Washington – An emotional President-elect Joe Biden flew to Washington yesterday on the eve of his inauguration, as his predecessor Donald Trump ― who will snub Biden’s swearing-in ― for the first time wished success to the new administration.
Tears rolled down Biden’s cheeks at a farewell ceremony in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, where he paid tribute to his late son and rising politician Beau, before catching a plane to the capital.
“I only have one regret, that he’s not here,” Biden said.
Trump, who has not appeared in public for a week, broke days of silence with a pre-recorded farewell video address.
Trump for the first time asked Americans to “pray” for the success of the incoming Biden administration ― a change of tune from weeks spent persuading his huge number of Republican followers that the Democrat cheated in their election battle.
Trump has yet to personally congratulate Biden on his win or invite him for the customary cup of tea in the Oval Office.
In one of his last acts before he flies to Florida from Joint Base Andrews this morning, Trump is expected to issue scores of pardons, with speculation rife over who might make the list.
The latest indications are that Trump will not take the legally dubious step of issuing himself and his children preemptive pardons.
Outside the White House fence, central Washington has taken on a dystopian look ahead of Biden’s inauguration, swarming with National Guard troops and largely emptied of ordinary people.
Covid-19 restrictions meant the swearing-in ceremony at noon today was always due to be sparsely attended. But fears of right-wing attacks in the wake of the pro-Trump riot in the Capitol building on January 6 have triggered unprecedented deployments of armed soldiers, concrete barriers and secure areas dubbed “green” and “red” zones.
Adding to the tension, the Senate is expected to put Trump on trial soon, following his record second impeachment by the House of Representatives over the Capitol riot.
Biden comes to town
Biden, a veteran Democratic senator who also served as vice president to Barack Obama, left for Washington with his wife Jill Biden.
They are staying in Blair House, a residence for heads of state and other important visitors just across the street from the White House.
Together with incoming vice president Kamala Harris ― the first woman ever to hold the job ― Biden first attended an evening memorial at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in honor the 400,000 Americans who have died so far from Covid-19.
“To heal, we must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation,” he said.
Stretching up the Mall to the Capitol building, where Biden and Harris will be sworn in, the grassy area has been filled with some 200,000 American flags to represent the vast crowds that usually attend inaugurations.
Fifty-six pillars of light will beam up to represent the US states and territories.
Another eye-catching number is the more than 20,000 National Guards troops on duty, many of them carrying automatic rifles and dressed in full combat gear.
But Biden is coming in with a strong message of unity, insisting that he can bring a divided country back to the centre and confront the nation’s multiple crises, starting with Covid-19, together.
The inaugural speech will last between 20-30 minutes, according to a source familiar with preparations, and “he will reach out to all Americans, and call on every citizen to be part of meeting the extraordinary challenges facing all of us,” an advisor said, asking to remain unnamed.
To symbolise the new spirit, Biden has invited the two top senators ― Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Mitch McConnell ― and other top congressional leaders to attend a church service with him on Wednesday before the inauguration.
A person familiar with McConnell’s plans confirmed to AFP the Republican congressional leader would join Biden, a longtime Senate colleague, in church.
For Trump, the main piece of unfinished business is now the expected slew of pardons that he is reported to be preparing.
According to CNN and other US outlets, Trump has a list of about 100 people he will grant clemency to.
After what the New York Times reports has been an intense lobbying effort, these are expected to be a mix of white-collar criminals and people whose cases have been championed by criminal justice activists.
More controversial possible pardons that have been the subject of speculation for months would be for the likes of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange and Trump’s influential advisor Steve Bannon.
But Trump has, according to latest US media reports, moved away from the temptation to issue himself a preemptive pardon. This would anger his Republican backers in the Senate right ahead of the start of the impeachment trial.
Although Trump was easily acquitted thanks to party support in his first impeachment last year, this time it may not go so well.
Senior Senate Republican McConnell said in blistering comments yesterday that Trump had “provoked” his supporters and that the “mob was fed lies” before embarking on the assault against Congress. ― AFP