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Trump bows to reality as Biden shapes Cabinet

Evan Halper
Tracy Wilkinson and Don Lee Los Angeles Times (TNS)
President-elect Joe Biden waves as he departs the Queen Theatre after meeting virtually with the United States Conference of Mayors in Wilmington, Del, on Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.

WASHINGTON - The Trump administration yielded to the reality Monday that the presidential election will not be overturned, finally authorizing the start of formal transition proceedings as President-elect Joe Biden moved to make good his vow to appoint a historically diverse Cabinet.

Soon after Michigan certified its vote for Biden, a major blow to Trump's efforts to contest the vote, the General Services Administration official who has blocked the start of the formal transition for three weeks formally recognized Biden as winner of the election and said she would provide office space, access to government officials and other logistical resources to assist his team.

In a two-page letter to Biden, GSA Administrator Emily Murphy wrote that she decided "independently" to withhold the official nod until now and was not pressured "directly or indirectly" by the White House as Trump unsuccessfully fought the election in court with false claims of fraud. She denied that she had withheld the aid "out of fear or favoritism."

Soon after, Trump tweeted that he had recommended that Murphy "do what needs to be done ... and have told my team to do the same." Trump notably did not concede, however.

The start of the formal transition means Biden and his top aides will be given classified briefings on national security threats, among other assistance. They are also able to coordinate with federal health officials on the widening pandemic and a possible national vaccination campaign next year.

The latest twist in one of the nation's strangest elections came hours after Biden announced that he will nominate the first Latino to run the Department of Homeland Security and the first woman to lead the nation's vast intelligence apparatus.

Biden is also reportedly poised to nominate Janet Yellen, former chair of the Federal Reserve, as the first woman to ever run the U.S. Treasury. A respected figure with progressives and Wall Street alike, Yellen would help lead Biden's response to the economy-wrecking pandemic if she is confirmed by the Senate.

The nominees signal a wide-ranging White House national security and foreign policy leadership team. Unlike many in Trump's ever-shifting Cabinet, Biden chose known advisers with long records of public service and expertise.

Absent from Biden's initial round of Cabinet picks are any partisan warriors. The list is defined by deliberately nonpartisan and noncontroversial insiders who reinforce the president-elect's inclination to project competence and unity over settling political scores.

The most controversial figure may be Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden's pick for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. As a deputy secretary of DHS under President Barack Obama, the Cuban-born Mayorkas was a primary architect of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and a primary negotiator of the thaw in then-frozen U.S.-Cuban relations.

DACA and the opening to Cuba became top political targets for Trump and other Republicans. But the Senate has confirmed Mayorkas, who attended the University of California, Berkeley and worked as a federal prosecutor in California, three times in the past for his roles in government.

As Biden filled out his administration, Trump's efforts to overturn the election sputtered. A bipartisan Michigan board certified Biden's victory in the state and counties in Pennsylvania ignored Trump's demands that they delay certification of results.

Trump spent another day refusing to concede, but his authorization of the formal transition process, including classified briefings for Biden and his team, came after even some Republican lawmakers urged Trump to acknowledge reality. Unofficial election returns show Trump lost to Biden by 6 million votes and 306-232 in the Electoral College.

Wall Street cheered the news, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, with stocks moving higher.

Biden picked Avril Haines as the first female director of national intelligence, the nation's top spy. She served as deputy national security adviser under Obama and before that as CIA deputy director. The DNI helms the U.S. intelligence community, which has 16 agencies scattered across government.

Biden plans to bring longtime colleague John Kerry into the White House to serve as a special envoy for climate on the National Security Council, reflecting Biden's pledge to boost U.S. efforts to battle climate change. Kerry was secretary of state from 2013 to 2017 after serving as senator from Massachusetts and the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee.

Biden said that he will nominate Linda Thomas-Greenfield to fill the Cabinet-level post of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. A Black woman and former U.S. ambassador to Liberia, she was assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Obama.

The transition team publicly confirmed reports that emerged Sunday that Biden will nominate Antony Blinken, a veteran diplomat and deputy national security adviser, for secretary of state.

Biden also said he had picked Jake Sullivan for his national security adviser. Sullivan was deputy chief of staff for Hillary Clinton when she led the State Department, and then was a senior aide in her failed 2016 presidential bid.

"These individuals are equally as experienced and crisis-tested as they are innovative and imaginative," Biden said in a statement. "Their accomplishments in diplomacy are unmatched, but they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet the profound challenges of this new moment with old thinking and unchanged habits - or without diversity of background and perspective. It's why I've selected them."

Except for Kerry and Sullivan, the Senate must confirm the nominations. The names on Biden's list mark a cautious approach to a hostile, GOP-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is threatening to scuttle nominations his caucus deems unacceptable.

Control of the Senate remains in limbo until Georgia holds two runoff elections on Jan. 5. Unless Democrats win both - a long shot - the Biden administration will have to negotiate with McConnell.

At least so far, Biden's nominations appear well-positioned for Senate confirmation.

"These are people who are highly experienced and they are non-ideological," Michael Singh, a former national security official under President George W. Bush, said of the foreign policy nominations. "They are pragmatic foreign policy practitioners with a history of working across the aisle."

The nominations underscored Biden's aptitude for finding the center, with several of them welcomed enthusiastically by divergent factions in his own party. But there are emerging tensions as prominent voices on the left demand Biden give leadership roles to strident progressives.

Biden ran on a bold blueprint for governing that drew wide buy-in from the left, who were determined to oust Trump. Some progressives now worry that an administration dominated by the Democratic establishment will walk back Biden's promises to gain Senate support.

Biden's picks show he is seeking both to help advance his ambitious agenda and to bring competence back to key agencies after the chaos of the Trump years.

In Haines, for example, Biden is looking to restore professionalism and nonpartisanship to the DNI's office, which was rattled by Trump loyalists such as Richard Grenell and John Ratcliffe.

"Anything is going to be better than the last two guys," said Larry Pfeiffer, who overlapped with Haines at the White House and the CIA.

John Brennan, who headed the CIA under Obama, said Haines "enjoys the complete trust and confidence of Joe Biden, who will look to Avril to restore integrity and honesty at the helm of the intelligence community." He praised her "superior intellect, humility and legendary work ethic."

Blinken is a consummate diplomat, polished and telegenic, though so much in the foreign policy establishment that some progressives are uneasy with his appointment.

His approach is likely to contrast sharply with Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, who leaves a legacy marked by overt partisanship and policy changes often based on what was politically beneficial to Trump.

Blinken has acknowledged that some Trump-era steps will be difficult to reverse. In the Middle East, Biden does not plan to return the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, for example, but has said he will work to bring the Palestinians back into negotiations after they were sidelined by Trump.

Blinken would return to a more traditional diplomacy but also says the world has changed enough in the last four years to mandate new approaches. Some continuity is expected on trade and China in substance, if not in tone and temperature.