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The transition begins: He wasn’t the Decider

The Trump administration has started the transition to Joe Biden’s presidency.

Many Americans have spent weeks, if not months, asking some version of this question: What if President Trump refuses to leave office?

The main answer to the question has always been the same: It’s not up to him.

As long as other parts of the government — like Congress, the courts and the military — insisted that he honor the election’s outcome, he would have to do so. He could do so quickly and cleanly, as all of his predecessors have done. Or he could make it messy, discrediting American democracy along the way. But he would eventually need to leave the White House.

Last night, he took a big step toward doing so.

Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee who runs the agency in charge of presidential transitions, formally designated Joe Biden as the election’s apparent winner. Murphy’s move provides Biden with federal funds for his transition and authorizes Biden’s aides to begin working with Trump administration officials.

On Twitter, Trump signaled that he accepted the decision, but he did not concede. He also indicated that he would continue his legal efforts to overturn the election result, but they have shown no sign of success.

(Election officials in Michigan and multiple Pennsylvania counties yesterday certified their election results.) In every substantive way, the Trump presidency is now coming to an end.

All of which is a reminder of how much influence our system of government gives to people other than the president.

At times, a president can seem all-powerful, and Trump’s presidency had an especially consuming quality to it, for both his supporters and detractors. Even members of Congress, especially Republicans, liked to claim during the past four years that they were powerless to change Trump’s behavior.

But that’s not how the U.S. government really works.

“Presidents compete with numerous actors — Congress, the courts, interest groups, political appointees in the departments and agencies, and career civil servants — for influence over public policy. The president must rely on his informal ability to convince other political actors it is in their interest to go along with him, or at least not stand in his way.”

As Matt Glassman, a Georgetown University political scientist, has told me.

When a president fails to do so, he often ends up being powerless to act.

And that’s what happened to Trump.

Hundreds of local election officials refused to bend to him. Over the past few days, several congressional Republicans publicly told him that he needed to acknowledge reality. (Many other congressional Republicans were only mildly supportive of him, giving credence to his lies but doing nothing concrete to support his efforts to change the result.) Business groups — traditional Republican allies — also told him to begin the transition.

In the end, Trump did as they told him to do.

For more: The Times’s Matt Flegenheimer and Maggie Haberman write about what Trump liked about being president. One thing he seemed to genuinely enjoy: pardoning turkeys.

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