The GSA Emily Murphy transition letter is a study in conflicted language

Weeks after the networks declared the presidential election for Joe Biden, the administrator of the US General Services Administration made the decision to release congressionally appropriated resources and cash to fund the Biden transition team.

This required her to take two contradictory positions at once: that Biden won, and that Trump had not yet lost. The language in her letter is a good case study in the techniques writers use to cover their asses when taking mutually contradictory positions.

A close look at the GSA transition letter

The absurdity of this situation is that the GSA letter could easily have been one sentence, to wit:

Dear Mr. Biden:

The GSA is now releasing transition funds and resources for the presidential transition.

Sincerely, Emily Murphy

Notice that this letter says nothing about who won the election; you could leave that up the reader to interpret. But that’s not good enough, because Ms. Murphy needed to communicate her loyalty to the idea that the election is not settled, even as she released funds that are made available when the election is settled.

That sort of contradictory position needs two pages of CYA rhetoric.

Here’s a close read of Murphy’s letter authorizing the transition, including analysis of language and my own jargon- and bullshit-free translation. I’ve highlighted the weasel words — vague terminology and hand-waving — that often appear when people don’t know quite what they mean to say.

November 23, 2020

The Honorable Joseph R. Biden, Jr.
1401 Constitution Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20230

Dear Mr. Biden:

As the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration, I have the ability under the Presidential Transition Act of 1963, as amended, to make certain post-election resources and services available to assist in the event of a presidential transition. See 3 U.S.C. § 102 note (the “Act”). I take this role seriously and, because of recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications of election results, am transmitting this letter today to make those resources and services available to you.

Analysis: Why “have the ability” rather than “have the duty to”? Why “in the event of” a presidential transition? Why “recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications” as opposed to “the results of the election”? Because all those phrases are reasons to release the funds that do not imply that Murphy agrees who won the election. Notice also “I take this role seriously.” This is the first of a series of protestations regarding how Murphy is just doing her job — protestations that would not be necessary if she were actually doing her job. (Which public officials do not take their role seriously?)

Translation: I’m releasing the transition funds to you, but I won’t say who won the election.

I have dedicated much of my adult life to public service, and I have always strived to do what is right. Please know that I came to my decision independently, based on the law and available facts. I was never directly or indirectly pressured by any Executive Branch official—including those who work at the White House or GSA—with regard to the substance or timing of my decision. To be clear, I did not receive any direction to delay my determination. I did, however, receive threats online, by phone, and by mail directed at my safety, my family, my staff, and even my pets in an effort to coerce me into making this determination prematurely. Even in the face of thousands of threats, I always remained committed to upholding the law.

Analysis: Why state there was no pressure? (Actually, the president contradicted and undermined this statement, tweeting “I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols.”) “I have always strived to do what is right,” along with the statements about threats, are more chest-beating about how hard Murphy works to do the right thing, which is what public servants are supposed to do anyway. Is the point that the threats are what made her change her mind? If not, why mention them in a letter to Biden?

Translation: I thought I had a bureaucratic job free from controversy, but suddenly, I was thrust into conflict between loyalty to the president and the obvious truth. That was really hard, and lots of people said terrible things about me. By deciding now, I hope to escape that uncomfortable position.

Contrary to media reports and insinuations, my decision was not made out of fear or favoritism. Instead, I strongly believe that the statute requires that the GSA Administrator ascertain, not impose, the apparent president-elect. Unfortunately, the statute provides no procedures or standards for this process, so I looked to precedent from prior elections involving legal challenges and incomplete counts. GSA does not dictate the outcome of legal disputes and recounts, nor does it determine whether such proceedings are reasonable or justified. These are issues that the Constitution, federal laws, and state laws leave to the election certification process and decisions by courts of competent jurisdiction. I do not think that an agency charged with improving federal procurement and property management should place itself above the constitutionally-based election process. I strongly urge Congress to consider amendments to the Act.

Analysis: Murphy cites looking to precedent to determine the president-elect. Precedent shows that there have never been decisions that shifted the tens of thousands of votes in multiple states that would have been required to overturn Biden’s victory in the election. The reason there is a problem is rooted in precedent — there has never in recent history been a president who had so clearly lost the election and refused to concede. The result required her to make a decision — which is the job of agency heads — and what she is complaining about is the need to make that decision. Note the repeated use of the meaningless “strongly,” which is also one of President Trump’s favorite weasel words.

Translation: There is no clear guidance on what to do when a president loses re-election but refuses to concede. This made my life difficult. Congress should rewrite the law to address what to do when a losing president refuses to leave office.

As you know, the GSA Administrator does not pick or certify the winner of a presidential election. Instead, the GSA Administrator’s role under the Act is extremely narrow: to make resources and services available in connection with a presidential transition. As stated, because of recent developments involving legal challenges and certifications of election results, I have determined that you may access the post-election resources and services described in Section 3 of the Act upon request. The actual winner of the presidential election will be determined by the electoral process detailed in the Constitution.

Analysis: This just repeats redundant material from above.

Translation: I don’t get to decide who wins. So I will have it both ways. Mr. Biden, I think you are so likely to win that I am making the transition resources available, but at the same time stating that my determination doesn’t determine who actually wins.

Section 7 of the Act and Public Law 116-159, dated October 1, 2020, which provides continuing appropriations until December 11, 2020, makes $6,300,000 available to you to carry out the provisions of Section 3 of the Act. In addition, $1,000,000 is authorized, pursuant to Public Law 116-159, to provide appointee orientation sessions and a transition directory. I remind you that Section 6 of the Act imposes reporting requirements on you as a condition for receiving services and funds from GSA.

Analysis: Look at the subject of the first two sentences. In the first sentence, the subject is “Section 7 of the Act and Public Law 116-159.” In the second, which is passive, it is “$1,000,000” (was it authorized by zombies?). The proper subject of both sentences is “I” — but that would require Murphy to take responsibility for making funds and orientation sessions available. This is the classic example of passive writing that attempts to hide the actual decision-maker.

Translation: I have now made the decision to provide you with $6,300,000 in transition funds and $1,000,000 to fund orientation sessions for your appointees and to create a transition directory. Please make the appropriate financial reports to receive these funds.

If there is anything we can do to assist you, please contact Ms. Mary D. Gibert, the Federal Transition Coordinator.

Sincerely,

Emily W. Murphy
Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration

 cc: The Honorable Edward Kaufman
The Honorable Jeffrey Zients
The Honorable Mark Meadows
The Honorable Chris Liddell

Translation: Now that I have reluctantly made this decision to get myself off the hot seat, take the rest of your questions to Mary Gibert.

We see you equivocating

There’s a lesson here for every leader in a difficult position.

You can’t take both sides of an issues.

If you attempt to do so, the language you use will reveal your hypocritical positions. That’s never a good look.

Make a decision and stick with it. And don’t talk about how hard it was to do the right thing, because nobody gives a damn about that.

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