This screenshot of the GSA presidential transition letter is marked up by Insider to show President-elect Biden addressed as 'Mr Biden'
  • The letter sent by the General Services Administration (GSA) to President-elect Joe Biden authorising his transition does not say that he won the election. 
  • It's very different to her predecessor's letter to then President-elect Barack Obama, which was straightforward and called him "President-elect."
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The letter to authorise President-elect Joe Biden's transition arrived late Monday — but is an unusual document which strained to avoid acknowledging his victory.

GSA Administrator Emily Murphy wrote to Biden on Monday, 16 tumultuous days after major networks widely called the election for him. (Insider and Decision Desk HQ called the election one day before.)

Her letter was sent after President Donald Trump said he was "recommending" the transition go ahead — although Murphy said that she came to her decision independently.

Murphy's letter did the same thing as other GSA authorizations — it unlocked funding for Biden and was the required signal for other parts of the federal government to cooperate with his team.

But Murphy's letter departed from form by refusing to address Biden as "President-elect" or by making an explicit judgement about the election's outcome. 

Murphy's letter instead complained about the criticism she had received and feigned total unawareness of who the apparent President-elect is. 

Here are some key differences between her letter and the letter from two transitions before, sent from the Bush-era GSA to the incoming Obama administration. It was tweeted on Monday by former Obama official Chris Lu.


'Dear Mr Biden'

  • In 2008, then-GSA Acting Administrator James A. Williams straightforwardly addressed his letter to "President-elect Obama." Murphy downgraded Biden to "Mr Biden."
  • Murphy did not say that she had made an "ascertainment" — the formal process of the GSA identifying the new president. This was despite an internal email from White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows seen by the Wall Street Journal saying that Murphy had indeed made the ascertainment. The 2008 letter was clear the Obama had been "ascertained" the victor.
  • While in 2008, the letter authorized $6.3 million for the transition without laying out the conditions, Murphy reminded Biden that his allotted $7.3 million "imposes reporting requirements on you."
  • Williams, the old GSA head, provided his phone number and another contact for assistance. Murphy referred Biden to a coordinator.
  • Murphy's letter ran to two pages and highlighted the "thousands of threats" she had received and complained about the position she had been in. Williams' letter was one page long. 
  • Williams' 2008 letter used boilerplate wording to name Obama President-elect "for the purposes of the Act" — i.e., to authorize the transition and no more. Murphy was at pains to make that distinction sharper, and wrote that her ascertainment was different to determining the "actual winner."
GSA Administrator Emily Murphy on March 13, 2019.

In elections, the GSA Administrator "ascertains the apparent successful candidate once a winner is clear," as the GSA website puts it. This releases resources to help the president-elect's transition into office, but it doesn't decide the presidency.  Biden's win in the 2020 election is clear, and has been accepted by all major news networks, the Federal Election Commission, and a growing number of Republicans. 

Out of 22 cases filed by Trump and the GOP contesting the result, none had been successful, as Insider's Sonam Sheth and Jacob Shamsian have reported. There were three cases left to be decided when the transition was authorised.

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