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Congress should start issuing subpoenas — now

If Trump officials won’t proceed with the transition, House Democrats should call on them to testify.

President-elect Joe Biden spoke at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Monday.
President-elect Joe Biden spoke at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Monday.AMR ALFIKY/NYT

As the nation and the world anxiously wait to see if Donald Trump will acknowledge the reality that he lost the presidential election, President-elect Joe Biden is going on with his transition plans as he and his team prepare to lead the federal government on Jan. 20. But because of Trump’s refusal to concede, and his party’s willingness to go along for the authoritarian ride, Biden has not been receiving national security briefings and his transition team has not been able to access crucial governmental resources to ensure a seamless transfer of power. Every day that goes by without the Trump administration’s cooperation puts the health and lives of countless Americans at risk.

In order to minimize the chaos and potential damage that Trump is unleashing, Biden and his party should deploy the one tool they have to ensure a productive transition: a majority in the House, and the chairmanships of committees that can subpoena key administration officials to testify under oath.


So far, House Democrats have sent letters calling on more than 50 federal agencies to do their part in laying the groundwork for a new administration by preserving their records, which is already required by law. They have also requested information from administration officials on why there is a holdup in the presidential transition process. Some Democrats, for example, sent a letter to Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration — the independent agency in charge of “ascertaining” the winner of the presidential election, an assessment that would release government resources to the Biden transition team — asking why she has yet to declare Biden the president-elect, as would be routine by now in a presidential election year. Murphy, however, had yet to respond as of this writing, despite the Wednesday deadline that Democrats gave her.

Murphy’s stalling of the transition could have profound national security implications, as was the case when George W. Bush was sworn in after a long legal challenge of the 2000 election results. The delayed transition caused a slowdown in his appointments of key national security personnel, which an independent commission found hindered his administration’s ability to identify security threats before 9/11. For Biden, a smooth transition would also go a long way in helping his administration manage the coronavirus pandemic. His chief of staff, Ronald Klain, for example, said that the Trump administration’s refusal to allow Biden to contact federal agencies and to share government resources could create problems for vaccine distribution.


That’s why if Trump administration officials won’t answer simple questions about why they aren’t proceeding with the transition, then Democrats have to use their authority to get them to testify before the nation and explain their decisions. In other words, it’s time to start issuing subpoenas.

Representative Gerald E. Connolly, a Democrat from Virginia who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee that oversees the GSA, understands the threat to American democracy of delaying the transition. “We’re on the razor’s edge here,” Connolly said in an interview with the Globe editorial board. “It’s a very dangerous moment.” While Connolly wouldn’t go so far as to say he is considering subpoenaing anybody at this time, that may eventually change — as it should. “All options ought to be on the table," he said, “including subpoenas.”


Forcing Trump administration officials to testify under oath would be helpful because that would isolate the source of the delay, which may well be the president himself. Murphy, for example, should be forced to explain why she has yet to ascertain that Biden is the president-elect. Is the president himself preventing her from making that assessment? Another official who would be helpful to hear from is Christopher Liddell, the deputy chief of staff who was charged with managing the transition process. Up until the election, Liddell had been meeting congressionally mandated deadlines for filing reports on the administration’s transition plans. But since the president’s refusal to concede, Liddell’s work has come to a halt. Democrats should ask him why.

Even the threat of these kinds of testimonies might push officials to do the right thing, because being forced to admit, under oath, that they are preventing a transition from commencing on presidential orders makes them personally complicit in subverting American democracy.

When all the counting is done, Biden is projected to have received more than 80 million votes, and over 6 million votes more than the sitting president. That will be the most votes anyone has ever received for president in American history. Anyone who is standing in the way of the electorate’s decision must be held accountable. It’s the job of Congress to make sure they are.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.