Facing mounting strain from each side, and even dying threats, the sources say Murphy is working to interpret obscure company tips and comply with what she sees as precedent to wait to log off on the election end result, a course of often called “ascertainment” that will permit the official presidential transition to start.
Still, Murphy’s stalled sign-off is certainly one of the extra confounding choices made since the election, because it’s clear Biden gained and Trump’s authorized challenges will not change the end result. Biden’s workforce has warned the delay has real-world penalties to nationwide safety and their Covid-19 response.
Sources who spoke to CNN couldn’t say whether or not Murphy has been in contact with the White House on the difficulty.
“She absolutely feels like she’s in a hard place. She’s afraid on multiple levels. It’s a terrible situation,” one buddy and former colleague of Murphy’s advised CNN. “Emily is a consummate professional, a deeply moral person, but also a very scrupulous attorney who is in a very difficult position with an unclear law and precedence that is behind her stance.
“She’s doing what she believes is her trustworthy obligation as somebody who has sworn true allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and the legal guidelines that govern her place,” the friend added.
Murphy declined an interview request for this story, and GSA declined to comment.
A technocrat with a lengthy career
Sources close to Murphy describe her as a technocrat and policy wonk, with a lengthy career as a congressional aide and at GSA. It’s not clear what specific actions Murphy is waiting on before granting ascertainment. Sources tell CNN she is basing her decision on what she sees as the precedent set by the 2000 election, where there was not a clear winner for more than a month.
Two sources close to the transition told CNN that Trump’s disastrous day in court last Friday had moved the dial forward, but days later there was still no ascertainment letter from Murphy.
The impending results from Georgia’s recount, which are expected to be certified Friday with no dramatic shift in results, along with other states beginning to certify the election are also factors in Murphy’s decision, these sources said. But Murphy has not publicly said what the definitive line will be.
“My experiences with Emily have led me to consider she is an moral and ethical particular person, however I strongly disagree together with her present decision not to confirm the election,” said a former administration official and colleague of Murphy’s who had spoken to her in recent days. “I believe she’s completely making the incorrect decision. President-elect Biden clearly gained. And there actually is not any query about that… It is incorrect to delay, even by one other minute, the signing of the ascertainment.”
It’s been more than a week since CNN and other news organizations called the presidential election for Biden, and the Trump campaign’s lawsuits challenging the result have been repeatedly tossed out of court, while failing to challenge enough votes that would change the result.
But Trump has continued to make repeated false claims that he did not lose the election, and Murphy’s decision not to ascertain the result has locked Biden and his team out of access to contacts with the federal agencies, funding to help ramp up government hiring for the new administration and access to classified intelligence briefings.
The Biden team also does not have access to the federal government’s coronavirus vaccine distribution efforts. “More folks could die if we do not coordinate,” Biden said Monday. There are also concerns among national security experts that a delayed transition could leave the government vulnerable to security risks, both domestic and abroad.
Speaking to her predecessor
Democrats are furious with Murphy for playing into Trump’s false fantasies that the election was stolen from him. At the same time, Republicans are pressuring her to stand firm and not sign the ascertainment.
Previous colleagues of Murphy told CNN that despite being a political appointee, she was not an avid Trump supporter or loyalist.
“She’s going to be actually considerate about each the letter of the legislation, any tips, express steering, any priority, in addition to the total intent. She comes out of contracts, the place that’s the complete nature of the work,” the friend and former colleague said.
In a sign she sensed the post-election trouble awaiting her, Murphy held a call before November 3 with one of her predecessors, David Barram, who was in charge of GSA during the 2000 election, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the call. Barram, a Bill Clinton political appointee, eventually ascertained Bush as then winner of the 2000 election after the Supreme Court ended the Florida recount. The call was set up by mutual associates as a way for Barram to discuss his experience and the difficult position he was put in, the sources said.
From the Hill to GSA
Murphy has been in charge of GSA since 2017, making her one of the longer-serving Trump appointees. Before her nomination, she served as a senior adviser to her predecessor at GSA, as an aide for the House Armed Services and Small Business Committees, as a lawyer in private practice and as GSA’s chief acquisition officer during the George W. Bush administration.
Multiple sources described Murphy as a political person, but not a Trump person and “not a partisan hack.”
Originally from Missouri, Murphy was introduced at her confirmation hearing by former Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, who praised her lengthy career in government. She was confirmed in the Senate by voice vote.
Suzette Kent, the Federal Chief Information Officer appointed by Trump in 2018, co-chaired a government board with Murphy, and described her as a professional who “demonstrated a excessive diploma of integrity” and “extraordinarily competent.”
Since the election was called, Democrats on Capitol Hill have demanded Murphy explain why she hasn’t granted ascertainment, sending her a letter last week that she’s yet to respond to. But Biden’s team is arguing to congressional Democrats that it makes the most strategic sense for now to let public pressure build on Trump preventing the transition, rather than trying to subpoena Murphy.
“I did step in, I did speak to them on Friday,” Lankford said, though he did not say if he’d spoken to Murphy.
“There’s no manner they will confirm,” Lankford added. “GSA is just not the electors.”
Controversy over FBI HQ
This isn’t Murphy’s first brush with controversy as a Trump appointee. In 2018, she was part of a controversial decision to scrap plans for a new FBI headquarters outside Washington, DC, and instead rebuild on the same location — across the street from the Trump International Hotel. She faced questions at a 2018 congressional hearing over whether the White House was involved in the decision, which critics charged Trump influenced in order to keep a competitor from gaining the space across from his hotel.
Murphy had spoken to Trump about the project in the Oval Office, which she did not disclose to lawmakers. The GSA Inspector General charged that her testimony “left the deceptive impression that she had no discussions with the President or senior White House officers in the decision-making course of about the mission.” Murphy said the inspector general’s conclusion was “unfounded and unfair.”
“Despite a rocky begin, we developed a constructive, productive, ongoing relationship,” Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee that oversees GSA, told CNN. “It’s my fervent hope she is going to do the proper factor right here.”
Alan Chvotkin, a senior executive at a Washington, DC, trade association who has worked with Murphy for more than 20 years, said he was a strong proponent of her nomination because of her deep understanding of how the agency operates and her commitment to understanding the nature of the issues she’s dealing with.
He said when Murphy faced a decision, she would consult broadly, ask others for research, and ensure she knew the scope and ramifications of a decision before making it.
“In a heightened political environment, many individuals do not know her, and so they actually do not know the job that she’s liable for,” Chvotkin said. “If you simply isolate one or two matters it is simple to attain the incorrect conclusion.”
Former Republican Missouri Sen. Jim Talent told CNN he has known Murphy 25 years and that she worked for him when he chaired the House Small Business Committee during the Clinton administration. Talent praised Murphy’s integrity, blaming the law for putting the onus on the GSA.
“Something is incorrect with the system the place the duty for declaring the winner of a Presidential election appears to devolve upon the General Services Administration — it is the Government’s landlord. They purchase furnishings,” Talent said. “I perceive folks’s frustration, however the downside is an electoral system that can’t come to a finality. It’s not Emily or the GSA.”
CNN’s Manu Raju and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.