Who’s Emily Murphy, the woman blamed for holding up the Biden transition?

 Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration
Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, speaks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Washington in June 2019.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

The head of an obscure federal agency that is holding up the presidential transition knew well before election day that she might soon have a messy situation on her hands.

Prior to Nov. 3, Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration, held a Zoom call with Dave Barram, the man who was in her shoes 20 years earlier. The conversation, set up by mutual friends, was a chance for Barram, 77, to tell Murphy a little about his torturous experience with “ascertainment” — the task of determining the expected winner of the presidential election, which launches the official transition process.

Barram led the GSA during the 2000 White House race between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, which was decided by a few hundred votes in Florida after the Supreme Court weighed in more than a month after election day.


“I told her, ‘I’m looking at you and I can tell you want to do the right thing,’” recalled Barram, who declined to reveal any details of what Murphy told him. “I’ll tell you what my mother told me: ‘If you do the right thing, then all you have to do is live with the consequences of it.’”

It’s been more than a week since President-elect Joe Biden crossed the threshold of 270 electoral college votes to defeat President Trump and win the presidency. Unlike the 2000 election, when the winner of the election was truly unknown for weeks, this time it is clear that Biden won, although Trump is refusing to concede.

But Murphy has yet to certify Biden as the winner, stalling the launch of the official transition process. When she does ascertain that Biden won, it will free up money for the transition and clear the way for Biden’s team to begin placing transition personnel at federal agencies.

With Trump still balking at conceding and health experts forecasting a new phase of the pandemic, calls intensify for the start of a formal transition to Biden.

Nov. 15, 2020

The White House has not said whether there have been conversations about ascertainment between it and the GSA.

Murphy, 47, declined to be interviewed. On social media and cable television, she is being castigated by those on the left who say she is thwarting the democratic transfer of power. For their part, some Trump backers say she’s doing right by the Republican president, who has filed a barrage of lawsuits making baseless claims of widespread voter fraud.

Murphy, a University of Virginia-trained lawyer and self-described “wonk,” spent most of the last 20 years honing a specialized knowledge of government procurement through a series of jobs as a Republican congressional staffer and in senior roles at the GSA and the Small Business Administration. She did shorter stints in the private sector and volunteered for Trump’s own transition team in 2016.


She worked her way up through partisan politics to a position that isn’t in the spotlight but is undeniably a powerful cog of governance.

“I am not here to garner headlines or make a name for myself,” Murphy said at her Senate confirmation hearing in October 2017. ”My goal is to do my part in making the federal government more efficient, effective and responsive to the American people.”

Without using Biden’s name, Trump tweeted that ‘He won,’ something the president had not said before publicly.

Nov. 15, 2020

Yet Murphy has also found controversy during her time in government.

In late 2017, she took the reins of the GSA, a 12,000-person agency tasked with managing the government’s real-estate portfolio and serving as its global supply-chain manager. Murphy soon found herself entangled in a congressional battle over the future of the FBI’s crumbling headquarters in downtown Washington. Trump scrapped a decade-old plan to raze the building and move the agency outside the capital.

Some House Democrats believed that Trump, who operates a hotel on federally leased property nearby, was worried about competition moving into the FBI site and that he nixed the plan out of personal interest. Murphy seemed to give a less-than-precise answer to a lawmaker who asked about conversations with Trump and his team about the FBI headquarters.

The GSA inspector general found that Murphy gave answers in a 2018 congressional hearing that were “incomplete and may have left the misleading impression that she had no discussions with the president or senior White House officials in the decision-making process about the project.”

President-elect Joe Biden won his race by performing strongly in suburbs, building large margins among Black voters and chipping into Trump territory.

Nov. 15, 2020

In an earlier stint at the GSA during the George W. Bush administration, Murphy butted heads with GSA Administrator Lurita Doan.


Murphy, who then held the title of chief acquisitions officer, was one of several political appointees who spoke up in 2007 after a deputy to Karl Rove, then Bush’s chief political advisor, gave a briefing to GSA political appointees in which he identified Democrats in Congress whom the Republican Party hoped to unseat in 2008.

Murphy was among attendees who later told a special counsel that Doan had asked how the GSA could be used “to help our candidates.” Murphy left the agency soon after the episode. Bush forced Doan to resign the following year.

Danielle Brian, executive director of the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, said the episode had given her hope that Murphy, upon taking over at GSA, would be able to resist pressure from Trump.

“She was essentially a whistleblower,” Brian said. “I really thought she had the potential to stand up to a president. It doesn’t appear to be the case.”

Barram, the GSA administrator during the Bush-Gore contest, said he felt sympathy for Murphy.


“Republican lawmakers are asking her to be more courageous than they are,” Barram said. “Sure, it’s her decision to make, and she’s going to have to make it one of these days. But they could make it easier if five or 10 of them come out and say: ‘Biden’s won. Let’s congratulate our old Senate colleague.’”