The nation is entering inauguration week with an unnerving police and military presence guarding the vestiges of democracy — with Americans holding their breath as federal officials warn about threats of violence and potential unrest fueled by President Donald Trump’s corrosive and dangerous lies that the election was stolen from him.
Normally the inauguration of a president is a joyful event that brings thousands of people to Washington to celebrate. But with authorities determined to stave off the terrifying scene that unfolded during the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, Washington, DC — once the crown jewel of democracy admired around the world — now resembles a police state as authorities try to ensure a peaceful transfer of power when President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Wednesday. Some 25,000 National Guard troops have been deployed, military vehicles are blocking some of DC’s streets, the National Mall is closed, and tall fences and barricades protect this country’s sacred buildings as movement is restricted.
Deep within the fortressed capital city, Trump remained out of public view during his last weekend in power — unrepentant for the violence he incited and unwilling to abandon the false election claims that have riled up his supporters. In that absence of leadership, Biden tried to get Americans focused on a more hopeful future as his team outlined the first steps he will take in office to try to aid struggling Americans amid the pandemic and fulfill campaign promises on issues like climate change, criminal justice and immigration.
But with fewer than four days left in the Trump presidency, the nation remains on edge.
In another unsettling sign of the potential threats posed by homemade bombs or explosives — like the ones planted outside the Republican and Democratic party headquarters earlier this month that didn’t go off — the US Postal Service has removed blue mail collection boxes from certain jurisdictions in 18 states as a security precaution.
With America forced into that security state by the actions of a careless and autocratic commander in chief, Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, the lead impeachment manager in the House, argued Sunday morning that Democratic and Republican leaders in the Senate should convict the President in the upcoming impeachment trial to make it clear that there are consequences for his actions that led to the siege at the Capitol.
“I don’t think anybody would seriously argue that we should establish a precedent, where every president on the way out the door has two weeks, or three weeks, or four weeks, to try to incite an armed insurrection against the union or organize a coup against the union — and if it succeeds, he becomes a dictator and if it fails, he’s not subject to impeachment or conviction, because we just want to let bygones be bygones,” the Maryland Democrat told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.” “This was the most serious presidential crime in the history of the United States of America. The most dangerous crime by a president ever committed against the United States, and there are Republicans who are recognizing it, as well as Democrats.”
Though Democrats have argued that the President presents a “clear and present danger” to the nation, Raskin said he did not know when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would transfer the article of impeachment to the Senate, which has been out of session.
Biden has said that impeachment will be up to Congress and he has declined to offer his opinion about the upcoming trial in the Senate. But his incoming chief of staff Ron Klain told Tapper on Sunday that it is clear that Trump “did incite this mob on January 6” and Biden officials remain concerned about the broader threats surrounding this week’s ceremonies — even though they believe that the Secret Service, with assistance from the National Guard, will “keep the inauguration itself safe.”
Klain noted that Biden decided to run for president after hearing Trump’s remarks following the demonstrations by White supremacists in Charlottesville and the murder of 32-year-old paralegal Heather Heyer, who was part of a group of counter-protesters opposing the presence of the alt-right groups that day.
“The events of the past few weeks have proven out just how damaged the soul of America has been, and how important it is to restore it. That work starts on Wednesday,” Klain said.
In these final days of the Trump presidency, the National Guard presence in Washington is a stronger military footprint than the US has in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria combined — a scenario that would have once seemed unthinkable in the nation’s seat of democracy. But Maryland Sen. Chris Van Hollen said Saturday the added security was “necessary and warranted.”
“This is as if we were under attack from a foreign enemy,” Van Hollen told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on “The Situation Room.” “What’s so sad about it is that it’s an attack on our democracy from within, instigated by the President of the United States.”
Many state capitols are also ramping up security to avoid being caught flat-footed as US Capitol Police were on January 6. With the FBI warning last week that “armed protests” are being planned in all 50 states, Michigan State Police, for example, have mobilized personnel from across the state to secure the state Capitol in Lansing in coordination with the FBI and the National Guard.
Michigan, in particular, is familiar with the threats posed by armed protesters, who gathered last spring to demonstrate against restrictions related to Covid-19. With demonstrations expected Sunday, a fence has been erected around the state Capitol, and Lansing Mayor Andy Schor asked Michiganders to stay out of the downtown area and avoid engaging “with demonstrators who come to our city with ill intentions.”
The Michigan House and Senate have canceled sessions Tuesday through Thursday because of “credible threats.” And Airbnb is also reviewing reservations booked around Lansing during inauguration week, saying they will cancel reservations booked by guests associated with violent hate groups.
Trump’s final days
Unwilling to take responsibility for the fear that has rippled across the nation after watching the January 6 attacks, Trump remained out of sight at the White House this weekend — still stripped of the ability to communicate with his followers via major social media channels like Facebook and Twitter.
But in what appeared to be another overtly political move at the 11th hour, his administration tried install a Trump loyalist as the top lawyer at the National Security Agency — a civil servant job, not a political appointment — who would be harder to fire after Biden takes office, sources told CNN.
Eschewing the customary handoff between presidents on Inauguration Day, Trump plans to head to Palm Beach, Florida, hours before Biden takes the oath of office. But Trump remains keenly interested in how he will be celebrated when he leaves the White House for the last time, contemplating a departure ceremony that could include a red carpet, a color guard, a military band and even a 21-gun salute, an administration official told CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Trump is also preoccupied in these final days with building a legal team to defend him during his upcoming impeachment trial, as a number of high-profile advisers who defended him the last time he faced a Senate trial make it clear they are not interested in this second round.
Though the President’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was seen Saturday at the White House, a Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley tweeted that the President has not yet selected the team that will represent him “for the disgraceful attack on our Constitution and democracy, known as the ‘impeachment hoax.'” The President is leaving office with the lowest approval rating of his presidency (34%), according to a new CNN Poll conducted by SSRS, and 54% of Americans say he should be removed from office because of his role inciting violence at the Capitol on January 6.
The President has resisted calls from his aides to give a final speech recounting the accomplishments of the administration. Instead, Pence — who will be attending Biden’s inauguration — continues to be the public-facing leader of the administration, traveling to Naval Air Station Lemoore in California on Saturday to give a speech touting the administration’s national security achievements.
“The American people are grateful,” Pence told sailors as he thanked them for their service on behalf of the Trump administration. “And I want to assure you that you have our deepest respects for the selflessness and courage that you personify every day.”
The vice president argued that the military is now “more equipped than ever” and added — with no irony, even though parts of the nation are currently locked down under heavy guard — that he was “proud to say, with just a few days left in this administration, this is the first administration in decades not to get America into a new war.”
Biden readies first-day executive actions
While it has been hard for Biden to capture the nation’s attention after the security breach at the Capitol, Klain penned a memo detailing the executive actions Biden would take on his first day of office to reverse some of the policies of the Trump administration, including rejoining the Paris climate accord and rescinding the ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries.
Biden also rolled out his first signature legislative initiative this past week when he announced his $1.9 trillion relief package to mitigate the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and expand and accelerate the delivery of the Covid-19 vaccine across the United States.
But Biden’s advisers are concerned that the Senate’s focus on impeachment could draw the Senate’s attention away from critical tasks like confirming members of the President-elect’s national security team and his Cabinet.
“It’s important for the Senate to do its constitutional duty, but also to do its constitutional duty to move forward on these appointments — on the urgent action the country needs,” Klain told Tapper Sunday, noting that the Senate was able to conduct confirmation hearings for nominees during its morning sessions while Trump’s previous impeachment trial was underway. “I hope that the Senate leaders, on a bipartisan basis, find a way to move forward on all their responsibilities.”
Klain’s memo about Biden’s upcoming executive actions said the President-elect would sign orders halting evictions and giving relief from student loan payments to those struggling financially because of the coronavirus pandemic. Biden also plans to institute a mask mandate at federal sites and for travel between states. The President-elect has challenged Americans to mask up in his first 100 days in office.
Biden also plans to introduce an immigration plan within his first 100 days that would include a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants living in the United States. In late January and early February, he also intends to ask the federal government to devise a system for reuniting children separated from their families at the US-Mexico border and will focus on moving criminal justice reform.
On Sunday, Klain highlighted Biden’s plans to streamline the nation’s slow and lurching system for administering the Covid-19 vaccines by speeding up delivery, ensuring an adequate supply of second doses for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and by using the Defense Production Act to, for example, produce syringes that would allow health workers to extract six doses from each vial, instead of five, thereby increasing the vaccine supply by 20%.
“We’re inheriting a huge mess here,” Klain told Tapper. “But we have a plan to fix it.”