New U.S. President Presides Over Memorial for 400,000 Covid Victims
WASHINGTON (Dispatches) -- Democrat Joe Biden was sworn in as president of the United States on Wednesday in a tense inauguration, assuming the helm of a country reeling from deep political divides, a battered economy and a raging coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans.
With his hand on a five-inch thick heirloom Bible that has been in his family for more than a century, Biden took the presidential oath of office administered by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts just after noon (1700 GMT), vowing to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
"Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge,” Biden said as he began his inaugural address.
Biden, 78, became the oldest U.S. president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington that was largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus and security concerns following the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump.
The norm-defying Trump flouted one last convention on his way out of the White House when he refused to meet with Biden or attend his successor’s inauguration, breaking with a political tradition seen as affirming the peaceful transfer of power.
Trump, who never conceded the Nov. 3 election, did not mention Biden by name in his final remarks as president on Wednesday morning, when he touted his administration’s record and promised to be back "in some form.” He boarded Air Force One for the last time and headed to his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida.
Top Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and the party’s congressional leaders, attended Biden’s inauguration, along with former U.S. Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Biden takes office at a time of deep national unease, with the country facing what his advisers have described as four compounding crises: the pandemic, the economic downtown, climate change and racial inequality. He has promised immediate action, including a raft of executive orders on his first day in office.
The ceremony on Wednesday unfolded in front of a heavily fortified U.S. Capitol, where a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building two weeks ago, enraged by his claims that the 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 on Wednesday was covered by nearly 200,000 flags and 56 pillars of light meant to represent people from U.S. states and territories.
More than 25,000 National Guard troops stood watch over a barricaded city, emptied of the spectators who usually throng to the quadrennial ritual.
National Guard troops, carrying rifles, stood behind razor-wire topped fencing that sealed off Capitol Hill. Motorcades carrying VIPs sped past.
A group of protesters stood outside the perimeter. "If Joe Biden wants to take America to hell, go right ahead!” one shouted through a bullhorn.
The security precautions, along with a coronavirus pandemic that has prompted many to avoid public gatherings, left city streets largely empty in the nation’s capital.
"It’s, frankly, painful to see this, the whole city shut down,” former Republican Senator Jeff Flake told reporters as he arrived at the Capitol for the ceremony.
Pentagon and FBI officials are screening participating troops to avert any insider attack.
On Tuesday, Pentagon officials said a dozen National Guard members had been removed from inauguration duty after vetting that included screening for potential ties to right-wing extremism, and troubling text messages.
Bridges between Virginia and downtown Washington were closed, as were Metro stations in the central security area, which some residents likened to the fortress-like Green Zone of central Baghdad in Iraq.
Some intercity bus services were suspended, as were many bike-share stations and Amtrak trains running south from Union Station, which pass through a tunnel just east of the Capitol.
With inaugural balls and other parties previously canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the event took on a somber tone in Washington.
The number of troops in Washington is three times the normal number of National Guard troops, said Major General William Walker, commander of the D.C. National Guard.
In addition, some 2,300 law enforcement officials from across the United States were sworn in here as special deputy U.S. marshals, supporting the overall security operation led by the U.S. Secret Service.
Actions by Twitter and Facebook to suspend accounts calling for violence pushed organizing activity onto unmoderated channels such as 8kun, said Daniel Jones, president of Advance Democracy, a nonprofit group that conducts public-interest research and investigations.
"The promotion of violence on these fringe channels are explicit, and include instructions on weapon modifications and combat techniques,” Jones said. "The FBI appears to be taking these threats seriously, but disciplined lone wolf actors, regardless of ideology, are extremely difficult to track.”
Biden faces calamities that would challenge even the most experienced politician.
The pandemic in the United States 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.
Although Biden has laid out a packed 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.