The 2020–21 presidential transition was unlike any other in our nation’s history, occurring in the midst of a deadly pandemic and disrupted by the prolonged uncertainty about the outcome of the election.
Behind the scenes, Mary Gibert, the General Services Administration career official in charge of preparing the federal government for a smooth transfer of power, worked diligently to navigate tricky political waters and carry out her legally prescribed responsibilities during the country’s first virtual transition.
This included ensuring that dozens of agencies were fully prepared to brief the incoming administration on their organizations while operating in remote settings; serving as a member of the White House Transition Coordinating Council; making sure that President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team had access to federal funding, office space and the ability to operate virtually; working with the Presidential Inaugural Committee; and providing outgoing services to then-President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence.
“Mary scrupulously and admirably executed her responsibilities in the face of challenging and previously unforeseen circumstances in what will arguably be one of the most historic presidential transitions,” said Dorsy Yoffie, Gibert’s deputy at GSA. “Mary’s leadership, apolitical service and dedication to the letter of the law were key to ensuring the transition of power from President Trump to President Biden.”
The Presidential Transition Act requires a senior GSA career executive to coordinate the presidential transition, and Gibert was that person for the 2020 election. According to former Deputy GSA administrator Allison Brigati, Gibert was picked because she was “experienced, honest, straightforward, transparent and knew how to do it right.”
Gibert’s work with the agencies, the White House and the Biden transition team began many months before the November election, but the formal post-election presidential transition could not officially begin until the GSA administrator ascertained—or officially recognized—the apparent successful candidate.
This determination was delayed for about three weeks as election challenges by Trump were underway in several states, blocking Biden’s transition team from securing millions of dollars in funding, obtaining agency and intelligence briefings, and starting the formal ethics reviews for political appointees.
All of this meant that Gibert and her team could not implement their post-election transition plan and had to figure out what could and could not be done before prior to the GSA’s administrative determination of the election results.
“Mary was fielding hundreds of phone calls a day during the ascertainment period because no one knew what they were legally allowed to do,” Brigati said. The job required someone “who was calm, honest, kept things moving forward and wasn’t swayed by anyone or any side,” Brigati added. “That was Mary.”
Lee Loftus, the assistant attorney general for administration and the Justice Department’s 2020 transition director, said Gibert was in “uncharted territory” as she communicated with federal agencies and the Biden team, and sought to convince Trump administration officials that agency staff needed to prepare for a transfer of power even as the election was in dispute.
“She looked at the long-term responsibility that she had to the country and the responsibilities she had to the federal agencies to prepare in a competent manner for a potential transition. Had she not done that, the agencies would not have been ready,” Loftus said.
When ascertainment occurred at 6 p.m. on Nov. 23, 2020, Gibert set the formal transition in motion. By 8 p.m., federal agencies and the Biden team were having conversations. “We knew that every minute counted,” Yoffie said.
Carlos Monje, a member of the Biden transition team, said Gibert was “a straight shooter” and “a strong mediator.”
“If it were not for Mary’s leadership and diplomacy, this transition would not have been the success it was,” Monje said.
Chris Liddell, a White House deputy chief of staff who led Trump’s transition activities, called Gibert “an unbelievable professional” who had experience from past transitions and, as a long time career official, was completely apolitical.
“As soon as I met her, I knew we were in good hands,” Liddell said.
Gibert, who has worked in the federal government for more than 40 years and will retire in June 2021, said she sought to develop relationships and build trust with the key participants throughout the process, serving as an intermediary between the Trump White House and the Biden camp, and keeping confidences.
“The foundation for all of those relationships was being direct, honest and maintaining a nonpartisan role by just stating the facts,” Gibert said. “And if things were not going well, they had to hear it from me and not from the news or anyone else.”