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Fact check: Previous presidents have used ‘Office of the President Elect’

Thousands of social media users have been sharing posts that claim Joe Biden is not the U.S. President-elect and that there is no “Office of the President Elect” in the United States. The posts say that Biden invented the term, which has appeared on podiums and backgrounds at his recent speeches.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

Reuters photos and website archives show that past presidents-elect have, in fact, used the “Office of the President Elect” branding and this therefore is not something Biden invented. The term is used to refer to an incoming administration in the period between the November election and the Jan. 20 inauguration of the President-elect. At the time of this article’s publication, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) had so far declined to recognise Biden as the winner of the Nov. 3 election, although Reuters and major U.S. news organizations called a 306-232 Electoral College victory for Biden, based on final unofficial returns announced by U.S. states, the standard procedure used to announce the winner over many decades of elections. However, the Electoral College had not yet voted to confirm the outcome as constitutionally required, making Biden’s status as “President Elect” complex and disputed in the view of Trump’s side.

These posts here , here ,  herehere show pictures of Biden giving a speech in front of a backdrop with the words “Office of the President Elect” and “COVID-19 briefing” printed on it either side of Biden. The captions include 1. “There is no ‘Office of the President Elect.’”  2. “He is NOT the President Elect’” and, “This is what Propaganda and conditioning looks like. There is no *Office* of president elect. This is not a briefing, it’s a mans opinions [sic]”.

One tweet ( here ) by former White House aide and right-wing talk-show host Sebastian Gorka has the word “liar” written in red across the photo of Biden and says, “Beijing @JoeBiden’s team really thinks you’re dumb. As a former member of a real Presidential Transition Team, I assure you, there is no such thing in America as ‘Office of President Elect’. Until the Electoral College votes in December it’s ALL TO PLAY FOR. They’re lying.”

OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT-ELECT

The posts say there is no office of the “President-elect”. While this is indeed not an official government agency, the term and seal used by Biden are not new.

At Biden’s COVID-19 briefing on Nov.  9 he did have the branding “Office of the President Elect” on podiums and backdrops, as seen in Reuters photos  here , here   and  here . Biden also used the branding at other recent speeches, including one on health care on Nov. 10 and one on the economy on Nov. 16, as seen in Reuters photos  here   , here   ,  here and here  .

Both President Trump and former President Barak Obama used “Office of the President Elect” branding when they were president-elect, as seen in Reuters photos taken on Jan. 11, 2017 and Nov. 25, 2008 respectively, here , here , here and here . A photo from Dec. 14 2016 shows Trump using a “President-elect” seal, here .

The Obama administration also used the branding on its website, as seen here   .

The U.S. GSA ( www.gsa.gov ) is the government agency supporting the function of U.S. federal agencies. They have used the term “Office of the President-elect” in recent documents visible here   and here .

Professor Leonard Steinhorn at American University ( here ) told Reuters that the term is not official: “As I understand it, there's nothing in the law that specifies an official or government-approved "Office of the President-elect."

Daniel Weiner, Deputy Director of NYU’s Brennan Center Election Reform Program ( here ), told Reuters that while “Office of the President-elect” is not an official government agency, the term has been commonly used to refer to an administration’s transition team for decades, as it would be used in companies or public organizations.

“President Obama was the first incoming president to use a formal-looking seal,” he added, “but the concept has been around for quite some time.”

DEFINING THE PRESIDENT-ELECT

The social media posts claim Biden is not the president-elect. This claim is more complex.

As projected by Edison Research and officially reported by Reuters and major U.S. television networks including Fox News, Biden beat Trump by a 306-232 Electoral College margin and is trying to press forward with the transition (equal to the 306 votes that Trump won to defeat Hillary Clinton in a 2016 victory he called a “landslide”,   here   ,  here ).

President Trump has refused to concede the election, claiming without evidence that he was cheated by election fraud ( here ) and persevering with legal challenges filed in key states where he lost ( here ). Trump is also blocking the transition of power, preventing Biden from receiving classified intelligence briefings and from speaking with government experts on COVID-19 ( here ).

The winner of the presidential election is determined not by a national vote but through the Electoral College. States face a Dec. 8 deadline to certify their elections and choose electors for the Electoral College, which then officially selects the new president on Dec. 14. Those votes will officially be tallied by Congress three weeks later and the president is sworn in on Jan. 20, 2021. Electors can go rogue: in 2016, seven of the 538 electors cast ballots for someone other than their state’s popular vote winner, an unusually high number ( here ).

Weiner says there are two legal contexts where the term “President elect” is used. One is in the Twentieth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which refers to a “President elect” who takes office at noon on Jan. 20 following an election ( here ).

Weiner told Reuters that whether the term “President elect” should be used in this context can be debatable due to the Electoral College: "You could argue that we don’t technically have a ‘President-elect’ for this purpose until after the Electoral College votes. Although, most states ( here ) have laws ‘binding’ their presidential electors to vote for the winner of the popular vote in the state, so even in this context it’s arguably appropriate to use the term as soon as the winner is clear.”

Weiner explains that the second legal context where the term “President-elect” is used is the 1963 Presidential Transition Act ( here ), a federal law that governs presidential transitions. The act uses the term “President-elect” to refer to the “apparent” winner of the election. However, the act states that the winner is determined by the administrator of the GSA, which still has not recognized Biden’s victory this year ( here ). The Biden campaign has called the delay unjustified and said their victory has been clear ( here ).

Weiner says that the current situation, with the GSA – headed by a Trump appointee - refusing to recognize Biden has “never happened before” aside from in 2000, when the presidential election came down to less than 1,000 votes in one state – Florida - and there was a “genuine dispute as to the outcome”, so we are in “somewhat unchartered territory (now).”

He added that “aside from any legal formalities, we have a decades-long tradition in the United States of election winners, (with) the media, public officials and others using terms like ‘President-Elect’ as soon as the outcome of the election is clear.”

To remain in office, Trump would need to overturn results in at least three states, in unprecedented fashion, to reach the winning threshold of 270 electoral votes. The outcome of the election is unlikely to change, however, as judges having rejected most of the Trump administration’s lawsuits filed so far ( here ).

Congress is scheduled to count the Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, which is normally a formality. But Trump supporters in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives could object to the results in a final, long-shot attempt to deprive Biden of 270 electoral votes and turn the final decision over to the House ( here ) .

VERDICT

False. Both the Trump and Obama administrations have used the “Office of the President Elect” branding in the past, and a GSA order states that the term can be used to refer to the incoming administration. The GSA has not yet recognized Biden’s projected victory, but Trump’s litigation campaign to discredit Biden’s victory is highly unlikely to change the outcome of the election.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work  here  .

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