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The Morning Dispatch: President Biden's Mission Statement
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The Morning Dispatch: President Biden’s Mission Statement

Plus: Combing through Trump's last-day pardons and Biden's first-day executive orders.

Happy Thursday! Nineteen hours in, and Kamala Harris still hasn’t staged a coup and made herself president. Was PatriotEagleNews.usa lying to us??

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Wednesday were officially sworn in as the 46th president and 49th vice president in American history, respectively. 

  • New Sens. Jon Ossoff, Raphael Warnock, and Alex Padilla were also sworn in on Wednesday, giving Democrats narrow control of Congress’ upper chamber. Sen. Chuck Schumer was elevated to Senate majority leader, while Sen. Mitch McConnell became Senate minority leader.

  • The Senate confirmed Avril Haines, Biden’s nominee to serve as director of national intelligence, in an 84 to 10 vote on Wednesday. Additional nominees are expected to be confirmed in the coming days as Sens. Schumer and McConnell come to a power-sharing agreement. The Biden administration on Wednesday announced dozens of acting Cabinet officials who will serve in the interim.

  • President Biden signed nearly 20 executive orders after being sworn in Wednesday, reversing many of the regulatory actions President Trump had taken during his four years in office. Biden’s orders began the process of re-entering the United States into the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Accord, undid President Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority and African countries, and rescinded the Keystone XL pipeline’s permit, among other things.

  • Acting DHS Secretary David Pekoske announced Wednesday night the agency will be pausing most deportations for 100 days, effective January 22, to “ensure we have a fair and effective immigration enforcement system focused on protecting national security, border security, and public safety.” The change in policy does not apply to individuals arriving in the U.S. after November 1, 2020, or those engaged in a suspected act of terrorism.

  • President Biden fired National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) General Counsel Peter Robb on Wednesday night, after asking him to resign earlier in the day. Robb—who was opposed by labor unions across the country—was appointed to the Senate-confirmed role by Trump in 2017 and had 10 months remaining in his term. Michael Pack, Trump’s appointee to lead the U.S. Agency for Global Media, resigned Wednesday at Biden’s request, as did Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

  • Dozens of far-left agitators took to the streets in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington last night, smashing windows and vandalizing buildings—including a local Democratic Party headquarters and an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility. Many of the rioters carried signs arguing Biden and the Democrats were not progressive enough. 

  • The United States confirmed 188,052 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 10.7 percent of the 1,762,168 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 4,448 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 406,001. According to the COVID Tracking Project, 122,700 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 35,990,150 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been distributed nationwide, and 16,525,281 have been administered.

Biden Stays on Message

American presidents rarely have an opportunity to reach a bigger—and more open-minded—audience than they do on the very first day of their term. Sure, tens of millions tune in to the State of the Union address, and presidents are known to displace primetime broadcasts to address the nation in moments of crisis. But the inaugural address sets the tone for it all.

There were frills: Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez performed patriotic anthems, 23-year-old poet laureate Amanda Gorman was a show-stopper, Sen. Amy Klobuchar emceed. But in his 20-minute speech on the steps of the Capitol yesterday, President Joe Biden hit the same notes that President-elect Joe Biden hit last week and the same notes that candidate Joe Biden hit in the months before that: The United States is better than what we’ve all lived through these past four years, and healing is possible if we remember that we’re Americans first and partisans second.

Biden’s team published an endless stream of policy papers detailing his priorities on his website over the past two years. But this unity message was always the bread and butter of the former vice president’s campaign—in both the primary and general elections. And as naïve as that may sound in our cynical age, it seems increasingly clear that Biden genuinely believes it.

“I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real,” he acknowledged. “But I also know they are not new.”

“Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, and demonization have long torn us apart,” Biden said. “Through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, 9/11; through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks; our better angels have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us came together to carry all of us forward.”

Almost as notable as what Biden did say on Wednesday was what he didn’t: 2,300 words, not a single one of them was “Trump.” The president could have called out his predecessor for his absence from the day’s ceremonies, or his role in instigating the Capitol violence just two weeks prior, or Trump’s monthslong campaign to paint him as a radical dementia patient. He did not. 

Hounded later in the day by reporters curious about the contents of Trump’s letter to him, Biden refused to share any details other than to say Trump was “very generous.” When Jen Psaki, his press secretary, was asked in her first press briefing for Biden’s thoughts about Trump’s impeachment, she dodged: Biden “is going to leave it to members of Congress to carry out their constitutional duty and determine what the path forward is and what the mechanisms are going to be, what the process will be, and what the timeline will be.”

“We’re focusing on moving forward,” Psaki concluded. “We’re focusing on addressing the issues facing the American public.”

At least on Day One, Republican officials seemed largely content to do that. Senate and House Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy joined Biden for mass at Washington’s Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle Wednesday morning. Sen. Pat Toomey commended the president’s call for unity and “his assurance to those who did not support him that he will nevertheless be president for all Americans.”

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Sen. Marco Rubio, and several other Senate Republicans expressed similar sentiments. Seventeen House GOP freshmen signed onto a letter to Biden offering to work with the administration: “We hope that we can rise above the partisan fray to negotiate meaningful change for Americans across the nation.”

Unity, of course, does not require Republicans to abandon conservatism and line up behind the Democrats’ progressive policies, or vice versa. Biden—who thus far has proven himself to be no Bernie Sanders but no Joe Manchin either—acknowledged as much. “To all those who did not support us,” he said, “hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart. And if you still disagree, so be it. That’s democracy. The right to dissent peaceably, within the guardrails of our Republic, is perhaps our nation’s greatest strength.”

Rather, the president focused on how we disagree. “Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war,” Biden said. “We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”

Biden’s Day One Executive Orders

It didn’t take long for Biden’s call for civil disagreement to be put to the test. Just hours after being sworn in as the nation’s 46th president on Wednesday, he signed 17 executive orders, proclamations, and memoranda—much more than the typical one to two on Inauguration Day itself—many of which aim to reverse the Trump administration’s policy approach to climate change, immigration, and the COVID-19 pandemic.

In keeping with his prioritization of pandemic related policy initiatives, Biden reversed Trump’s decision to leave the World Health Organization and appointed Dr. Anthony Fauci to head its U.S. delegation. He also reestablished the national security team responsible for global health—which Trump had disbanded—and enacted a mask and social distancing mandate that will take effect in all federal buildings and on federal property nationwide.

Congressional Republicans are likely to balk (at least on process) at Biden’s immigration-related executive orders, namely his refortification of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and order mandating inclusion of noncitizens in the U.S. Census. Biden also signed executive orders halting construction of the U.S-Mexico border wall and reversing the Trump administration’s travel ban on a number of Muslim-majority and African countries.

Other orders are mere extensions of pandemic-related policy initiatives that were designed to ease economic distress amid this year’s drastic surge in unemployment. For example, Biden signed an extension of the Trump administration’s student debt relief program—originally set to expire January 31—through September 30, and asked the Centers for Disease Control to extend its federal eviction moratorium through the end of March.

Notably missing among Biden’s flurry of orders on Wednesday was any executive action related to Iran, although Biden’s White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki made clear during her first briefing Wednesday evening that the president plans to “lengthen and strengthen nuclear constraints on Iran” in due course. Psaki also said Biden plans to call Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Friday, his first call with a foreign leader as president.

On the climate change front, Biden rescinded the permit granted for the Keystone XL Pipeline, officially began the process of rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and signed an order that will temporarily halt natural gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), a 19.3-million-acre region of untapped oil reserves in northeastern Alaska. 

As we wrote to you in August, a subsection of the 2017 tax bill “stipulates a minimum of two lease sales of 400,000 acres each must be auctioned off—one within four years and another within seven—by the end of 2024.” This means Biden’s order is only temporary, as he can only delay leasing preparations rather than prohibit drilling altogether. 

Psaki indicated Wednesday that the president will sign several more orders in due course. “In the coming days and weeks we will be announcing additional executive actions that confront these challenges and deliver on the President-elect’s promises to the American people,” she said, “including revoking the ban on military service by transgender Americans, and reversing the Mexico City policy.”

Many of these actions will face legal challenges of one form or another (stay tuned for an Advisory Opinions episode later today breaking down the likely efficacy of those challenges). But President Trump is now learning the same lesson that President Obama did four years ago: If you live by the executive order, you die by the executive order. 

The Democratic Party holds slim majorities in both chambers of Congress—and Biden himself has said he wants to pass legislation through regular order—but the president’s aggressive use of executive authority so early in his tenure could prove an omen of governing to come.

Some Eleventh Hour Pardons

It’s a longstanding tradition among presidents (though maybe it shouldn’t be!) to issue a series of politically toxic pardons and commutations on your way out the door. Bill Clinton let tax evader Marc Rich off the hook on his last day in office, and on January 17, 2017, Barack Obama commuted the sentences of Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning and Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN) leader Oscar López Rivera.

Donald Trump followed their lead. In the waning hours of his presidency, he issued 73 pardons and 70 commutations, extending full pardons to political strategist and ally Steve Bannon and former Trump campaign fundraiser Elliott Broidy. The wave of clemency did not, however, include preemptive pardons for the outgoing president, his family members, or his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

As political reporters (present company included!) waited impatiently Tuesday night for the final list of long-anticipated eleventh hour pardons, debates reportedly waged within the White House over whether to grant clemency to Bannon—one of the Trump campaign’s top advisers in 2016. Bannon’s possible involvement in the January 6 riots, some aides argued, would further implicate the former president as he prepares to enter his second Senate impeachment trial.

But Trump ultimately opted to grant a full pardon to Bannon, who pleaded not guilty to charges that he defrauded political donors who supported his “We Build The Wall” 501(c)(4) that told donors their money would go toward building a wall at the southern border. The White House’s justification for the pardon was more vague: “Prosecutors pursued Mr. Bannon with charges related to fraud stemming from his involvement in a political project,” it read. “Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen.”

Elliott Broidy, the former deputy RNC finance chair, also received clemency from the outgoing president after pleading guilty last October to conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws by exerting influence on behalf of a foreign billionaire. In a statement, Trump named a slew of Broidy’s supporters in Congress and in the State Department. 

Many in Trump’s latest round of pardons and commutations were convicted of low-level offenses in lesser-known cases, but this batch also included the convictions of two famous rappers. Lil Wayne, whose real name is Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., was granted a full pardon for a federal firearms charge. Kodak Black—whose real name is Bill Kapri—received commutation after being sentenced to 46 months in prison for lying on gun background check paperwork.

Other noteworthy clemency recipients include former Democratic Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, Israeli Air Force officer Aviem Sella, Miami developer Bob Zangrillo, conservative political operative Paul Erickson, former North Carolina Rep. Robin Hayes, former California Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, and Albert Pirro, the ex-husband of Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro.

Trump was reportedly weighing preemptive pardons for himself and his family members for weeks, hoping to stave off any potential criminal investigations that could stem from his time in office. Trump would have been the first president to self-pardon had he chosen to do so. 

Trump also didn’t pull the trigger on clemency for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange or NSA leaker Edward Snowden, both of whose cases were supported by libertarians and certain pockets of both the left and right. Much to the disappointment of reality television fanatics across the country, the final round of pardons also excluded Joe Exotic—the star of Netflix’s Tiger King—who was convicted on 17 counts of animal abuse.

“I was too innocent and too GAY to deserve a Pardon from Trump. I only mattered to Don Jr. when he needed to make a comment about me to boost his social media post,” the TV personality tweeted Wednesday. “Boy were we all stupid to believe he actually stood for Equal Justice? His corrupt friends all come first.”

Worth Your Time

  • Both in the U.S. and around the world, the coronavirus is continuing to pick up speed, spreading faster now than at any previous point in the pandemic. The ongoing deployment of effective vaccines may have allowed us to remain relatively unpanicked about this state of affairs, but there’s another potential downside beyond the obvious: That much rampant transmission provides ample opportunity for the virus to mutate. In this piece for The Atlantic, Sarah Zhang breaks down how three different strains of the virus have recently emerged, having apparently independently arrived at some of the same mutations—suggesting that “they confer an evolutionary advantage to the virus.”

  • Writing at National Review, Andrew McCarthy has some harsh words for Trump’s last-minute use of a pardon power that “has devolved from an obsolescence to an embarrassment in our constitutional system.” Few, if any, of the pardons, McCarthy argues, served any broader purpose. “The clemency list is as run-of-the-mill as these things go: the usual array of cronies, corrupt politicians and their shady financial backers, and panders (President Trump likes rappers!),” he writes. “What you won’t find are clemency grants that make you say, ‘Well, that certainly is in the national interest,’ or even, ‘Now here’s a case where the justice system reached an unjust result—I’m glad the president had the power to correct it.’”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • Joe Biden has assumed office at one of the darkest moments in United States history, when a global pandemic has taken the lives of more than 400,000 Americans and rampant polarization continues to test our nation’s character. Did his inaugural address meet the moment? Was his call for unity too idealistic? On Wednesday’s Inauguration Day episode of the Dispatch Podcast, our hosts discuss Biden’s executive orders and the once and future Republican party before breaking down Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony, speech and all.

  • In his latest French Press(🔒), David writes that Joe Biden has a Reaganesque task before him: attempting to bring healing to a nation in the grip of both a tangible and an intangible malaise in the forms of our coronavirus pandemic and our shattered sense of national unity. How history will judge him will depend on how successful he is at leading the nation to transcend both.

  • Meanwhile, Jonah offers the new president some advice in his midweek G-File (🔒): If he’s casting about for figures to model his term in office after, he could do worse than Dwight D. Eisenhower. “While Eisenhower was a great frustration to anti-communists like William F. Buckley, he was an existential obsession for the more extreme figures on the conspiratorial right,” Jonah writes. “This Cold War version of QAnon-ism was a great gift to Ike politically. It let Ike and his supporters cast his opponents on the right as delusional crackpots.” 

  • In his latest Capitolism newsletter (🔒), Scott Lincicome took a deep dive into what the top-down federal approach to vaccine distribution got right—and, just as importantly, how it frequently stepped on its own feet thanks to regulatory inflexibility and cumbersome interference in medical market distribution and supply chains. 

  • Man, we put out a lot of newsletters yesterday! If you want to learn more about the foreign policy moves Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took against China on his way out the door—and how the Biden administration is likely to follow them up—you’ll want to give Thomas Joscelyn’s latest Vital Interests(🔒) a read. 

Let Us Know

We just underwent quite the pendulum swing of a presidential transition. For us political junkies, it’s a huge moment—but it may also take on an outsized role in our politics-as-entertainment world. 

Aside from reading about the goings on in the news, do you expect your day-to-day life will be meaningfully different with President Biden at the helm? If yes, how so? If no, why do you think we invest so much emotional energy into the presidency?

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