Washington DC – High fences topped with a thick, spiraling razor wire circled the U.S. Capitol area on Friday, as thousands of heavily armed National Guardsmen kept watch. The bridges leading to the city will be closed from this weekend. Access to the land will be very restricted.
In many ways, preparing for the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden is more like a head of state’s visit to a military encampment in a war zone than the swearing-in of the President of the United States. in the building. housing the national legislature.
The 46th President’s swearing-in will not only lack the pomp and pageantry of years gone by, but also the symbolic openness that characterizes the peaceful transfer of power in what is perhaps the proudest democracy in the world.
This year’s festivities will differ in three key and unprecedented ways, experts say: First, the city is shut down in anticipation of more violence after the Capitol attack last week by armed supporters of President Donald Trump.
Second, Trump refused to attend the ceremony, still feeling uncomfortable and insisting on stealing the election.
Third, the groundbreaking festivities will be greatly reduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19, as the country continues to struggle to contain the deadly pandemic.
Security on alert
Chuck Hagel, who served as President Barack Obama’s defense secretary and Republican United States senator before that, said it would be the most secure inauguration since President Abraham Lincoln was sworn in in 1861 and 1865, just before and during the war. civil.
Although Trump and Obama also faced threats and credible protests on the days of their inauguration, Hagel said this level of militarization of Washington, DC, was unheard of and disheartening, even if it was necessary given the fallout from the insurgency on Capitol Hill last week. . It is likely to reflect poorly not only at home, but also abroad, he said.
“It’s a sad day for America,” Hagel said in a telephone interview. “When the world sees this and what they saw last week, they will have a really huge doubt: ‘Is America as good as we think it is?'”
“It will not be the symbolism that we normally have always had, a wise country that can transfer power peacefully and that can function democratically with different points of view,” Hagel continued.
“This will not only damage our image, but also the trust other countries have in us and the trust they have in us, especially our allies, friends and partners.”
Indeed, the differences between this year’s inauguration and previous years in terms of safety are too numerous to list.
The American capital is already very fortified several days before the main event. Crowds of National Guards slept on the floor of the Capitol building as their compatriots guarded fenced roadblocks around the premises alongside large beige military trucks.
Officials announced that up to 25,000 of these soldiers would be available to secure the event, not to mention reinforced forces from the FBI, the US Secret Service, the Department of Homeland Security, the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department and of the United States Capitol Police.
Essentially, all vehicle traffic to and from downtown Washington, DC, and around the National Mall and landmarks will be closed until Thursday, including several main bridges that serve as arteries in both directions. from northern Virginia across the Potomac River and southern Maryland across the Anacostia River.
In-person participation will also be severely restricted. The National Park Service announced Friday that it would only allow two “first amendment zones” on Pennsylvania Avenue, the road from the Capitol to the White House.
There, only 100 people can amass at a time, a far cry from the estimated record of nearly two million people cheering on Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 or about half a million Hat-clad Women’s March protesters. rose who took to the streets the same day. after Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
Trump himself will also be conspicuously absent from the day’s events. Not since President Andrew Johnson refused to attend President Ulysses S Grant’s swearing-in ceremony 152 years ago has an incumbent president refused to attend his successor’s swearing-in.
In 2017, the Obamas saluted the trumps with handshakes on the steps of the White House. President George HW Bush left a handwritten note for President Bill Clinton and attended the inauguration, right after Clinton appointed him president for a term. Even amid the grudge of the 2016 election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was present with her husband, the former president.
Trump will be absent not only from public events. Traditionally, incoming and outgoing presidents and their spouses begin on inauguration day with a tea or coffee reunion at the White House and participate in a wreath laying at Arlington National Cemetery, a military cemetery fair in the across the Potomac River in Virginia.
Trump, however, will leave the city Wednesday morning, before the inauguration, to begin his post-presidential life in Florida.
“I’m sad about this because I love tradition,” said Elizabeth Goldsmith, inauguration historian and professor emeritus at Florida State University. “It’s just a celebration, usually, from the old to the new, you know, the day to say that’s it.
Yet Alan Fitts, who headed Capitol operations for the presidential committee inaugurating Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, said that despite Trump’s refusal to publicly model an unbroken chain of presidential succession, organizers of the event will find ways to be successful.
For example, Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to attend the ceremony, and Obama, Clinton, and President George W. Bush will accompany Biden to the wreath laying ceremony.
“Symbolically, they’ll find ways to essentially demonstrate that Biden is taking his place in this lineage,” Fitts said.
“You always establish Biden in that chain of presidents that way, and so symbolically he takes on the role. You put him alongside these presidents as the new president.
The coronavirus still persists
While the security improvements are a more recent development, much of the day’s festivities have already been scaled back for reasons having less to do with physical threats and more to do with a biological threat: COVID-19.
As a result, perhaps the most noticeable deviation from years past that will be apparent to the television viewing audience will be how uncrowded it will be.
Access to the National Mall had already been largely restricted to comply with social distancing guidelines before additional security measures were put in place, and a traditional parade from the Capitol to the White House and an inaugural concert were both virtual renderings.
Even the chairs on the western front of the Capitol will be spaced six feet apart, allowing for far fewer attendees. All participants must first take a coronavirus test at least a few days before the event.
Unlike in past years, when members of Congress were given up to 200 or more tickets to distribute to voters, they are limited to one ticket for themselves and another for a guest, former Rep. Gregg Harper said. , which will fly. from Mississippi for the event.
“It will be very, very different in this regard,” said Harper, a Republican and former chairman of the House administration committee.
“The biggest visual of all will be the low number of people who will actually be able to attend this inauguration, with social distancing and ticket limitations. This is going to be really important. “