In law school, I took a upper level constitutional law class called Separation of Powers Law. It could not have been a more timely class to take at the height of the campaign finance violations allegations of the President’s aides and Robert Mueller’s final report being released.
For all the high profile and controversial issues we covered, by the end of the semester, I sat in office hours with my professor only to come to the realization that almost all new separation of powers issues that arise come down to the reasoning in a case called Nixon v. General Services Administration, which used a balancing test to ensure that both the President and Congress have the ability to carry out their constitutional functions.
I can’t believe that this election too ended with the General Services Administration (GSA).
Emily Murphy, the head of the GSA, had the responsibility to “ascertain” the presidential transition. In other words, she must authorize that all relevant documents can be handed to the Biden-Harris administration and access can be granted to all relevant areas of the government.
For such a giant responsibility, it comes down to a simple signature. Most GSA heads contact the new president the night the election is called, even before the results are certified. But, for Emily Murphy, 16 days passed before she finally wrote a reluctant and personal letter to President-Elect Biden, authorizing the transition.
In the days leading up to the official transition, there were reports that Murphy felt “extreme pressure” to ascertain the transition, but feared being disloyal to President Trump who had hired her.
Surely Murphy did have backlash to fear. She could have lost her job, been Twitter shamed by the President, and spoiled all chances of working for pro-Trump groups and organizations in the future.
That fear could have motivated much of her reasoning surrounding the delay. In the letter she wrote to Biden, she speaks to the vagueness of the transition law, stating that there are “no procedures or standards for this process” despite the transition statute being in place since 1963. As the election was pending in court, and even though the Trump administration had a 1–36 court record, Murphy claims to have felt that this left enough uncertainty to delay the transition. This is despite being told that the President was still able to make legal challenges in court, even if she ascertained the election.
But, eventually, apparently with the President’s blessing, after Michigan and Pennsylvania certified their election results, and being called before the House of Representatives for a briefing, Emily Murphy sent the letter.
Murphy is not unique. The Trump administration has been fueled by Emily Murphy’s. From the beginning of his announcement that he would be running for President, those in his corner followed him while he strayed from tradition and decore. Trump refused to show up for debates, tarnished America’s reputation abroad, profited off the White House, disregarded security clearance procedures, and used crass language, all of which did not silence his team, it emboldened them.
It is this behavior that led Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic to compare Emily Murphy, and I would extend to those like her, to Adolf Eichmann in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
Eichmann was a Nazi bureaucrat. He was the operations manager behind the transportation of millions of Jews to concentration camps in order to carry out the Nazi’s Final Solution. In Arendt’s book, where she documents the war crimes trial of Eichmann, she speaks to just how bland he was. She shockingly reports that he was not sadistic or evil, but he somehow was able to carry out evil in a “terrifyingly normal” fashion. He was a “joiner,” a follower. He took orders and carried them out, according to Arendt.
Some have criticized Arendt for her work in humanizing Eichmann or lessening the blame for his role in the Nazi operation by stressing an absence of any malicious or lethal mindset.
But her work sheds light on how how mindless bureaucrats can become mindless ideologues.
Trump has made this election, his presidency, about him and not about the country. From his tweets to his press briefings, they all speak about his successes, his problems, his agenda, not the country’s. The rhetoric makes it easy for his followers to go from backing an institution, to backing a person.
I think Anne Applebaum is right to believe that Murphy has made the shift from bureaucrat to ideologue. Murphy, the head bureaucrat of the most mundane agency in the Executive branch, actively tried to undermine democracy by following the President’s lead and delaying a peaceful transition. She is an incredibly boring person, pursing incredibly destructive work.
I do not think Murphy believes she is being a dishonest obstructionist. But I do think she has bought into the lies and the norm-breaking this administration has been characterized by. And that is all she needs to delay a process fundamental to the perpetuation of this democracy. To her, that is just doing her job. Only with her leader’s support, did she cave to the pressure of moving the country forward.
None of this is to say Eichmann or Murphy are good people. In fact, they are bad, evil people, hollow of morals, who played key roles in what is and what will be historical stains. The way they have conducted themselves should be a lesson on how easy it is to be a follower and to commit wrongs, without feeling wrong.
For all the outwardly passionate obstructionists that Trump has fortified, there are also quiet followers. It is only through understanding them too, will we really be able to see comprehend the full repercussions of his presidency.