This week: Tensions running high in Trump’s final days
Tensions are running high in Washington, D.C., with the Trump era poised to end on Wednesday, just two weeks after rioters stormed the Capitol.
Much of downtown Washington is in lockdown with 25,000 National Guard troops in the nation’s capital in addition to the Secret Service and D.C. and Capitol Police forces after the attack earlier this month scrambled plans for President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony and sparked fears of a repeat.
Though Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will follow tradition when they are sworn in Wednesday on the Capitol’s West Front, many aspects of the ceremony will mark historic firsts.
President Trump, who is expected to leave Washington early Wednesday, will be the first president in more than 150 years to refuse to attend the swearing-in ceremony of his successor.
The event had already been scaled back dramatically because of the coronavirus pandemic. Typically the inauguration planning committee gives out 200,000 tickets with supporters packed onto the National Mall. But with the virus, and the new security concerns, Americans are being urged to not travel to D.C., no tickets are being offered to the public and the National Mall is closed.
Roughly 1,000 people will attend the inauguration ceremony in person, with most of those made up of members of Congress and their guests. There will be no public parade or inaugural balls.
Despite ramped-up security concerns, with insurrectionist groups chatting online about trying to attack D.C., Biden and Harris have remained determined to be sworn in on the West Front, which was swarmed by rioters nearly two weeks ago. Rioters, who appeared to believe the president’s false claim that the election was “rigged,” also scaled bleachers and scaffolding built for the inauguration.
“I think we cannot yield to those who would try and make us afraid of who we are,” Harris said in a recent NPR interview.
Biden, a longtime senator and former vice president, will become the oldest person to be sworn in. He turned 78 weeks after the November presidential election.
Harris’s swearing in as vice president will be historic on multiple fronts, breaking one of the final glass ceilings for women in politics. Harris will be the first female vice president, as well as the first Black, first Indian and Caribbean American to be vice president.
Biden and Harris are inheriting a Washington deeply frayed in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack, where they’ll need to navigate familiar partisan waters but with the higher stakes of a raging health pandemic and worries of violence that threaten to stretch past Wednesday.
Even as Biden tries to get his legislative agenda off the ground, looming over the start of his administration is a second impeachment trial for soon-to-be former President Trump.
The House voted on a bipartisan basis earlier this month to impeach Trump for a second time, making him the first president to be impeached twice. The article accuses Trump of “willfully inciting violence against the Government of the United States” after he claimed falsely for weeks that the election was “rigged” and urged his supporters to march to the Capitol as Vice President Pence and members of the House and Senate were formally counting the Electoral College vote.
When the Senate trial will start is unclear, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) mum on when she will send the article to the Senate, the move that triggers the start of a trial.
After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) rejected a request by Senate Democratic Leader Charles Schumer (N.Y.) to bring the Senate back early to start a trial immediately after the House’s Jan. 13 vote, the earliest a trial could start is Wednesday after Biden is sworn in or on Thursday afternoon.
“The Senate has not been in session. And so the Speaker is organizing the formal transfer of the articles. And it should be coming up soon,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) told CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I know the Speaker also considers the president a clear and present danger to the republic.”
There are signs of concern from Biden and congressional Democrats that an impeachment trial could slow down Biden’s legislative agenda and the Senate’s ability to confirm top Cabinet picks.
“I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation,” Biden said after the House vote.
Schumer, in a video released over the weekend, argued that the Senate needs to be prepared to do both: Hold an impeachment trial and take action on legislation and nominations.
But it’s unclear if Republicans will cooperate with trying to do both. The Senate considered no legislation or nominees on the sidelines of the 2020 impeachment trial.
That’s led some Democrats to argue that House Democrats should delay sending the article of impeachment to the Senate for months. That, supporters argue, could also help build evidence as more information becomes known about the Jan. 6 attack.
“If you want to go ahead and convict, let us build the evidence up. So the American believe … Allow us to let the judicial system do its job,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) told PBS in an interview that aired over the weekend.
Beyond timing there are still several unknowns for Trump’s trial, including if Chief Justice John Roberts will preside. Some Republicans are also trying to make the argument that the Senate doesn’t have the authority to hold an impeachment trial after Trump leaves office.
Unlike 2020, when Trump’s acquittal was guaranteed, it’s unclear if Democrats will be able to get enough Republicans to vote to convict Trump. If every Democrat supports the effort, they would still need 17 GOP lawmakers to join them.
Underscoring the shift happening within the Republican Party, McConnell has not ruled out voting to convict Trump.
The Senate majority is poised to change hands for the first time since 2015, when Republicans took over control of the chamber.
In addition to three new Democratic senators, once Harris is sworn in as vice president, the 50-50 split gives Democrats control because Harris can break a tie vote.
Harris formally resigned her Senate seat on Monday, putting the chamber’s power at a 51-49 GOP majority. Once her successor, Alex Padilla, and Georgia Democratic Sens.-elect Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are sworn in this week, it will give Democrats a 50-50 majority.
It will be the first time the Senate has split 50-50 since 2001.
Schumer and McConnell are negotiating a resolution outlining how an evenly split Senate will work, with their eventual agreement expected to be modeled off the 2001 deal. Former Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who controlled the chamber at the time, called it one of the hardest agreements of their congressional careers that took weeks to clinch.
Schumer is expected to take over the role of majority leader. Meanwhile, with committees split the leaders are expected to allow nominations and legislation that get tie votes in committees be moved to the Senate floor, a shift from most legislative sessions when ties mean something doesn’t move forward.
The two Senate leaders haven’t yet made an announcement on the organizing resolution, but they and their staff have been having closed-door talks.
“We have a little bit of a pattern back in 2000. But times have changed, it’s different. We’ll see, I don’t know. They gotta come up with an organizing resolution, figure out how we’re gonna do all this,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McConnell’s No. 2.
The Senate is getting to work on Biden’s first round of nominations a day before the administration gets underway.
Senate committees are holding several hearings on Tuesday for Biden’s picks. In the morning, Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen will appear before the Finance Committee, director of national intelligence nominee Avril Haines will appear before the Intelligence Committee and Homeland Security secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas will testify before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
On Tuesday afternoon, secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken will testify before the Foreign Relations Committee and Lloyd Austin will testify before the Armed Services Committee on his nomination to be secretary of Defense.
Biden is currently poised to have no nominees confirmed on day one of his administration. Trump had two nominees confirmed on the first day, while Obama had six.
In addition to a confirmation hearing, both the House and Senate will need to vote to approve a waiver for Austin to serve as the Pentagon chief because he has not reached the seven-year cooling off period required for retired military to serve in the civilian post.