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Capitol siege raises security concerns over Biden inauguration

Workers install no-scale fencing around the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
Workers install no-scale fencing around the U.S. Capitol on Thursday after the previous day’s siege by a pro-Trump mob.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

The violent siege of the U.S. Capitol is intensifying scrutiny over security at President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, a ceremony already reshaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and the prospect that his predecessor may not attend.

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will take the oath of office from the Capitol’s West Front, one of the very locations where a violent mob in support of President Trump overpowered police and stormed the building. The extremists also scaled and occupied the scaffolding and bleachers in place for the inauguration.

Plans for the ceremony had already been scaled back because of the coronavirus. But the brazen attack raises new questions about preparedness for an event designed to highlight the U.S.’ usually peaceful transfer of power.

The congressional leaders responsible for coordinating the inauguration insisted Thursday night that events would go ahead.

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“Yesterday was a sad and solemn day for our country,” said Republican Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. “The outrageous attack on the Capitol, however, will not stop us from affirming to Americans — and the world — that our democracy endures.

“The great American tradition of an inaugural ceremony has occurred in times of peace, in times of turmoil, in times of prosperity, and in times of adversity,” the senators said. “We will be swearing in President-elect Biden.”

Tweets and time stamps offer a timeline of the events that led to a pro-Trump mob storming the Capitol building hours after the president spoke at a rally nearby.

Security forces have already begun taking extra precautions in the wake of Wednesday’s mayhem.

Roughly 6,200 members of the National Guard from six states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland — will help support Capitol Police and other law enforcement in Washington for the next 30 days. Inauguration Day road closures may be altered.

Crews also erected tall, black metal fences on the Capitol grounds that are designed to be impossible to climb. Similar structures have previously been used around the White House and in other cities that faced prolonged demonstrations.

Such barriers would have gone up in anyway in coming days because the inauguration is a “National Special Security Event” overseen by the Secret Service and scores of other federal agencies, including the Defense Department, which helps lead counter-terrorism efforts associated with the event. That’s the same level of security provided during political party conventions or when a dignitary lies in state at the Capitol — but not during a normal congressional session like that underway when rioters breached the building.

The president and his enablers sent a mob of domestic terrorists to take over the Capitol building. It was a day of infamy and epiphany — a terrible, horrible Hollywood reveal.

“The safety and security of all those participating in the 59th Presidential Inauguration is of the utmost importance,” the Secret Service said in a statement Thursday. “For well over a year, the U.S. Secret Service, along with our NSSE partners, has been working tirelessly to anticipate and prepare for all possible contingencies at every level to ensure a safe and secure Inauguration Day.”

Authorities will deploy the same level of military and civilian forces for the inauguration as they would to handle a crowd of more than 1 million people, even though the Jan. 20 ceremony is expected to draw a fraction of that number because of coronavirus restrictions, according to a person familiar with the security planning.

Those who have worked on previous inaugurations said that, although this year’s events will look different, the tradition of passing power from one administration to another will continue.

“You don’t have a photo of a million people lined up, so you don’t have that sort of powerful image, but I think you will still have the feel there,” said Bill Daley, a former Commerce secretary and White House chief of staff who helped organize President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. “The aura of change will be there.”

Will Trump stick around to witness the swearing-in of Joe Biden as his successor? Or will he skip it and tweet from self-exile at Mar-A-Lago?

Trump hasn’t made that easy. He has falsely argued that the election was stolen, a claim that has been rejected by fellow Republicans in critical swing states and his former attorney general. His many legal challenges were roundly dismissed as meritless, including by conservative judges he appointed.

It’s unclear whether Trump will attend his successor’s inauguration. The outgoing president has skipped the incoming president’s swearing-in only three times in U.S. history, and the last one to do so was Andrew Johnson 152 years ago. Trump only acknowledged the upcoming transfer of power after the Capitol was stormed. Vice President Mike Pence plans to attend the ceremony.

Inauguration organizers have already urged supporters not to come to Washington in person because of the pandemic. Viewing stands built to hold crowds of onlookers in front of the White House were recently dismantled.

There also won’t be the traditional inauguration luncheon, and the parade will be virtual, similar to what the Democratic Party did during its online-only convention in August.

President-elect Joe Biden named Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as one of five co-chairs for his upcoming inauguration.

The inaugural committee has announced that Biden will receive an official escort, with representatives from every military branch, for a block before arriving at the White House from the Capitol.

The presidential motorcade usually makes the mile-plus journey with the new president and first lady walking part of the way and thousands of cheering supporters lining the streets. While final details are still being worked out, it’s unclear whether any of that will occur this time.

Whatever happens, it’ll be a far cry from Obama’s 2009 inauguration, when organizers opened the full length of the National Mall — which extends all the way to the Lincoln Memorial — to accommodate massive crowds.

Security was a concern then, too. The night before, Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s secretary of Homeland Security, informed Obama’s team of credible intelligence indicating that four Somali men who were thought to be coming over the U.S.-Canada border might be planning a terrorist attack on the inauguration ceremony.

Jim Bendat, an inauguration historian and author of the book “Democracy’s Big Day” noted that, in addition to attending the inauguration, the outgoing and the incoming presidents usually meet at the White House and chat before joining a procession to the Capitol and swearing-in ceremonies. He said the failure of that to happen this time would be “an assault on our democracy” akin to Wednesday’s unrest.

“Those are very symbolic moments that really open our eyes,” Bendat said of the two presidents meeting cordially. “The world watches those moments because it’s something that doesn’t occur in most countries.”


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