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State Department taking no role in Biden congratulatory calls with foreign leaders

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Wilmington, Delaware — One consequence of the General Services Administration's unwillingness to "ascertain" a winner of the presidential election is that the congratulatory phone calls President-elect Joe Biden is receiving from world leaders are happening without the help of the State Department, according to a transition official.

The GSA is the federal government agency that provides the president-elect's transition team access to federal agencies to aid in planning policy changes with current administration officials. But the current GSA administrator, Emily Murphy, refuses to acknowledge that Mr. Biden is the next president, so that the transition process can formally begin.

In the past two days, Mr. Biden has spoken with the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Ireland and the United Kingdom, according to readouts from the transition team.

The lack of GSA ascertainment means that the Biden-Harris transition team is being denied State Department-facilitated calls with foreign leaders as they reach out to express their congratulations, a transition official told CBS News.

"I'm letting them know that America is back. We're going to be back in the game," Mr. Biden said about the calls after a speech in Delaware on Tuesday.

This lack of coordination with the State Department regarding the congratulatory calls is unprecedented, said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service.

There is only one president at a time, and the established protocols of coordinating between the incoming and outgoing administrations is meant to protect U.S. global interests. That requires the administration to work with the transition team.

The center wrote of the transition process, "The State Department traditionally has helped coordinate phone calls between a president-elect and foreign dignitaries. Best practice would be for the president-elect to avoid commitments that might undermine the current administration."

In past transitions, the State Department has facilitated the logistics of the calls and provided translation services, possible talking points, and even taken notes, if needed. In the first month of his presidential transition, former President Barack Obama spoke with 44 foreign leaders, according to a count by the center.

Because Mr. Biden, as a recent U.S. vice president, has previous relationships with these foreign leaders, their aides seem to be pressing on with the long-distance phone calls between the two teams.

Asked about the State Department's role in the transition process on Tuesday, Secretary of State Pompeo did not acknowledge that Mr. Biden was projected to have won the election, and responded, "There will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration."

He went on to say that the world should have "every confidence" the department will retain its key functions and would "successfully transition "with the president who is in office on January 20."

"If they are just saying 'hi' I suppose that is not too terribly difficult," Pompeo said on Tuesday evening when asked on Fox News about the appropriateness of the foreign leaders' calls to Biden, "But make no mistake about it, we have one president and one secretary of state. One national security team at a time. It's appropriate that (this) would be that way."

The State Department did not respond to more specific questions from CBS News about the State Department transition efforts or its communications with the Biden team. 

The lack of ascertainment by the GSA could also inhibit access to classified information for incoming national security officials, access to secure facilities, and access to $6.3 million dollars of appropriated funds by Congress to pay for the transition activities, a transition official told CBS News.

While President-elect Biden would like to formally begin his transition, he expressed no dismay about the fact that he's not receiving the nation's most closely held information yet, suggesting to reporters on Tuesday, "Look, access to classified information is useful, but I'm not in a position to make any decisions on those issues anyway. As I said, one president at a time and he will be president until January 20."

Even if the current hurdle raised by the GSA remains, Biden said his transition team would continue its work.

"First of all, we are already beginning the transition. We're well under way," Biden said when asked about the GSA roadblock on Tuesday, "And the ability for the administration in any way — by failure to recognize our win does not change the dynamic at all and what we're able to do." 

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