United States

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris assume office in a smooth transition of power in the United States

Print edition : February 12, 2021

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris at a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capitol on January 20. Photo: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

Donald Trump and Melania Trump leave the White House ahead of the inauguration of Joe Biden, in Washington on January 20. Breaking from tradition, he refused to attend the inaugural ceremony. Photo: Leah Millis/REUTERS

The troops deployed in Washington during the inauguration was many times more than the combined number of troops the U.S. currently has in Afghanistan and Iraq. Photo: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/AFP

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris assume office in a smooth transition of power in the United States, which is still reverberating from the shocks of the violent events in the nation’s capital on January 6.

The swearing-in of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. as the 46th President of the United States took place on January 20 under the tightest security blanket the nation’s capital has ever witnessed. At the age of 78, he will be oldest U.S. President to hold office. In his first speech as President, Biden gave a clarion call to his countrymen “to end this uncivil” war which has been going on for the past four years. He invited the Republicans to join with him in finding a solution to the country’s serious economic, social and health crisis.

Immediately after taking over, Biden issued a raft of orders, which included the lifting of the ban on travel to the U.S. from Muslim countries, an end to the construction of the border wall with Mexico, and the U.S.’ rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement. Kamala Devi Harris, who took the oath of office as Vice President, has become the first woman to hold the post. She is also the first person of Black American and South Asian descent to be elected U.S. Vice President.

Biden took the oath of office in the west front of the Capitol building that was seized by the right-wing mob a fortnight before. The mob had been intent on blocking the ratification of Biden’s electoral victory. More than 25,000 U.S. National Guard troops were deployed to ensure a smooth transition of power, with the country still reverberating from the shocks the violent events of January 6 had generated. In the days preceding the inauguration, the nation’s capital was virtually in a state of siege.

Also read: U.S. foreign policy under Biden will not differ from past

The President-elect had to take a chartered plane to Washington instead of travelling the short distance to Washington by train, his preferred mode of commute from his home town Wilmington, because of security concerns. President Donald Trump, breaking from tradition, refused to attend the inaugural swearing-in ceremony. The last time such a thing happened was in 1869, when Andrew Johnson refused to attend the inauguration of his successor, Ulysses Grant. Johnson was also impeached, but only once.

Troops in Washington

The troops deployed in Washington during the inauguration was many times more than the combined number of troops the U.S. currently has in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even the loyalty of the troops deployed in the capital was not taken for granted. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had thoroughly vetted them. Twelve of the National Guard troopers deployed in Washington were removed from duty because of their connections with far-right extremist groups. Many former U.S. servicemen and off-duty policemen had played a prominent role in the siege and ransacking of the U.S. Congress building on January 6.

Some of the militia groups that participated in the violence on January 6, such as Oath Keepers, were formed by ex-military men and policemen. An investigation by the Associated Press revealed that the attack on the capital was organised by people having direct connections with the Trump campaign.

Also read: Trump's defeat as imperfect relief

For the first time in the country’s history, the presidential inauguration ceremony was closed to the general public. The move was necessitated both by the tense atmosphere prevailing in the capital and the situation created by the raging pandemic. The pandemic, which has already claimed more than 4,00,000 lives, has glaringly exposed the U.S.’ political and economic frailties to the rest of the world. The gross mishandling of the pandemic will be the lasting legacy of the Trump administration. In his farewell speech, Trump devoted only one sentence to express sympathy for the victims of the pandemic, almost as an afterthought.

President Biden has announced that tackling the pandemic will be the urgent priority of his administration during its first hundred days in office. One of his first official decisions was to rejoin the World Health Organisation (WHO), which the Trump administration had left last year when the pandemic peaked. A day before the inauguration, Biden led a “national mourning” for the victims of the pandemic. The first reports of the coronavirus cases occurring in the country were reported exactly a year earlier. In his first speech as President, Biden said that America would have to cast aside its deep and dark divisions and unite to fight the pandemic. He also spoke about the scourge of racism, “white supremacy” and “domestic terrorism” afflicting the country.

Trump’s legacy

Throughout the country, State and federal administration buildings remained closed on the inauguration day because the authorities feared more violence from white supremacists and die-hard Trump supporters who continue to believe that their leader was fraudulently deprived of the presidency. A significant section of the 74 million who voted for Trump continue to adhere to the illusion, making the U.S. a dangerously polarised nation despite Biden winning by over eight million votes. The U.S. has an average of 88 guns per 100 people. Gun rights activists are among the biggest supporters of Trump. Many of his supporters protesting on the streets were heavily armed.

In his last speech as President, Trump claimed credit for many things, including a strong economy that was in place before the pandemic struck. He mentioned the hundreds of judicial appointments which had changed the character of the Supreme Court and the Federal courts. Trump boasted about increasing the defence budget. On the foreign policy front, Trump was particularly proud of his confrontational policies against China and Iran and his diplomatic moves to help Israel.

Also read: Donald Trump's pro-Israel politics

“I am especially proud of being the first President in decades who has not started a new war,” Trump boasted. It has been reported in the U.S. media that Trump was keen on launching military strikes against Iran after his election defeat but was prevailed upon by the Pentagon and his top advisers against doing so. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted Trump to do one last favour by bombing Iranian nuclear installations before leaving office. The assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Iran’s top military leader, on the orders of Trump had almost triggered another U.S.-led war in the region.

Trump demits office with the dubious reputation of being the only U.S. President who has been impeached twice. In his farewell speech, he promised his supporters that he would continue to speak out. “I want you to know that the movement that we started is only just beginning,” he said. Trump claimed “to be horrified” by the assault on the capital by his supporters, conveniently forgetting that it was he who had urged the rioters to proceed towards Capitol Hill “and fight like hell” as the legislators were preparing to formally announce the electoral college votes and formally declare Joseph Biden as the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Trump did not immediately condemn the violence and in fact told his supporters that “we love you, you are very special”. Many of those arrested for the assault on the capital said that they “were answering the call of their leader”, the President of the United States.

‘Incitement to insurrection’

The second impeachment motion passed against Trump in the second week of February by the House of Representatives is based on the single charge of inciting the mob that had descended on the capital on January 6. Before the mob marched on to Capitol Hill, Trump and his supporters addressed them, repeating the unfounded allegations that the election had been rigged. In an earlier speech that Trump delivered, he urged his supporters from the rest of the country to converge on Washington on January 6 when Vice President Mike Pence was due to certify the electoral college results. “You’ll never take back our country with weakness,” he harangued the crowd. “You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

Ten Republicans joined the Democrats in impeaching Trump a second time, charging him “with incitement to insurrection”. The impeachment process against Trump last year in the House of Representatives had taken three months to complete. This time it took Speaker Nancy Pelosi only a week. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, also conceded that Trump was responsible for the deadly assault on the capital, but that did not stop him from voting along with 137 of his party colleagues against certifying the electoral college votes for Biden. In short, the overwhelming majority of Republican Congressmen went with Trump’s claim that the election was rigged. Their objections did not matter as the Democrats had a majority in the House.

The impeachment resolution passed by the House calls for Trump to be removed and disqualified from ever holding an elected office again. Trump has strongly hinted on several occasions after his defeat that he would be a candidate for the presidency yet again in 2024.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate President, who supported Trump until the very end of his presidency, finally spoke out against Trump after the events of January 6. He is now holding Trump directly responsible for the mayhem in the capital. A few days before Biden’s swearing-in, he said the mob that had stormed the Capitol building had “been fed lies” and “provoked” by Trump.

Also read: Outrage over Capitol riots ignores US record of inciting coups

Many of the Democrats in Congress wanted the impeachment process to be rushed through the Senate before Trump left office. Biden, however, did not want the impeachment drama to overshadow his inaugural and Cabinet formation. He had issued a statement calling on Americans to come together “following the unprecedented assault on our democracy”. Biden expressed the hope that the Senate would “find a way to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation”.

McConnell, the Senate majority leader, ruled that there was no way a fair impeachment trial could be conducted in the Upper House before the inauguration of the new President, but at the same time he wanted the proceedings to start soon after Biden assumed the presidency. McConnell told the Senate that the mob that attacked the capital had “tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of government which they did not like”. McConnell, who will cease to be the majority leader after the two new Democratic Senators from Atlanta will be sworn in in late January, has, however, not said definitively that he would be voting with the Democrats on the impeachment motion in the Senate.

Most Republican lawmakers are still afraid to make a complete break from Trump. The former President is openly threatening fellow Republicans with retribution if they support the impeachment motion against him in the Senate. Trump’s political base is more or less intact for the time being and therefore many Republicans who are up for re-election do not want to risk their political future.

Corporate America’s stance

At the same time, corporate America is moving away from many senior Republican party figures who continue to support Trump. Suburban voters who had flocked to the Republican party are also leaving, most of them disgusted by the violent tactics adopted by Trump supporters and the continuing claims about a “rigged” election. Many in the Republican leadership like McConnell and Liz Cheney (the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney) want to dump Trump at the earliest. Otherwise, they fear, their party will be doomed to be in the opposition for a long time. They point out that after four years of Trump, they have lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The schedule for the impeachment hearing in the Senate has not yet been fixed. The Senate will take some time confirming Biden’s diverse Cabinet picks. This will give more Republican Senators time to decide on whether to ditch Trump politically, once and for all.

Presidential pardon

Trump spent his last day in office issuing more than 70 presidential pardons to his associates, politicians and businessmen, all of them convicted and serving time for a variety of crimes. Only the alt-right propagandist Steve Bannon was given a pardon before his case was heard by a trial court.

Bannon, who was Trump’s chief strategist for some time, has been facing felony charges in connection with a fund-raising scheme. He was among those who pushed Trump to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Bannon had earlier called for the assassination of Anthony Fauci, who was the Trump administration’s public face in the fight against the pandemic.

Last month Trump had pardoned his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and long-time political associate Roger Stone. There have been accusations that many of those given presidential pardons used the services of Trump’s former personal lawyer, John M. Dowd. The lawyer had been openly boasting about his close relationship with Trump and his ability to deliver presidential pardons.

Also read: Pardon to mercenaries of Baghdad massacre criticised

There were reports that Trump was considering a pre-emptive pardon for himself and granting clemency for Republican lawmakers who might have been involved in the January 6 violence in the capital. White House lawyers and the former Attorney General, William Barr, warned Trump against doing so.

Before departing to his Florida retreat, Trump told his supporters that he “would return in some form” back to the capital. Trump’s supporters have been talking about a creating a new political party to accommodate his still smouldering ambitions. But at the same time Trump’s legal challenges are mounting.

The tax authorities are after him. Many observers of the American political scene believe that the Senate is likely to impeach him. That would bar Trump from the political arena for ever and would increase the prospects of him going to jail. If not for sedition, he could still be convicted for hush money payment to a porn star and a Playboy model. New York State prosecutors have reportedly built a foolproof case against him for tax evasion and for making illicit payments.

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