'No one can talk about it': Federal officials are fuming as transition books are gathering dust on their desks and their Trump-appointed bosses won't acknowledge Biden's win

  • Senior federal employees at agencies across the government spent months putting together briefing books and electronic documents to help the next president.
  • Those books are gathering dust on their desks as the Trump administration refuses to acknowledge that President-elect Joe Biden won the election.
  • Career officials are increasingly frustrated that the delay could hurt everything from national security to economic recovery and the response to the pandemic. But they fear that speaking out could hurt their jobs.
  • "We can't get them into the hands of the Biden team," a senior federal career employee who participated in the transition told Insider this week. "There's nothing that we can do."
  • Government employees say they're also barred from doing any planning inside their agencies for how policies might change under Biden. "The politicals don't want any talk about transition," the career employee said.
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Transition documents months in the making are gathering dust across federal agencies, and government officials in charge tell Insider they're growing frustrated with the wait.

Back in May, senior officials from every major government agency started regular virtual meetups to prepare for a possible presidential handover expected shortly after Election Day if Joe Biden had won. 

Career officials at the Pentagon, the Justice Department and other agencies worked for months to compile thick several-hundred-page briefing books highlighting everything a new team needs to know. They prepared details about how massive agencies are organized, phone numbers for key staff, and a rundown of which issues the incoming administration would need to deal with during its first 100 days in office.

They worked alongside White House officials and Trump appointees to meet the deadlines laid out in a federal law that spells out how transitions work. 

The problem now is the Trump administration won't let the agency officials give their books to the Biden team. 

As the files gather dust on desks across Washington while President Donald Trump refuses to concede the election, senior career government officials who planned for a transition are worried that the delay will cause extensive damage, including to national security, economic recovery efforts, and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Those books have now been prepared by all of these agencies and we can't get them into the hands of the Biden team," a senior federal career employee who participated in the transition process told Insider this week. That person requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the Trump administration. 

Government employees, such as national security and public health experts including infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, are barred from discussing the transition with the president-elect's team. That's because the General Services Administration, a little-known agency tasked with helping the federal government operate smoothly, hasn't officially acknowledged Biden as the winner. 

The GSA administrator has to sign a document to kick off the formal government transition. 

"We are prohibited from communicating with them," said the career employee. "There's nothing that we can do." 

The implications could be severe, particularly for national security issues, that person added. "Our enemies out there are looking at the transition for one of the soft points where the US government can trip up." 

Already, 16 of the 78 days the new administration would have had to prepare between Election Day and January 20 when Biden is sworn-in have passed. 

"The federal government is a very, very complex organization, and if an incoming president has just a few days for their team to get on top of the thousands of critical issues that are necessary to be aware of in the first few days of an administration, that is really quite dangerous," said the career employee who has worked on the transition. "I just can't see how anyone, let alone a president, would not want this to be successful."

'More people may die' 

Emily Murphy, the Trump-appointed leader of the GSA, is now at the center of a political firestorm for waiting to formally "ascertain" that Biden has won. A decision from her would unlock millions of dollars in federal transition funding and allow agency officials to send over their briefing books to Biden's team. Without Murphy's signature, Biden's transition officials also can't start interviewing government staff about what they need to know in advance of Inauguration Day on January 20. 

The Biden team is also pushing for the GSA to officially launch the transition process, warning that national security and the government's response to the pandemic that has now killed 250,000 people in the US will be imperiled. 

"More people may die," Biden said earlier this week when asked about the consequences of a transition delay.

The GSA said earlier this month that the agency "does not pick the winner" of the election and that it's abiding by the precedent established by the Clinton administration during the contested 2000 election where "the GSA Administrator ascertains the apparent successful candidate once a winner is clear based on the process laid out in the Constitution." 

Biden said on Wednesday that the GSA doesn't need to wait until he's certified as the official winner. He added that the law says the agency can recognize him now as the "apparent" winner. 

But a GSA spokesperson told Insider on Thursday that the agency's position hasn't changed. 

"There will be an impact," a former senior GSA official told Insider in an interview. "After the election of 2000, you saw the impact of that delay in terms of the lack of readiness for [the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks] and every day that goes by is critical in terms of losing ground on the pandemic, losing ground on national security issues." 

Biden's team has also not yet received details about succession plans within the agencies. Those arrangements lay out which career officials will step into leadership roles when Trump appointees step down on or before Inauguration Day. Those plans were due to be finalized by agency heads in September, but have not been released publicly. 

Trump aides 'don't want any talk about transition'

Meanwhile, the Biden team says it's doing everything it can to get ready for its new administration without the help of Trump officials. It's launched agency review teams packed with former government employees who are talking with experts outside of the executive branch. 

That includes interviews with congressional committees, the Wall Street Journal reported, and conversations with current and former Trump officials, according to CNN. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris still sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, so she has access to intelligence briefings that Biden can't get directly. 

Current and former government officials say they also suspect that backchannel conversations are occurring between Biden's team and federal agency insiders. 

Government workers who want to speak out about the importance of quickly starting the transition process say they're worried about potential consequences to their careers if they do so. Trump's team has recently fired political appointees deemed insufficiently loyal to the president.

Career employees have civil service protections that make them harder to dismiss, but Trump in October signed an executive order that would make it easier to fire federal workers, and many government employees are worried that the administration could relocate them or take other steps to complicate their jobs. 

Career staff at federal agencies told Insider in recent interviews that Trump-appointed officials aren't acknowledging or planning for an upcoming shift to a Biden administration. 

The president meanwhile continues to make baseless allegations of voter fraud and is challenging election results in court. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that he's still expecting "a smooth transition" to a second Trump administration. 

It's awkward for federal employees who are trying to prepare for Biden's team, but can't talk about it when Trump-appointed officials are around. 

"The elephant in the room is this transition and what everybody needs to do, or what happens at noon on January 20, and yet no one can talk about it," said the career employee who worked on the transition. "The politicals don't want any talk about transition…if there's a political on that call, we can't go there and talk about that." 

A senior career employee at the Environmental Protection Agency said employees there have been oddly quiet about the election results and what it means heading into 2021. 

"Everyone is pretending nothing has happened," that person told Insider in a recent interview. "I'm a little worried that we are unprepared to do our jobs."

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