WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday, assuming the helm of a country beset by deep political divides and battered by a raging coronavirus pandemic.
Biden, 78, will become the oldest U.S. president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington that has been largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus as well as security concerns following the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump.
With only a small number of attendees present, the Democrat will take the oath of office before U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts just after noon (1700 GMT), placing his hand on an heirloom Bible that has been in the Biden family for more than a century.
His running mate, Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, will become the first Black person, first woman and first Asian American to serve as vice president after she is sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court’s first Latina member.
The ceremony will unfold in front of a heavily fortified U.S. Capitol, where a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building two weeks ago, enraged by his false claims that November’s election was stolen with millions of fraudulent votes. The violence prompted the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives to impeach Trump last week for an unprecedented second time.
Thousands of National Guard troops were called into the city after the siege, which left five people dead and briefly forced lawmakers into hiding. Instead of a throng of supporters, the National Mall will be covered by nearly 200,000 flags and 56 pillars of light meant to represent people from U.S. states and territories.
Biden, who has vowed to “restore the soul of America,” will call for American unity at a time of crisis in his inaugural address, according to advisers.
He will waste little time trying to turn the page on the Trump era, advisers said, signing a raft of 15 executive actions on his first day in office on issues ranging from the pandemic to the economy to climate change. The orders will include mandating masks on federal property, rejoining the Paris climate accord and ending Trump’s travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.
In an early sign of his plan to reach across the political aisle, Biden has invited top congressional leaders, including House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, to join him at church on Wednesday morning.
In a break with more than a century and a half of political tradition, Trump plans to depart the White House ahead of the inauguration, declining to meet with his successor and affirm the peaceful transfer of power.
Vice President Mike Pence, former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and both McCarthy and McConnell are all expected to attend Biden’s inauguration ceremony.
Trump, who has grown increasingly isolated in the waning days of his tenure, has still not formally conceded the Nov. 3 election. He will hold a sendoff event at Joint Air Force Base Andrews in the morning, although top Republicans, including Pence, are not expected to attend.
For Biden, who long harbored presidential ambitions, the inauguration is the zenith of a five-decade career in public service that included more than three decades in the U.S. Senate and two terms as vice president under former President Barack Obama.
But he will confront a set of overlapping crises that would challenge even someone of his political experience.
The novel coronavirus reached a pair of grim milestones on Trump’s final full day in office on Tuesday, reaching 400,000 U.S. deaths and 24 million infections - the highest of any country. Millions of Americans are out of work because of pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions.
Biden has vowed to bring the full weight of the federal government to bear on the crisis, including a more robust testing and tracing program and a massive vaccination drive. His top priority is a $1.9 trillion plan that would enhance jobless benefits and provide direct cash payments to households. It will require approval from a deeply divided Congress, where Democrats will hold slim advantages in both the House and Senate.
Wednesday’s executive actions, by contrast, are intended to advance Biden’s priorities without the need for legislation.
The president will establish a new White House office coordinating the coronavirus response, revoke the permit granted to the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline and end Trump’s emergency declaration that helped fund a Mexico border wall, among other orders.
Jen Psaki, the incoming White House press secretary, said Biden plans additional executive orders in the coming weeks, including eliminating Trump’s restrictions on transgender troops and reversing a policy blocking U.S. funds for overseas programs linked to abortion.
Although Biden has laid out an ambitious agenda for his first 100 days, including delivering 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations, the Senate could be consumed by Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial, which will move ahead even though he has left office.
The trial could serve as an early test of Biden’s promise to foster a renewed sense of bipartisanship in Washington.
HARRISBURG, MICHIGAN (Reuters) - Law enforcement officers far outnumbered protesters at state capitol grounds on Sunday, as few Trump supporters who believe the president’s false claim that he won the 2020 election turned out for what authorities feared could be violent demonstrations.
More than a dozen states activated National Guard troops to help secure their capitol buildings following an FBI warning of armed demonstrations, with right-wing extremists emboldened by the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6.
Security officials had eyed Sunday as the first major flashpoint, as the anti-government “boogaloo” movement made plans weeks ago to hold rallies in all 50 states.
But by Sunday evening, only small gatherings of demonstrators had taken to the streets alongside much larger crowds of law-enforcement officers and media personnel.
“It was a non-event today and we are glad it was,” said Troy Thompson, spokesman for the Department of General Services, the agency that protects the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.
Tens of thousands of security personnel from the National Guard and law-enforcement agencies descended in recent days upon Washington, D.C., to bolster security ahead of Wednesday’s ceremony, when Democratic President-elect Joe Biden will relieve departing Republican President Donald Trump.
The image of Washington as a fortress has unsettled U.S. pride over the traditionally peaceful transfer of power.
It was unclear how much the FBI warning and robust security presence around the country on Sunday led protesters to cancel plans.
Some militias and extremist groups told followers to stay home, citing the increased security or the risk that the planned events were law-enforcement traps.
Only a few Trump supporters showed up in Harrisburg, including Alex, a 34-year-old drywall finisher from Hershey, Pennsylvania, who said he had been at the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol but did not storm the building. He declined to give his last name.
Wearing a hoodie emblazoned with “Fraud 2020,” he said he believed November’s presidential election was stolen and wanted to show his support for Trump. He noted the lack of protesters at the Pennsylvania capitol on Sunday.
“There’s nothing going on,” Alex said.
Police later opened streets that had been blocked off in anticipation of bigger crowds.
A similarly small group of about a dozen protesters, a few armed with rifles, stood outside Michigan’s capitol in Lansing. One wore fatigue pants, a tactical vest and blue Hawaiian shirt, a trademark of the anti-government boogaloo movement.
“I am not here to be violent and I hope no one shows up to be violent,” said one man standing on the lawn in front of the capitol. The man, who refused to give his name, wore a “Make America Great Again” hat and waving a “Don’t tread on me” flag.
By early evening, the capitol grounds in Lansing were deserted.
The nationwide security uptick followed the attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington by extremists and Trump supporters, some of whom called for the death of Vice President Mike Pence as he presided over the certification of Biden’s election victory.
The FBI and other federal agencies have warned of the potential for future violence leading up to Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, as white supremacists and other extremists seek to exploit frustration among Trump supporters who have bought into his falsehoods about electoral fraud.
Downtown Washington was a ghost town on Sunday. Gun-toting National Guard soldiers in camouflage manned checkpoints across the city center, which was closed off to traffic with large military vehicles deployed to block streets.
The streets around the Virginia statehouse in Richmond were lined with police barricades, largely deserted but for a few police officers and reporters.
Temporary fencing blocked the public entrance to the building ahead of Monday, which is traditionally a “Lobby Day” for the public to share views at the state legislature. A Virginia pro-gun advocacy group and the boogaloo movement have declared plans to hold protests on this year’s Lobby Day.
In the aftermath of the violent attack on the Capitol Building last week, Facebook, Microsoft and Google have joined a growing list of corporations that are pausing their political spending.
As corporate responses have escalated, some companies have suspended donations to lawmakers who objected to the certification of the election, while many have halted all of their political donations for a few months.
A few have gone so far as to support the removal of the president.
In a statement from the National Association of Manufacturers, "The outgoing president incited violence in an attempt to retain power, and any elected leader defending him is violating their oath to the Constitution and rejecting democracy in favor of anarchy", urging Vice President Pence to consider invoking the 25th Amendment, which allows removal of a president, if deemed unfit for service.
Groups focusing on corporate interests in politics have also contributed to this discourse, with Meredith McGhee, Executive Director at Issue One - a nonprofit that works to reduce the influence of money in politics - stating that "You just can't really overemphasize the role that donors play in the current political calculation", adding that "In this moment of crisis, they sent a really important signal that the actions of the objectors were unacceptable ... because what they were doing was voting to overturn the will of the voters".
In a statement to NPR on Monday, Facebook told that it was pausing the spending of its political action committee for at least the first three months of the year, "while we review our policies".
Microsoft issued a statement that "The PAC regularly pauses its donations in the first quarter of a new Congress, but it will take additional steps this year to consider these recent events and consult with employees."
"I think they have to take a look long and hard at what role has their political spending played in sort of the buildup to this crisis," said Bruce Freed, the Head of the Center for Political Accountability.
Last week, Facebook suspended President Trump from both its main platform and Instagram indefinitely, while Twitter has disabled Trump's account permanently.
A disgruntled employee at the State Department changed the biographies of President Donald Trump and Vice President Pence, to state that their term was ending on Monday - nine days before the inauguration of President-elect Biden.
As reported by BuzzFeed News, the changes to the State Department's website came only a few days after the President incited an insurrection of Trump supporters in the Capitol building; prompting Democrats to appeal the Vice President to invoke Article 25 and remove Trump from office.
On the State Department website, the President's biography was changed to "Donald J. Trump's term ended on 2021-01-11 19:49:00,” while the vice president’s biography was edited to “Michael R. Pence's term ended on 2021-01-11 19:44:22".
The time-stamp on President Trump's biography page was changed multiple times, until it was eventually removed around 3:50 (EST), replaced with an error stating "We’re sorry, this site is currently experiencing technical difficulties. Please try again in a few moments".
It was also reported that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has ordered an internal investigation into the matter, beginning with interns and employees at the State Department, with sources stating that the State Department's website is "a closed system that is nearly impossible to hack".
Over half of surveyed Americans in a new poll have indicated that they believe that President Trump should be removed from office, following the attack on the Capitol by his supporters.
In a joint poll conducted by ABC News and Ipsos on Sunday, it revealed that 56 percent polled in favour of the removal of President Trump from office, while 67 percent polled that the outgoing President deserves a significant degree of the blame for the rioting that took place in the Capitol.
During a Stop the Steal Rally on the National Mall last Wednesday, President Trump urged his supporters to march to the Capitol, while a joint-session of Congress was being held to certify Joe Biden's Electoral College victory.
"We’re going walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women," Trump said. "We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong."
The subsequent violence was linked to five deaths, including a Capitol police officer, with dozens of individuals being arrested in the following days for their participation in the breach.
Numerous Democratic and Republican lawmakers have stated that Trump's incitement of the crowd is grounds for his removal from office, as House Democrats are expected to introduce an article of impeachment against Trump, citing him as a clear and present danger to the country.
Several senators have said they believe Trump has committed impeachable offenses and would consider such a push from the House.
Almost all Democrats and a majority of Independents, 58 percent, polled that Trump should be removed, while another 61 percent of Republicans indicated that the President "did nothing wrong", adding that removing him is not "worth the effort."
The ABC News/Ipsos poll was conducted between the 8th and 9th of January, among a sample of 570 general population adults age 18 or older.