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WASHINGTON — Five days before the presidential election, the Trump administration dispatched attorney Trent Benishek of the White House general counsel’s office to the General Services Administration.
The agency, which oversees government leases among other administrative tasks, is little known to the general public. Nor is Benishek’s name among those that have become a staple of Trumpworld reporting.
Accordingly, the move attracted no notice as the nation, and the world, focused on the Nov. 3 presidential election, perhaps the most consequential in modern American history.
GSA put out a press release, which said that as the new general counsel of the GSA, as well as its top ethics official, Benishek would “advise in the formulation and promulgation of GSA policies and regulations, oversee the agency’s litigation, and provide overall direction.”
Then came Trump’s defeat at the hands of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, announced on Saturday. Even as Biden emerged as the president-elect, Trump persisted in falsely claiming electoral fraud on the part of the Democrats. Republicans have, for the most part, stood by Trump, if not quite as enthusiastically as he may have hoped.
In refusing to acknowledge Biden’s victory, Trump has found a critical ally in Emily Murphy, the GSA administrator he appointed in 2017. She has so far declined to provide Biden with the transition resources — namely, office space and money, as well as governmental email accounts — that her agency is legally mandated to offer an incoming president.
The GSA is also names a federal transition coordinator to facilitate the immensely complex role of turning over the federal bureaucracy from one administration to another. Back in April, Russell Vought, who heads the White House budget office, issued a memorandum instructing federal agencies to comply with the Presidential Transition Act, which was first passed in 1963 and has been amended since then.
A transition coordinator has been named: longtime GSA official Mary Gibert. But the work of a presidential transition cannot fully begin until Murphy “ascertains” the election. As the Washington Post first reported, she has so far refused to do so.
A GSA spokesperson told Yahoo News in a statement Tuesday evening that “there are no updates at this time and GSA’s position remains the same. An ascertainment has not yet been made. GSA and its Administrator will continue to abide by, and fulfill, all requirements under the law and adhere to prior precedent established by the Clinton Administration in 2000.”
Benishek could prove a crucial ally in the effort to refuse to make an ascertainment, Democrats fear. “It can’t be good,” said Kimberly Wehle, a former assistant U.S. attorney. “It could be Trump ensuring that he controls all the potential havoc buttons these last few weeks of his presidency.”
The GSA does not have the power to stop the transition, explained Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., who sits on the House Oversight Committee and is an attorney. Certification of the election is completed by the individual states. However, Khanna went on to say, Benishek could direct Murphy to slow down the transition, which could buy the Trump campaign more time to find new means to reverse the will of the American electorate.
The GSA spokesperson disputed the notion that there was anything improper or nefarious about Benishek’s transfer, which she described as an “common professional move” whose significance had been blown out of proportion by House Democrats. And she said, additionally, that Rep. Khanna’s suggestions were “false” and “fully speculative,” and that Benishek would not be acting as a White House surrogate within the GSA.
"The general counsel reports to the GSA Administrator, he does not direct her as to what to do,” the spokesperson wrote. “Any speculation to the contrary is not accurate or based in fact."
But one top official who was involved in the Obama transition in 2008 speculated that the young attorney was put there “to keep tabs on Murphy.” The former transition member, who would discuss the matter only on the condition of anonymity, went further, speculating that Benishek “was installed there so the [White House] could fire the administrator and chief of staff, then have [Benishek] take over the agency to stop the ascertainment,” a reference to the process the GSA undertakes during a presidential transition.
Though Murphy is a Republican, she is not a White House insider, meaning that she may not be fully trusted to do the president’s bidding.
“GSA Administrator Emily Murphy must begin the Biden transition without delay,” Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., another member of the House Oversight Committee, told Yahoo News. “The administrator plays a critical role in the peaceful transfer of power and ensuring vital government services are not disrupted. This is all the more important amid a deadly pandemic. She should do the right thing.”
Kyle Herrig, president of the progressive government watchdog Accountable.US., echoed that sentiment. “Every day partisan operatives running the Trump GSA dangle critical resources over President-elect Biden’s transition team is a day our national security and public health is dangerously undermined during a global pandemic,” he said.
That would be in keeping with the Trump administration’s last-ditch effort to remake the federal bureaucracy in its own image, which has included high-profile moves like Monday’s firing of Pentagon chief Mark Esper, an ouster many predict will be followed by those of CIA Director Gina Haspel and FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Trump has also fired Bonnie Glick, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who last Friday became the first senior official to lose her job in the wake of election night.
Many of the personnel moves in recent months have been engineered by Johnny McEntee, a former football player at the University of Connecticut who served as Trump’s “body man” during the 2016 presidential campaign. He later followed the victorious real estate magnate to the White House, only to face an embarrassing dismissal in early 2018 for what were reported to be gambling-related problems.
McEntee returned to the White House in January, assuming control of the Presidential Personnel Office, despite having none of the managerial executive experience such an office would ordinarily demand. He has spent much of the year ferreting out suspected fifth columnists within the federal bureaucracy and installing Trump loyalists in their place. Those loyalists included college students with no experience in government.
Since the election, McEntee has also been looking to punish any administration officials who may be looking for employment beyond Jan. 20, when Biden will take the oath of office.
A White House communications official told Yahoo News that he could not comment on personnel matters.
McEntee did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s not clear just what the GSA’s continued refusal to cooperate with the Biden transition would accomplish, said Max Stier, the founder of the Partnership for Public Service, which runs the Center for Presidential Transition. The agency does not have the power to either certify or reject the outcome of an election; it is merely supposed to help the winner of that election get ready for office.
“I think it’s a mistake,” Stier said.
A decade ago, Benishek served as the press secretary for his uncle, Dan Benishek, who would serve three terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican in the Michigan delegation. In 2013, the elder Benishek was accused of improper use of private aircraft.
In a 3-2 ruling, the commissioners decided not to take any action against the congressman. Among those election commissioners was Don McGahn, who would become White House counsel in 2017.
Later, Trent Benishek joined the counsel’s office from Gibson, Dunn, a prestigious law firm with close ties to the upper reaches of the Trump administration.
During his time at the White House, Benishek worked on the impeachment of the president, which began in the summer of 2019 and culminated in an acquittal before a bitterly divided Senate earlier this year.
Benishek is one of 12 attorneys for the president listed as an author of a memorandum on impeachment submitted to the Senate. That memo calls the articles of impeachment “an affront to the Constitution and to our democratic institutions” while denouncing the Democrats’ “rigged process.”
Just what those claims could mean for the GSA is unclear, as the agency tends to stay out of electoral politics — and did, until very recently.
The agency has attracted attention ever since the Trump name came to be emblazoned on the Old Post Office, a grand building just blocks from the White House that is now the Trump International Hotel. Though that now infamous lease was signed under the Obama administration, the notion of a president acting as a hotelier (through a company he claims he has stepped away from) brought the GSA undesired attention.
Murphy came to the GSA after working for Republicans on Capitol Hill and the Republican National Committee. Democrats have charged her with lax oversight of the Trump hotel lease, in particular regarding spending by foreign governments there.
At a hearing earlier this year, Murphy claimed ignorance of the whole issue. “The only thing I know,” she said, “is what I’ve read in the paper.”
Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Trent Benishek is the nephew, not son, of Dan Benishek. Additionally, Dan Benishek was a congressman from Michigan, not Wisconsin. It has also been updated to include statements from GSA, including regarding the appointment of Mary Gibert as a transition coordinator.
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