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The Morning Dispatch: Inauguration Day
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The Morning Dispatch: Inauguration Day

Plus: The Senate considers Biden's national security nominees.

Happy Wednesday! Day 1,461 of Donald Trump’s presidency; Day 1 of Joe Biden’s. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • President Trump—who plans to depart the White House at 8:00 a.m.—released a 20-minute farewell address Tuesday afternoon, thanking the American people for the “extraordinary privilege” of serving them and wishing the Biden administration luck. “We inaugurate a new administration and pray for its success in keeping America safe and prosperous,” he said.

  • In one of his final executive actions as president, Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 143 people at around 1 a.m. ET last night, including his former campaign strategist Steve Bannon, former deputy RNC finance chair Elliott Broidy, rapper Lil Wayne, and former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.

  • Trump also revoked the Executive Order he issued in January 2017 that prohibited executive branch employees from lobbying within five years of leaving the government.

  • On his last full day in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he has determined that the People’s Republic of China is committing “genocide” against the Uyghur population and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang. “The United States calls upon the PRC immediately to release all arbitrarily detained persons and abolish its system of internment, detention camps, house arrest and forced labor,” Pompeo wrote. Asked about Pompeo’s genocide determination on Tuesday, President-elect Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said “that would be my judgment as well.”

  • In his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Blinken said Biden plans to enter the United States into the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative that looks to ensure every country can access COVID-19 vaccines. Russia and the U.S. are currently the only two major world powers that haven’t joined the effort.

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell on Tuesday blamed President Trump for the siege of the Capitol on January 6. “This mob was fed lies,” he said. “They were provoked by the President and other powerful people. And they tried to use fear and violence to stop a specific proceeding of the first branch of the federal government which they did not like.” McConnell has not yet announced how he will vote in Trump’s upcoming impeachment trial.

  • Joe Biden tapped Pennsylvania health secretary Rachel Levine to serve as his assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. If confirmed, Levine will be the first openly transgender official to serve in a Senate-confirmed role.

  • The Justice Department informed Sen. Richard Burr on Tuesday that it was ending its months-long investigation into some of his stock trades early in the pandemic, and it will not be pursuing insider trading charges.

  • Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton, who won 324 games, primarily with the Los Angeles Dodgers, died Monday night at the age of 75.

  • The United States confirmed 172,675 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 10 percent of the 1,724,921 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 2,576 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 401,553. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 123,820 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 31,161,075 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, and 12,279,180 have been administered.

Out With the Old, in With the New

Well, we’re here: It’s Inauguration Day. About six hours after this email hits your inbox, President-elect Joe Biden will become the 46th President of the United States. Despite all the sound and fury of the last few months—and despite Trump himself not sticking around for the inauguration (he’s heading home to Florida later this morning instead)—the transition will occur as scheduled. After Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are sworn in, Biden will assume command of the nation’s armed forces, taking control of the nuclear football while, at the same moment, Trump’s will go offline.

While most of the action is happening today, yesterday was thick with activity as well. Both the outgoing president and the incoming one gave speeches: Trump in a prerecorded message from the White House’s Blue Room, Biden in live remarks from Delaware in the afternoon and the National Mall in the evening.

In his farewell address to the nation, Trump struck a more magnanimous tone than he had during his “stop the steal” post-election campaign, extending the incoming administration his “best wishes” and prayers “for its success in keeping America safe and prosperous” (all, however, without mentioning Biden by name). And he condemned in strong terms the January 6 attack on the Capitol that he helped incite. “Political violence is an attack on everything we cherish as Americans. It can never be tolerated,” he said. “Now more than ever, we must unify around our shared values and rise above the partisan rancor, and forge our common destiny.”

The rest of the speech largely consisted of a victory lap for his administration’s accomplishments, from tax reform to the trade war with China to his Supreme Court appointments to the bankrolling and national rollout of COVID vaccines. (There was plenty of exaggeration and falsehood, too: “the greatest economy in history,” “the largest package of tax cuts and reforms in American history,” and the ever-bizarre claim that “we passed VA choice”—a law signed in 2014 by President Obama.)

Trump also reminded the nation he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. “As I prepare to hand power over to a new administration at noon on Wednesday,” he said, “I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning.”

Shortly before, Biden gave a farewell address of his own to the residents of his home state of Delaware as he prepared to board a plane to travel to D.C. to be inaugurated.

“12 years ago, I was waiting at the train station in Wilmington for a Black man to pick me up on our way to Washington, where we were sworn in as president and vice president of the United States of America,” he said. “And here we are today, my family and I, about to return to Washington to meet a black woman of South Asian descent, to be sworn in as president and vice president of the United States.”

“James Joyce was said to have told a friend that when it comes his time to pass, when he dies, he said, ‘Dublin will be written on my heart,’” Biden added, choking up a bit. “Well—excuse the emotion—but when I die, Delaware will be written on my heart, and the hearts of all of us, all the Bidens.”

In Washington, D.C., later in the evening, Biden and Harris participated in a memorial service on the National Mall for the more than 400,000 Americans who have died of the coronavirus during the coronavirus pandemic.

“To heal, we must remember,” Biden said in brief remarks. “It is important to do that as a nation. That is why we are here today. Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along this sacred pool of reflection and remember all who we have lost.”

National Security Team: Assemble

Biden is set to formally take office in a couple of hours, and key members of his national security team are expected to join him shortly thereafter. “Votes are possible Wednesday afternoon on cabinet nominees,” outgoing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who will become minority leader later today, after the two Democrats elected from Georgia are sworn in—wrote in an email to his colleagues earlier this week and obtained by National Review.

The Senate, in its advice and consent role, is understandably prioritizing Biden’s national security team, several members of which testified before various committees on Tuesday. Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas appeared before the Homeland Security Committee, and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines testified before the Intelligence Committee. Janet Yellen, Biden’s pick to lead the Treasury Department, testified before the Senate Finance Committee as well.

President-elect Biden’s pick for defense secretary, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, was the subject of one of the more interesting hearings of the day. Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Austin assured senators he will preserve civilian control of the military despite only having left service in 2016.

“I was a general and a soldier, and I’m proud of that. But today, I appear before you as a citizen—the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Georgia—and I’m proud of that too,” Austin said. “If you confirm me, I am prepared to serve now as a civilian, fully acknowledging the importance of this distinction.”

If confirmed, Austin, an Army four-star, would be the nation’s first black defense secretary. On Tuesday, he pledged to fight racism, sexual assault, and extremism within the military, and he emphasized that combatting the coronavirus pandemic will be one of his top priorities.

Before he can be confirmed, Congress will have to waive a statutory requirement that stipulates secretaries of defense must have been out of active military service for at least the past seven years. 

The National Security Act of 1947 initially mandated a 10-year gap to ensure civilian leadership is properly distanced from the military. Congress cut that period down to seven years in 2008. Only two secretaries of defense have received waivers to serve sooner than required. Former secretary of state and Army general George Marshall was the first in 1950. In 2017, Congress passed a waiver to allow Trump’s nominee for defense secretary, James Mattis, to serve.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns that approving another waiver so soon could set a precedent that might erode the principle of civilian control of the military. During the hearing, Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton—himself a veteran of the Iraq War—said he believes his prior support for a waiver for Mattis in 2017 was a mistake, and he now holds that “Congress should no longer grant such waivers at all.”

He expressed concerns, shared by some Democrats as well, that approving another waiver would make nominations of recently retired military service members more commonplace in the future.

Yet Austin is still expected to receive enough support for a waiver and final confirmation. Several Republicans, including Armed Services Committee Chair James Inhofe, indicated Tuesday that they will support a waiver. The House is scheduled to vote on the matter Thursday afternoon.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, also faced senators on Tuesday. In his opening statement, Blinken shared the story of his stepfather being rescued from a concentration camp by an American GI. “He fell to his knees and said the only three words he knew in English that his mother had taught him: God Bless America,” he said. “That’s who we are. That’s what we represent to the world, however imperfectly, and what we can still be at our best.”

Blinken, deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017, made clear that the Biden administration’s foreign policy will differ from its predecessor’s in many ways—but he reassured some skeptical Republicans as well. “American leadership still matters,” he said. “The reality is that the world doesn’t organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happen: Either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests or values. Or no one does, and then you get chaos. Either way, that does not serve the American people.”

The nominee expressed agreement with the Trump administration’s late determination that China is committing genocide against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang, saying it “would be my judgment as well.”

“There was a broad consensus that economic liberalization in China would lead to political liberalization—that did not happen,” Blinken told lawmakers, adding that he believes the nation misled the world about the coronavirus. “There is no doubt that [China] poses the most significant challenge of any nation-state in the world to the United States.”

Blinken faced sharp questioning about Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), given Biden’s long-standing campaign pledge to rejoin the agreement. But Iran has taken several steps toward nuclear enrichment in recent weeks, complicating the Biden administration’s path.

“President-elect Biden is committed to the proposition that Iran will not acquire a nuclear weapon,” he said. “We have an urgent responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent a weapon or getting close to the capacity to having the fissile material to break out on short notice. In my judgment, the JCPOA, for whatever its limitations, was succeeding on its own terms in blocking Iran’s pathways to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order.”

“The challenge we face now is that we pulled out of the agreement, Iran is now taking steps to undo the various constraints that were imposed on it by the agreement,” Blinken continued. “The president-elect believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would too. But we would use that as a platform—with our allies and partners, who would once again be on the same side with us—to seek a longer and stronger agreement.”

But Blinken also seemed to acknowledge Iran’s increasingly aggressive behavior. “Having said that, I think we’re a long way from there,” he said. “We would have to see, once the president-elect is in office, what steps Iran actually takes and is prepared to take.”

Blinken is expected to be confirmed this week, and it will likely be on a bipartisan basis. 

“I think you’re an outstanding choice by President-elect Biden,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, told the nominee. “I think you understand the world. We have different viewpoints on certain issues. But to me the whole point of this is to nominate qualified people, get them in place as quick as possible, reach agreement where you can, and disagree when you must.”

“You have my complete support,” Graham added.

Worth Your Time

  • One of our favorite (non-TMD) morning newsletters the past several years has been James Hohmann’s ‘Daily 202’ for the Washington Post. Yesterday was his last time at the helm, as he moves on to the Post’s opinion section. In his final edition, Hohmann noted that former President Trump will not be able to maintain the iron grip on the news cycle that President Trump did for the last five years. “Even after leaving office, Trump will continue to be a top story because of his impending Senate trial,” he writes. “If history is any guide, though, attention will eventually fade. The country will probably move on sooner than many people suspect. Twitter banning the outgoing president has had a dramatic impact that might be a harbinger of what’s to come. … Newspapers will no longer have a journalistic duty to cover every pronouncement from a former president. Neither will cable television, especially if Trump does not generate the ratings he once did.”

  • The U.S. presidential transition of power that takes place every four or eight years is truly an awesome process, in the traditional sense of the word. When John Adams left Washington in 1801 as Thomas Jefferson was set to take power, observers across the country—and the world—were stunned. Peacefully handing over power to a political rival was all but unheard of in the modern world. With that process set to take place again later today, take a moment to read this collection of letters, compiled by Alex Kalman, that recent outgoing presidents wrote to their successors. “When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too,” George H.W. Bush wrote to Bill Clinton in 1993. “You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

  • Joe Biden will be sworn in later today to lead an incredibly divided country. But it’s a less divided one than President Abraham Lincoln was addressing in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, delivered just weeks before his eventual assassination. “Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained,” Lincoln said. “Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” It would have been easy to give in to despair, but Lincoln remained steadfast: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” 

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On Tuesday’s inauguration eve episode of the Advisory Opinions podcast, Sarah and David dive into Trump’s forthcoming impeachment trial as well as the latest updates on social media regulation. Stick around for David’s take on the South’s honor culture, and Sarah’s review of the five best chicken sandwich chains in America.

  • If you thought things are slowing down in the campaign world as Biden gets sworn in, think again. In yesterday’s edition of The Sweep, Sarah tracks some early 2024 movement, analyzes what GOP voters are saying they want from their leaders, and takes a closer look at the NYC mayoral and New Jersey gubernatorial races. “The candidates who most often win are the ones who can appeal to voters where they are,” she laments, “not where they wish they were.”

  • In yesterday’s Uphill, Haley looks at how Republicans are contemplating the future of their party as President Donald Trump prepares to leave office—noting that Trump and his allies aren’t simply going to fade into the background with the end of his presidency. “Don’t expect a unified repudiation of the Trump years from elected Republicans now that he’s leaving office,” she writes. “There will be fierce battles over the direction of the party, especially as lawmakers and officials begin jockeying ahead of the 2024 presidential race.”

Let Us Know

What do you hope to hear from President Biden in his inaugural address later today?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).