior aides on how to proceed, it is the understanding among the transition teams that no steps to accommodate Biden’s incoming government should be taken until Trump signals he will concede. That includes both White House efforts and efforts at federal departments and agencies, where transition teams have been in place for weeks but are now in something of a holding pattern.
Yet even as the White House has avoided sending direct instructions, Trump’s aides have made their wishes known. The President’s personnel chief John McEntee spread word throughout the administration on Monday that if he hears of anyone looking for another job they will be fired, according to a senior official. The news dismayed many officials, who worry especially about young staffers who will soon need new sources of income.
And a person familiar with the plans confirmed the White House Office of Management and Budget is continuing to advise agencies to proceed on budget planning as if Trump would be serving another term.
The person said the team is “going forward assuming a win” when it comes to budget preparation. The budget normally comes out in February, after Biden will have been sworn in.
Signs of refusal
There were signs Tuesday of individual agencies’ refusal to accommodate Biden’s incoming teams. John Barsa, the acting deputy administrator of US Agency for International Development, told officials that his agency will not begin any cooperation with the Biden transition team until GSA has made made its determination, a United States Agency for International Development official confirmed to CNN. On a conference call with agency officials on Monday, Barsa said the GSA’s decision is all that matters in terms of the transition process moving forward.
At the Pentagon, the Defense Department is at a standstill in its plans to work with any Biden team members until the GSA decision is made. Defense officials have a transition office set up and ready to go for incoming landing teams, but won’t proceed until authorized.
A Treasury official said while the department began drafting transition documents a month before the election, there has been no communication with the Biden team in the days since the election was called about potential incoming officials.
Some informal discussions with the Biden transition team have occurred in law enforcement and national security realms, but official transition discussions are on hold, according to sources familiar with the matter. The Biden transition team includes some former officials who served in previous administration and have familiarity with the agencies where they would help with the transition.
One of the first rights of a presidential candidate after winning the election is access to the same highly-classified intelligence briefings about pressing national security issues that their soon-to-be predecessor has been offered daily. But with the election not yet ascertained by the GSA, Biden and his senior advisers are not yet receiving the President’s Daily Brief, as it’s known.
“ODNI follows the statutory direction provided in the Presidential Transition Act, which requires ascertainment of the candidate by the administrator of GSA prior to supporting a potential presidential transition,” the Office of Director of National Intelligence said in a Monday evening statement. “ODNI would not have contact with any transition team until notified by the GSA Administrator.”
National Security Council officials have not received any guidance yet on the upcoming transition, according to several administration officials. The national security council begins the transition early since it typically leads the process that other agencies will follow. The NSC, like other agencies, also works with highly classified information, which requires special protocol during a presidential transition.
While the Biden transition team awaits ascertainment, under federal guidelines, NSC officials – among them political appointees who will be leaving come January, and career officials who will stay on and continue their service after Biden takes office – say they’ve received no guidance from outgoing national security adviser Robert O’Brien about the status of their work or how they should proceed in the coming months.
“I think it’s going to be messy,” one of the officials told CNN, anticipating very little guidance from Trump principals.
Leaders at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have instructed division heads to encourage patience as they wait to be given the next steps in a transition.
“For now, we work for the Trump administration still,” a senior CDC official told CNN. As of Monday evening, senior officials had not been directed yet about what their next steps are. Internally, staff are prohibited from discussing politics, but that hasn’t stopped the water cooler talk about what happens next under a Biden administration.
Biden told his allies over the weekend that he wanted to give Republicans – and Trump – a little time to accept the results of the election. But less than 72 hours later, two officials say, reality is setting in that this transition may be more difficult that many inside Biden world assumed. There is an increasing sense they will have to fight more to preserve the legitimacy of the election outcome.
In a Monday evening call with reporters, Biden transition officials put pressure on the GSA to recognize Biden as the winner of the election and the President-elect and would not rule out legal action against the Trump-appointed body as one measure to force ascertainment.
A spokesman for the agency said it was not yet taking that step, saying instead the GSA would “continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law and adhere to prior precedent established by the Clinton Administration in 2000.”
Yet at this point in 2000, the presidential race was clearly undecided as 500 votes split the candidates in one state, a far different scenario than now when Biden holds clear leads in several battlegrounds. And in its report, the 9/11 Commission blamed the slow ascertainment in 2000 for crippling the incoming administration.
David Barram, the GSA administrator during the Clinton administration who ascertained Bush as the winner of the 2000 election, said Monday this year’s election is “dramatically different.”
“First off, all these media outlets who call the election have called it for Joe Biden, I think the winner is pretty clear,” he said on the podcast “Transition Lab,” hosted by David Marchik, director of the Center for Presidential Transition. “But I sympathize with GSA administrator Emily Murphy, but, you know, I have confidence in Emily to do the right thing.”
CNN’s Betsy Klein, Jeremy Diamond, Barbara Starr, Evan Perez, Vivian Salama, Zack Cohen and Alex Marquardt contributed to this report.