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After Weeks Of Delay, Biden's Official Transition Will Finally Begin

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After weeks of delay, President-elect Joe Biden's official transition will now formally begin. Today the General Services Administration, a previously little-known federal agency, sent the Biden team a letter making available official resources to help in the transition. The letter from the GSA administrator comes - as President Trump indicated on Twitter, he's clearing the way for the transition to begin. He has still not conceded. With us for more, NPR senior political editor Domenico Montanaro.

Welcome.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: And NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid, welcome back.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: Asma, first, give us the details of this letter, of this information from the GSA.

KHALID: Yup, so the GSA administrator, Emily Murphy, sent a letter of ascertainment to the Biden team. She said that because of, quote, "recent developments," including some legal challenges in some states deciding to certify their election results, she was now going to be making transition resources available to the Biden-Harris incoming administration. She did reiterate that she does not feel like it's her role to pick or to certify a winner. You know, it's worth remembering the election was called for Joe Biden more than two weeks ago by most news outlets. But she's been making this argument that, you know, as Trump was lodging these legal challenges to try and change the outcome of the election, there was still some sort of uncertainty and that, you know, we just didn't know the results. And to be blunt, we hadn't heard much publicly from Emily Murphy, but there were questions around why she had not yet ascertained the sort of election results that many news outlets had been declaring. Trump also did tweet out this evening - President Trump. He said that he's clearing the way for the transition to begin. But it's worth pointing out that Emily Murphy says she came to this decision on her own and that despite criticism, she says, that, quote, "contrary to media reports and insinuations, my decision was not made out of fear or favoritism."

CORNISH: Domenico, what now? What does this approval actually mean for the Biden team?

MONTANARO: Well, I mean, big picture, it means that this is finally the beginning of the end of Trump's futile efforts to hold on to power. I mean, this is the dam sort of breaking, a very big gusher here, you know, where we've seen Republicans sort of tiptoe to say, well, you know, we'll give the president some space. And this is the big thing that everyone was waiting for, for the transition to officially begin, which it is now. Procedurally, some $7 million or so will be made available to the Biden team. They'll get office space. They'll get lots of other resources from the federal government, including direct contact with federal agencies, staff, FBI background checks for Biden Cabinet members and advisers. And what the Biden campaign said is that they really want to look under the hood to see how the Trump administration has hollowed out some of these agencies so they can refill the holes.

CORNISH: Asma, there had been some pressure building over the past few weeks for the GSA to act. Was it influential? What happened?

KHALID: Well, I will say that, you know, we certainly did hear, I think, a sort of more concentrated effort from both transition officials and, frankly, even from Joe Biden himself around the consequences of this delayed transition. In the beginning, Joe Biden - you know, he sounded relatively upbeat. He would insist that the transition was progressing regardless. But I think with each passing day, there seemed to be this growing frustration. You know, notably advisers on his coronavirus task force did say that they were frustrated that they didn't have access to federal data on the pandemic, that they did not have information about vaccine deployment plans. And frankly, last week, you know, I was with Joe Biden in Delaware, and I heard him speak rather bluntly about the consequences of this delayed process. He said that one side effect could be that more people would potentially die from COVID.

CORNISH: Domenico, Trump was also feeling the pressure, at least from some quarters - right? - as key states certified their results. And then you had Republican lawmakers here and there calling for the transition to be approved.

MONTANARO: Yeah, and you had a couple of key people say things, prominent Republicans - retiring Senator Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania. You know, as that state was getting ready to certify, you know, he said this is basically over and that Trump needed to figure out how to move on, how to take his legacy and realize that he, you know, has done good things in his view but that he could damage his legacy if he continued on with these efforts. We heard the same thing from Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. We heard Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, who's been very close to President Trump, helped him with debate prep, say that his legal team has been a national embarrassment. They have continued to lose over and over again in the courts. And they really are questioning, how long are you going to keep this up? How long are you going to keep this in the courts without actually proving widespread fraud, which they have not at all?

CORNISH: Just to be clear, the transition has been approved. Trump has not actually conceded.

MONTANARO: I think this is going to be about as close as it gets to Trump conceding, where he says in his tweet following up to Emily Murphy, the GSA administrator's, letter, where he essentially said, do what needs to be done. That is probably as close as we're going to get to anything close to a formal concession. Now, maybe I'll be wrong. Maybe he'll say something else. He'll have certainly some opportunities to speak and, you know, think about how he wants his legacy to be remembered.

CORNISH: In terms of that transition, Asma, can you talk about what the Biden-Harris team has been doing in the ways they have been moving ahead so far?

KHALID: Yeah. We heard a number of names around both foreign policy and national security teams that were announced today. My colleague Franco Ordoñez also confirmed that, you know, President-elect Joe Biden intends to nominate Janet Yellen as his Treasury secretary. And that would be, you know, particularly key. She has a lot of experience dealing with economic crises. She would also be the first woman in that job.

CORNISH: That's Asma Khalid and Domenico Montanaro.

Thank you so much.

KHALID: You're welcome.

MONTANARO: You're so welcome. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.