In a grand ceremony at the Capitol building yesterday, the newly inaugurated President Biden promised to turn the page on an age of rancor, speaking from the same steps where just two weeks earlier a mob of the former president’s supporters had stormed Congress in a deadly attempt to overturn the election results.
“The will of the people has been heeded,” Biden said. “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. And at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.”
Then Biden got to work. He signed 17 executive orders, memorandums and proclamations yesterday, swiftly reversing course on a number of Donald Trump’s signature moves. He halted construction of a wall along the Mexico border. He indicated that the United States would rejoin the Paris climate accord.
And he signed an order on environmental policy that begins to reverse a number of environmental policies enacted under the Trump administration, including revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
As he signed the orders, Biden framed them as a down payment on much larger-scale work to be done in the months ahead. That work, he said, would be responsive first and foremost to the Covid-19 crisis, but fundamentally focused on his broader mission to “rebuild the backbone of the country, the middle class. And so there’s going to be a lot of focus on that.”
The image of a masked Biden, sitting at the Oval Office desk and speaking in measured tones about his policy aims, offered a stark contrast to his predecessor — just as his inaugural plea for unity and reconciliation stood in contrast with the bellicose remarks Trump had given from the Capitol steps four years earlier, when he called for an end to the “American carnage” of the Obama years.
Like Biden, the Senate got busy immediately after the inauguration pageantry was over. The chamber officially changed hands yesterday, as the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff took their places as Georgia’s first Democratic senators in 16 years, and Alex Padilla assumed the seat vacated by Vice President Kamala Harris (who administered the oath to all three).
The arrival of these three new senators — and of Harris, as the chamber’s official president and 101st vote — represented the start of the Democrats’ majority in the Senate.
In one of Senator Chuck Schumer’s first acts as majority leader, senators reached a deal to expedite Avril Haines’s confirmation as Biden’s director of national intelligence. The main holdup had come from Senator Tom Cotton, a close Trump ally, who made a point of making sure Haines went on the record saying she did not plan to reopen Obama-era investigations into the use of torture during the George W. Bush years.
With Haines’s confirmation, Biden avoids becoming the first president in recent memory to begin his term without at least some of his cabinet in place — but he’s still in the rare position of having to wait for his defense secretary and other national security officials to be confirmed.
On his way to the White House in 2016, Trump often promised to “drain the swamp” and unwind generations’ worth of political corruption. As president, of course, he upended ethics norms and demanded unflinching loyalty from his underlings, often putting them at risk of violating the law and inviting ethics questions.
On his way out of office yesterday, Trump released his final list of pardons, including a number of disgraced former public officials who had been convicted of charges related to political corruption. In all, Trump granted 73 pardons and 70 commutations in his final hours in office.
The full list made for a fitting end to his tenure. It included Randy Cunningham, known as Duke, a former member of Congress who kept a “bribe menu” on his congressional office stationery, and Kwame Kilpatrick, a former mayor of Detroit who was convicted of taking bribes, fixing municipal contracts and spending hundreds of thousands of public dollars on friends and family.
Trump also pardoned Steve Bannon, his 2016 campaign strategist and former White House adviser, who was facing trial on charges of cheating donors to a private group that was raising money for the Mexico border wall.
The biggest pardon he didn’t give was to himself. As he looks ahead to an impeachment trial in the Senate and possible civil and criminal litigation at both the state and federal levels, Trump did not issue himself a blanket pardon, which would have jeopardized his ability to draw upon his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
With the Republican Party in chaos, Trump’s legacy would appear to rest heavily in the hands of his online followers. His social media fan club helped propel him to the presidency as a populist insurgent in 2016, and followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory have been unwavering in their support for his baseless claims of election fraud.
On QAnon-affiliated online forums yesterday, theories had circulated that Biden would not succeed in assuming the presidency and that Trump would mount a last-minute coup to stay in power. Instead, many of his supporters were left deflated and dismayed by the relative normalcy of Biden’s inaugural ceremony. He has become president, and the world has not ended.
Members of the Proud Boys, the far-right militia group that has stood firmly by the president over the past four years, appear to have lost faith in their former hero. “Trump will go down as a total failure,” the Proud Boys wrote in a Telegram channel earlier this week.
Still, with most Republicans continuing to say in polls that they think the election was rigged, it’s far from clear that the G.O.P. will be able to swiftly dispatch with Trumpism.
As Jeremy W. Peters writes in a new analysis, it remains an open question whether Trump’s disappearance from public office will mean a new day for Republican politics, or if too big a flock of Republican politicians has already committed to his reality-denying approach and can’t be turned back.