The United States from Trump to Biden: From insurrection to inauguration

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Drew Christiansen SJ

 Drew Christiansen SJ / Politics / Published Date:10 March 2021/Last Updated Date:31 March 2021


Free Article

January 6 should have been a day of quiet confidence for American Catholics. Joe Biden had been elected president and the Congress was about to confirm the popular vote. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, as she opened the House session, took  note of the Feast of the Epiphany and prayed the Peace Prayer attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi, “Make me a channel of your peace. Where there is darkness, may you [sic]  bring light. Where there is hatred, let us bring love. Where there is despair, let us bring hope.”

Like Speaker Pelosi, President Biden is open, but not ostentatious, in his piety. In his acceptance speech, he cited the Book of Ecclesiastes, “For everything, there is a season,” emphasizing that this is “a time to heal.”

Well-known for his effusive empathy, Biden reached out in that address to the families of the nearly four hundred thousand Americans whose lives had been  taken by the coronavirus with the opening verses of the hymn “On Eagle’s Wings.” Then he concluded, “And now, together — on eagle’s wings — we embark on the work that God and history have called upon us to do.”

La Civilta Cattolica

God and history have not made it easy going for these two aging leaders. Biden is 78 and Pelosi is 80. No leaders since Franklin Delano Roosevelt have faced as profound a set of challenges as Biden confronts today: the greatest public health crisis since 1918, the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Beyond that, they must face a gaping political divide between America’s democratic civic traditions and the menacing insurgency of organized militias. Underlying much of that civic unrest flows the feverish return of America’s inherited disease: racism.

At the time, then, of its greatest crisis since the Civil War, the U.S. has turned to two Catholics to lead them out of the darkness of xenophobic government and a long-fermenting civil rebellion. Themselves victims of Catholic cultural warriors, they refuse to vilify their adversaries and invite Americans to come together in a common cause. Biden identified healing “the soul of America” as the key mission of his presidency. “Millions of Americans hungry for a faith focused on healing and inclusion will embrace it,” wrote Michelle Boorstein in the Washington Post.

The Insurrection

For Speaker Pelosi and her fellow legislators January 6, the day scheduled for confirmation of the electoral-college vote, proved to be much more than a day of ceremony. At 1:12, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Congressman Paul Gosar (R-Ark.) objected to certifying Arizona’s electoral votes, and senators and representatives broke into separate chambers to debate the issue of certifying the vote. An hour later, at 2:15, hundreds of Trump supporters, protesting the election, stormed the Capitol, and by 2:20 the two houses had adjourned and the legislators rushed to safety in secret locations in the Capitol complex.

Vice President Mike Pence avoided being seized by the crowd by a matter of seconds, protected by the Secret Service. Earlier protestors had affixed a hangman’s rope outside the Capitol and cried “Hang Pence” as they stormed through the Capitol building. The vice president’s offense was to have resisted Trump’s demands to decertify the electoral vote, saying it was not within his constitutional authority.

Despite his fealty to the president, during and after the event, the vice president assumed the role of an elected executive, contacting the Pentagon about summoning the National Guard, congratulating Kamala Harris for her election as vice president, and inspecting troops guarding the Capitol.

Around the country, protestors threatened several state houses; others were closed to prevent disorder. Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Brad Raffensperger, who had rebuffed the president’s attempts to turn the election outcome his way, evacuated his office. Outside the Arizona state capitol in Phoenix, protestors erected a guillotine and sought out Republican governor Doug Ducey, until then a Trump stalwart, for certifying his state’s election results.

President Trump ignored requests to call up the National Guard to assist Capitol Police in evicting the mob inside the Capitol, and he refused to condemn the violence. Instead, after the marauding continued, his press secretary tweeted that the Guard and other federal law enforcement agents were on their way. Two hours after the breach, Trump tweeted a video professing his love of the protestors and urging them to go home. It was more than four hours before police cleared the  buildings. Finally, at 8:06, Vice President Pence called the Senate to order, and Speaker Pelosi convoked the House an hour later.

The certification resumed, and, though some Republicans, both shaken and outraged by the insurrection, withdrew their plans to object to the certification, a majority of House Republicans and seven senators voted to oppose it. After defeating objections to certifying the Arizona and Pennsylvania votes, at 3:42 on the morning of January 7, the vice president declared Biden the president-elect and Senator Kamala Harris vice-president elect.

Even if the pro-Trump objections ultimately failed, Trump’s hold on the Republican Party remains strong. Some lawmakers admitted, with tears in their eyes, that, even after the previous afternoon’s violence, if they stood up to Trump they feared not just for their political careers but for their very lives. Democrats worried that some of their Republican colleagues, like newly elected Congresswoman Lauren Boebart of Colorado, were carrying guns into the House chamber itself.[1] Congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, the icon of the liberal wing and the bête noire of the Trumpists, refused to take refuge with her colleagues among whom, she said, she could not tell who was there to protect her and who were intent on harm. Speaker Pelosi sternly ordered that everyone entering the House chamber had to pass through a metal detector and no one carrying a weapon would be allowed to pass.

What is now being called “The Trump Insurrection” was the most serious assault on the center of American government since the British burned the Capitol in 1814. There were clear lapses in intelligence. Academics, law enforcement and observers of the extreme right had been aware for weeks that militant groups were “chatting” about a major action on January 6, the day of the electoral college certification and the last date a formal challenge might be made to the Biden election.

Three days before the assault an intelligence unit of the Capitol Police had issued a 12-page report warning of an attack, but it was waived away by the sergeants-at-arms of House and Senate. On January 5, the Norfolk, Va., field office of the FBI, issued a report of an imminent threat, but the Bureau seems not to have communicated it to Capitol Police.

There seems to have been considerable planning and advanced preparation for the invasion of the Capitol, including substantial online fundraising paid for the protestors’ travel expenses to Washington.[2] Perpetrators were found with maps of the Capitol complex, which includes in addition to the Capitol itself, several office buildings connected with both House and Senate, a complex of public reception areas as well as underground corridors and a miniature subway.

In addition, members report that in the days before the attack tours of the Capitol led by members or staff took place at a time when tours were supposedly suspended, leading to speculation of collaboration involving sympathetic insiders. Among those arrested following the invasion or suspected of participating in it were both veteran and active military and police personnel. In light of intelligence failures and apparent security breaches, Speaker Pelosi appointed retired Lt. General Lionel Honoré, best known for his supervision of recovery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, to head a committee of inquiry.

On January 13, Speaker Pelosi signed a single article of impeachment of Donald J. Trump for inciting insurrection, the first time a president has been twice impeached. It is unclear whether and when the Senate will bring Trump to trial. Following the election result it will no longer be possible to remove him from office, but the Senate could deprive him of the ability to take on public office in the United States ever again. While the majority of Republicans in the Senate voted      to acquit, making the two-thirds vote for conviction unachievable, despite videos of on-the-spot claims that the insurrectionists stormed the Capitol at the president’s direction; and, post-arrest statements by others may make it impossible for senators to oppose his conviction.

Lying, Cheating and Incitement

Two major forces lay behind the insurrection: Donald Trump’s months-long campaign against a      Democratic victory and the electoral process, which he vociferously described as a “steal,” and the growth of the extreme right and its armed militias.

Trump,  according to the Washington Post, whose lies or false statements by January 13 totalled 30,529 laid the groundwork for his claims of election fraud months in advance of the election, announcing that in the event his opponent was declared the winner in the election, it would be due to fraud. It was a baseless claim that he and his supporters reiterated in the weeks following his defeat.

The repetition of these deceits by the president’s sympathizers and right-wing media disposed his supporters to believe the election had been stolen and, in Trump’s words, that he had won by a “landslide.”

The falsity of these claims were exposed by state election officials, including many Republicans like Georgia’s Brad Raffensperger, who, time and again, validated the vote. Both the Departments of Justice and of Homeland Security affirmed that the 2020 presidential election was the most secure ever. Sixty state and federal courts rejected legal challenges to the election; several dismissed the alleged evidence presented by the president’s defenders as insubstantial.

Next, Trump began to try to cheat his way to victory. In the most infamous incident, revealed in an hour-long recording, Trump cajoled and threatened Raffensperger to produce the 11,790 votes he needed to win. In another incident, he invited six influential Michigan legislators, whose state had declared for Joe Biden, to meet at the White House. Trump wanted them to subvert the state’s ordinary method of appointing electors to certify the results. On leaving the White House, the legislators announced nothing they had learned would lead them to alter the electoral process.

In Pennsylvania Trump made several attempts to alter the results by attempting to suborn      state legislators to overrule the popular vote in order to divide state reports to Congress and so send the selection of the president to the Congress, as happened in the Hayes-Tilden election of 1876. Though he found some support, the Pennsylvanians ultimately rebuffed his plotting.

Similarly, after weeks of pressure from the White House, Arizona’s hardline Republican Governor Doug Ducey also resisted the president’s bullying, including a call in the middle of the governor’s public certification of the vote. Interrupting the formal certification of the vote, usually a pro-forma exercise, was the last stratagem to seize the electoral process for the Trump side.

On December 19, Trump tweeted to his followers, “Big protest in D.C. on Jan. 6th.” “Be there, will be wild,” he added. Thus, at noon on January 6, thousands of Trump supporters gathered on the Ellipse, just west of the White House. Uttering veiled threats toward Vice President Pence and legislators who stood by the popular-vote tallies, in a typically rambling speech Trump told the crowd, “We’re going to walk down to the Capitol, and we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and -women, and we’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them…I’ll be there with you.” An attempted coup was set in motion.

For several years, officials from Homeland Security, the FBI, and counterterrorism officers      have warned that the greatest threat to American freedoms no longer came from Islamic jihadists, but rather from domestic, white, right-wing extremist groups. Their numbers reached a peak in 2012 with Barack Obama’s re-election and there are now more than 100 groups, many of them forming armed militias. An undeniable element of racial resentment runs through them. The Black Lives Matter movement this past spring and summer was a special target of their ire. Likewise, the successful pushback against voter suppression, especially in once deeply red Georgia, which elected its first Black senator, Raphael Warnock, in a runoff election on January 5, exacerbated racial anxiety in these groups.

Until recently, right-wing extremist groups were disconnected, but with Donald Trump’s defiant efforts to overturn the election, they coalesced around their flawed paladin and his cause. It is a minor blessing that neither the Trump campaign nor the extremist groups are well organized. For now, at least, the damage was limited. But in the months ahead the danger of civil disturbance and open conflict will remain high.

The Biden Transition

From the night he accepted his electoral victory, Joe Biden has refused to gloat in victory or condemn his predecessor in public. He has kept his focus on the country’s needs, especially the recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Trump Administration did the minimum to ease the transition. It did not open formal contacts on the transition with the winners until weeks after the election. It particularly prevented high-level contacts with the Defense Department. Until the end, it kept issuing regulations and making appointments in an effort  to hamstring the Biden team in its opening days.

Perhaps the worst infraction during the hand-over of government came with the coronavirus response. Trump’s handling of the pandemic was negligent and often in conflict with the nation’s once-vaunted public health agencies. The administration’s one achievement seemed to be Operation Warp Speed, which provided assistance for the discovery and production of vaccines. But, as states started to distribute the vaccine to high priority groups, including healthcare workers and nursing home residents, they had to stop. Despite that alarming  turn of events     , Biden renewed his pledge to distribute 100 million inoculations in 100 days.

Biden’s cabinet

President Biden carried on with his appointments. He chose Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary. Yellen, a former chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, the U.S. central bank, was the first chair to make reducing unemployment the practical goal for Fed policy, and not just an ideal. Her nomination was a signal to working people, to labor unions and advocates of those at risk of poverty.

Biden’s cabinet appointments are perhaps the most diverse in American history. They include, notably, Deb Haaland, a first-term Native American congresswoman, to head the Department of the Interior, historically an oppressor of native tribes.

Others are: Avril Haines, the first woman to serve as Director of National Intelligence, who will oversee the nation’s seventeen intelligence agencies; Michael Regan, a Black South Carolinian and clean air specialist, to head the Environmental Protection Agency, suggesting there will be an emphasis on racial equity in environmental policy. Cecilia Rouse, the African-American he named chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, is dean of Princeton’s public policy school. Like Yellen, Rouse is expected to focus on the revival of an economy that delivers for workers.

Hispanics are notable for their appointment to offices that deeply affect Latino interests. Alejandro Majorkas will head Homeland Security, which handles immigration issues. He will need to re-build his department, and, after the Trump years, imbue it with a new sense of mission. He will play a critical role in revising refugee and migration policies, making good on Biden’s promises to provide asylum to childhood arrivals and a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents, as well as admitting up to 125,000 refugees a year.

Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary, will be responsible for bringing education back from the pandemic and finding solutions to the inequalities that riddle the American educational system. Xavier Bercerra, the California attorney general, will be responsible, as secretary of Health and Human Services, for implementing the new administration’s coronavirus program, strengthening the Affordable Care Act.

Biden, in fact, reopened the terms in accordance with which people will be able to apply for health coverage by taking advantage of discounts and government subsidies and made access to free health care easier for the most indigent. At the same time, however, it should be noted that on abortion the president has opened the flow of federal funding for organizations that offer the interruption of pregnancy at both international and national levels. With an executive order he has in fact revoked the Mexico City Policy – named from the city where it was first announced by Reagan in 1984 – which requires NGOs that receive U.S. funds to agree not to promote abortion. In a memorandum, he expanded government grants for groups that support family planning and abortion. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had repealed the measure, while Republicans Bush, father and son, put it back in place, as did Trump in 2017.

To address climate change Biden appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to be his emissary for climate change with a position on the National Security Council, and Gina McCarthy, the former EPA administrator, to be the White House climate coordinator.

Biden will elevate the Office of Science and Technology Policy to cabinet level. He has appointed Dr. Eric Lander of MIT as science adviser, and a team of women scientists to serve as the outside Science Advisory Board. These appointments, Biden said, “will ensure everything we do is grounded in science, facts and the truth.”

Inauguration Day

The sociologist Robert Bellah taught a generation of Americans that at historically significant moments the United States and other countries found meaning through the exercise of civil religion, in the U.S. a blend of civic ritual with elements of Christian piety. The Biden-Harris inauguration was designed as a liturgy of national healing. It opened at dusk the evening before at the Lincoln Memorial, an iconic temple of American democracy, with a national service of remembrance for the 400,000 Americans who have succumbed to Covid-19.

Two hundred thousand flags flew on the National Mall, representing the public that could not physically be there because of the pandemic. Along the Reflecting Pool four hundred candle-like columns glowed in memory of the four hundred thousand dead. The president- and vice president-elect were joined in prayer by, among others, Washington archbishop Cardinal Wilton Gregory. “Let us, with one heart,” the cardinal prayed, “commend those who have died from this virus and all of their loved ones to the providential care of the One who is the ultimate source of peace, unity and concord.” The healing of America had begun.

Inauguration Day began with a private Mass at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral where President-elect Biden and his wife Jill were joined by both Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders, and one hundred family members and invited friends. Fr. Leo O’Donovan, SJ, the former president of Georgetown University and now director of mission for Jesuit Refugee Services USA, gave the opening invocation. He quoted a prayer Bishop John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the new United States, had written for George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789. “‘[A]ssist with your Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to your people,’ Today,” O’Donovan added, “we confess our past failures to live according to our vision of equality, inclusion and freedom for all. Yet we resolutely commit still now to renewing the vision, to caring for one another in word and deed, especially for the least fortunate among us, and so becoming light for the world.”

After swearing to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” – a poignant pledge following the events of January 6 – Biden sought to bring the country together. “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path,” Biden told his listeners. “Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.” He acknowledged skepticism that after such a wrenching civic trauma Americans would be able to trust the vision of unity he was offering the nation. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge,” the president declared. “And unity is the path forward. We must meet this moment as the United States of America.”

The inaugural program was replete with pop stars singing patriotic songs. The most memorable performance came from twenty-two year old Amanda Gorman, a performance poet, who declaimed her celebratory poem, “The Hill We Climb,” a poem of uncommon maturity, with graceful, balletic gestures. The youth poet laureate is a black woman, daughter of a single mother. She attends the Catholic parish of St. Brigid’s in Los Angeles, CA. run by the Josephites, whose charism is to pastor to Afro-Americans. She reflected on the surreal movement of the country in the past two weeks from insurrection to inaugural.

When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? / The loss we carry. A sea we must wade. / We braved the belly of the beast. / We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is [aren’t] always justice. / And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it. / Somehow we do it. / Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

She continued, And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. / We are striving to forge our union with purpose. / To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

Appealing to the American Constitution’s aim “to form a more perfect union,” Gorman offered a vision of fallible men and women on the move to a better future: We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. / We seek harm to none and harmony for all. / Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true. / That even as we grieved, we grew. / That even as we hurt, we hoped. / That even as we tired, we tried. / That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

On the occasion of the inauguration, Pope Francis sent his own message: “I extend cordial good wishes and the assurance of my prayers that Almighty God will grant you wisdom and strength in the exercise of your high office. Under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding. At a time when the grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses, I pray that your decisions will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom, together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice. I likewise ask God, the source of all wisdom and truth, to guide your efforts to foster understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States and among the nations of the world in order to advance the universal common good. With these sentiments, I willingly invoke upon you and your family and the beloved American people an abundance of blessings”[3]

Putting Government to Work

Late that day, ensconced in the Oval Office, President Biden issued several executive orders, reversing the “America First” policies of the previous administration, and affirming his commitment to U.S. participation in global governance. They included rejoining the World Health Organization, a move that acknowledged the global scope of the pandemic, and committed his administration to collaboration in an integrated global response to the pandemic, including the Covax alliance to provide vaccine to developing countries. Similarly, he started the process of rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, another major election commitment.

Other initiatives addressed the painful issue of immigration, lifting a travel ban against Muslim countries, stabilizing the status of “the Dreamers,” the childhood arrivals who dream of American citizenship, and likewise opening the path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

On his first full day in office, President Biden announced a further series of initiatives to address the ravages of the pandemic in which the national death rate had climbed to 4000 per day. Among the first: the imposition of mask-wearing on federal property and during inter-state travel and the goal of vaccinating one hundred million people within 100 days.

More impressive were orders to mobilize the whole of government in “a war” on the coronavirus. Biden commissioned FEMA, the emergency response agency, to set up vaccine distribution centers in difficult or needy areas, and permitted states to call on the National Guard to assist in vaccinations. The FDA, the Federal Drug Administration, will work with pharmacies to increase the opportunities for vaccination, and OSHA, the workplace safety agency, will set new rules for offices and problematic worksites like meat and food-processing plants. In addition, he activated the Defense Production Act to mobilize industry to manufacture products required for mass vaccination from personnel protection equipment (masks, shields, gloves, gowns) to refrigeration units, vials and needles.

With 36 years in the Senate and eight years as vice president, Biden is a most experienced man, and well prepared to assume the office of president. His calm and steady manner, together with his gift of empathy, will help overcome the strong polarization that has marked the nation in recent years. It will not be an easy task to give a new tone to American society, which is just one of the many challenges that await him.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 5, no. 3 art. 13, 1020: 10.32009/22072446.0321.13

[1] Cf. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/01/19/lauren-boebert-tour-capitol-riots

[2] Cf. www.nytimes.com/2021/01/16/us/capitol-riot-funding.html

[3]

http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/pont-messages/2021/documents/papa-francesco_20210120_messaggio-presidente-usa.html