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Washington, Jan. 18: A 'Field of Flags' is illuminated on the National Mall as the U.S Capitol Building is prepared for Joe Biden's inauguration. The flags represent Americans who, due to COVID-19 restrictions, won't be allowed on the mall, which is usually packed at presidential inaugurations.

Joe Raedle/Pool via REUTERS

Presidential inaugurations are some of the most scripted events in Washington’s political theatre, but for Joe Biden’s big day, Washington will be throwing the script away. For one thing, Donald Trump – the unpredictable, autocratic president whose mob of supporters ransacked the Capitol building on Jan. 6, and who was impeached a second time just days before the inauguration – won’t be participating. For another, the COVID-19 pandemic has scuttled many of the traditional public activities, and security measures to prevent another riot will limit them even more. Here’s what you need to know.


Will Trump supporters start another riot?

A National Guard member patrols a roadblock near the Capitol on Jan. 19.

Matt Slocum/The Associated Press

Five people are dead after Jan. 6′s chaos at the Capitol building, including a police officer beaten by the pro-Trump mob. It was a scandal for the Capitol Police, who were largely ineffective at keeping the insurrectionists at bay and were late to receive backup from other law enforcement. But the Capitol Police is only one (and not the principal) force involved in inauguration security, which has been months in the planning. Multiple agencies must now work together to prevent far-right extremists – who’ve threatened to regroup after the riot – from targeting politicians or the public.

  • Secret Service: Inaugurations are a “National Special Security Event,” which means the Secret Service – which is in charge of protecting the president, other lawmakers and visiting foreign leaders – is responsible for preparing the security plan and co-ordinating all the groups involved, under the leadership of special agent Michael Plati.
  • Intelligence and counterterrorism: The FBI and intelligence services’ job is to detect organized threats to the inauguration as early as possible. The FBI says it’s been monitoring “extensive” online chatter about potential armed actions in Washington and at state legislatures, which fortified themselves this past weekend and saw small demonstrations.
  • National Guard: Much of the security force you’ll see in the streets on Jan. 20 will be the National Guard, which is expected to have as many as 25,000 troops. Whereas most National Guards report to state governments, the one in D.C. (which isn’t a state) answers directly to the President, although the job of activating it falls to the Defence Secretary and army chief. They’ll have reinforcements from National Guards in eastern states like Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Virginia.
  • Federal departments: Many of these agencies fall under the departments of Homeland Security or Defence, whose leadership has been unstable recently. Mr. Trump fired defence chief Mark Esper in his post-election purges in November, and named Christopher Miller, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, as acting secretary. Homeland Security’s acting director Chad Wolf resigned days after the Capitol Hill riot; taking his place is Pete Gaynor, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, another body responsible for part of the inauguration security effort.
  • Metropolitan Police: The capital’s municipal force will play a large part in keeping the peace. Washington’s mayor has emergency powers, extended until after inauguration day, that will allow her to impose curfews or close businesses as needed. In the meantime, she’s asked Americans not to come to Washington.

What is Trump doing on Jan. 20? What about Pence?

President Donald Trump yells as he visits the U.S.-Mexico border wall, in Alamo, Texas, on Jan. 12.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

The theme of the ceremony is “America United,” but don’t expect to see Mr. Trump or Mr. Biden to appear united: Mr. Trump refuses to take part, and is holding a morning farewell event at Joint Base Andrews, outside the capital. He won’t be live-tweeting Mr. Biden’s inauguration because Twitter, Facebook and other social-media providers have blocked his accounts since Jan. 6′s riot. This is only the fourth time in U.S. history, and the first time in 152 years, that an outgoing president has skipped the swearing-in of his successor. That puts a lot of pressure on Vice-President Mike Pence, who will skip Mr. Trump’s farewell and join the inauguration activities instead, potentially widening the rift between him and Mr. Trump.

Inauguration checklist: Historical traditions vs. 2021′s reality

President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush welcome Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, to the White House for a traditional inaugural coffee in 2009.

Andrew Councill/The New York Times

The president-elect’s morning

What normally happens: The president-elect spends the night at the Blair House guest residence, then goes to a morning prayer service and a coffee meeting with his predecessor at the White House. The two then go to the Capitol together with their families, an affirmation of the peaceful transition of power from one leader to the next.

What to expect in 2021: A church visit is still allowed under D.C.’s coronavirus restrictions, which limit houses of worship to 50 per cent capacity or 100 people, whichever is less. Mr. Biden has invited the Republican leaders in the House and Senate to join him at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, after which he and Ms. Harris will go straight to the Capitol.

An 1865 illustration from Harper's Weekly shows Abraham Lincoln taking the oath at his second inauguration.

Library of Congress

The swearing-in

What normally happens: At midday, the vice-president-elect and president-elect take their respective oaths of office, in that order. They will place hands on one or more Bibles of their choosing, either from their own collections or those used by past presidents. The official oath reads as follows, though usually presidents-elect add “so help me God” at the end: “I do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

What to expect in 2021: Mr. Biden’s go-to Bible for oaths is a family heirloom dating back to 1893, and he’s said he’ll use it again on Jan. 20. Before and after that, there’ll also be a singing of the national anthem by Lady Gaga, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by a Black Georgia firefighter, a poetry reading, prayers and a musical performance by Jennifer Lopez.

President John F. Kennedy delivers his inaugural address in 1961.

The Associated Press

Inaugural address

What normally happens: Every president has given a speech at their inauguration, ranging in length from 135 words (George Washington’s in 1793) to 8,445 (William Henry Harrison’s in 1841). Mr. Trump’s “America first” address in 2017 was 1,443 words long – just more than half the historical average.

What to expect in 2021: The 2020 U.S. election was more divisive than any in living memory, and Biden’s inauguration speech is a chance to set a different, more conciliatory tone. Americans will pay close attention to what he says, but few will hear it in person: Only about 1,000 tickets are being issued for the public ceremony, compared with up to 200,000 in past years.

Bill and Hillary Clinton dance at the Veterans Ball after his second inauguration in 1997.

Doug Mills/The Associated Press

Parades and after-parties

What normally happens: After lunch at the Capitol, the president ceremonially inspects a parade of military personnel. They then head to the White House via Pennsylvania Avenue as part of an even larger public parade. The evening ends with multiple fancy-dress balls around Washington.

What to expect in 2021: The military review will still happen with physical distancing in place, but to avoid gatherings that would spread COVID-19, the parade and balls will be virtual. Tom Hanks will play host to a 90-minute prime-time TV special with an array of musicians and actors across the country.

What will Biden’s first 100 days look like?

Mr. Biden has promised ambitious first steps to undo Mr. Trump’s policies. Thanks to a slim majority in the Senate (which Democrats will control once Ms. Harris and two Georgia senators are sworn in), he’ll face less immediate Republican opposition to his plans, but the policy changes will still be contentious. Here’s what he has to do.

Mr. Biden listens as Judge Merrick Garland, his nominee to be U.S. attorney-general, speaks at a Jan. 7 news conference in Wilmington, Del.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Biden’s cabinet picks

If confirmed by Congress, the people named so far to the Biden administration’s top jobs would restore many key players from the Obama era. They include:

  • Treasury Secretary: Janet Yellen, former chief of the U.S. Federal Reserve
  • Secretary of State: Antony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state
  • Attorney-General: Merrick Garland, appeals-court judge and former Obama nominee to the Supreme Court
  • Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas, former deputy secretary of Homeland Security
  • Defence Secretary: Lloyd Austin, retired general
  • Transportation Secretary: Pete Buttigieg, ex-candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination

Biden’s COVID-19 plan

Mr. Biden’s goal is to administer 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine in his first 100 days in office, part of a $US1.9-trillion “American Rescue Plan” to combat the pandemic and revive the economy quickly. This would include stimulus cheques for individuals, a higher minimum wage and more paid leave for workers. He also plans to mend fences between the United States and the World Health Organization, whose U.S. funding was suspended by Mr. Trump.

Demonstrators with the New York Immigration Coalition rally on Nov. 9, asking Mr. Biden to prioritize immigration reform.

Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press

Biden’s immigration plan

Mr. Biden wants to quickly scuttle Mr. Trump’s travel ban on 13 countries (most of which are either Muslim-majority, African or both) and the diversion of Pentagon funds to a U.S.-Mexico border wall. He would also send an immigration bill to Congress giving millions of undocumented newcomers a path to citizenship, including the so-called Dreamers, immigrants once covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Biden’s climate plan

The United States formally quit the Paris climate-change accords the day after the election, but Mr. Biden says the country will rejoin it and commit to bringing U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions to net zero by 2050, which would be a step toward preventing catastrophic climate change. One of his first planned acts is to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline expansion, a long-contested project to carry Alberta oil to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

A staffer prepares pens for the signing of an article of impeachment against Mr. Trump on Jan. 13.

Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

Trump’s impeachment

After the House’s Jan. 13 vote to impeach Mr. Trump for “incitement to insurrection,” Mr. Trump’s Senate trial now looks likely to take place during Mr. Biden’s first months in office. That could divert Congress’s time and attention from the other legislative tasks we’ve just mentioned, but senators could also spare Mr. Biden from a bigger potential problem down the road: A Trump comeback in 2024. The trial would decide whether to disqualify Mr. Trump from running again, and make him ineligible for post-presidential benefits like a pension, travel budgets and security detail.

Commentary and analysis

Omar El Akkad: The American narrative has been irreparably fractured

Yasir Naqvi: Don’t be smug, Canada. The U.S. insurrection shows even the strongest democracies are fragile

Doug Saunders: The U.S. turned liberal, and Republicans got lost in the woods

Andrew Preston: America needs to get its own house in order before it can preach about democratic values

Robyn Urback: An attempted insurrection offers one final humiliation to Trump’s enablers


With reports from Adrian Morrow, Reuters and The Canadian Press


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