Outside the White House fence, central Washington on Tuesday took on a dystopian look ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, swarming with National Guard troops and largely emptied of ordinary people.
COVID-19 restrictions meant the swearing-in ceremony at noon on Wednesday was always due to be sparsely attended. But fears of right-wing attacks in the wake of the pro-Trump riot in the Capitol building on January 6 have triggered unprecedented deployments of armed soldiers, concrete barriers and secure areas dubbed “green” and “red” zones.
Adding to the tension, the Senate is expected to put Donald Trump on trial soon, following his record second impeachment by the House of Representatives over the Capitol riot.
Biden, a veteran Democratic senator who also served as vice president to Barack Obama, was set to travel to Washington with his wife Jill Biden from their hometown of Wilmington, Delaware.
Together with incoming vice president Kamala Harris — the first woman ever to hold the job — Biden was due to deliver a Tuesday evening address on the COVID-19 crisis, from the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
This will give the incoming president and vice president a first glimpse of a city transformed for their inauguration.
The grassy Mall area, barred to the public, has been filled with some 200,000 American flags to represent the people who at any other inauguration would have come to witness history. Fifty six pillars of light will beam up to represent the 50 US states and territories.
Another eye-catching number is the more than 20,000 National Guards troops on duty, many of them carrying automatic rifles and dressed in full combat gear.
Illustrating the level of worry after the attack by the pro-Trump mob, the defense department said that all Guard troops were being vetted by the FBI and military for possible threats.
Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller said in a statement Monday that vetting of National Guard troops continues and that the Pentagon has found no intelligence so far that would indicate an insider threat.
Lt. Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard, said such vetting “is standard” and that he was “not concerned about” insider threats in the Guard.
“We don’t allow extremism of any type in our organization,” he told NBC’s ”Today” show on Tuesday.
Still, the Secret Service issued a bulletin over the weekend about what it sees as an “uptick” in National Guard troops posting pictures and details of their operations online.
The Associated Press obtained the “all concerned” message sent to all the National Guard troops coming to Washington. Without getting into specific postings, the bulletin said, “No service members should be posting locations, pictures or descriptions online regarding current operations or the sensitive sites they are protecting” and urged them to stop immediately.
Asked about the bulletin, a spokesperson for the Secret Service issued a statement saying it “does not comment on matters of protective intelligence.”
A fire Monday in a homeless encampment roughly a mile away from the inauguration site sent a plume of smoke into the air and caused security concerns in an already jittery city.
The false alarm briefly interrupted rehearsal for Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony, a quadrennial exercise in which stand-ins take the roles of Biden and other VIPs and the US Marine Band goes through its paces, including practicing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a planned performance by Lady Gaga. Rehearsal resumed not long afterward, accompanied by frequent passes by a helicopter patrolling the skies over the Capitol.
US President Donald Trump has refused to attend the inauguration, the first time a sitting president has not attended since Andrew Johnson, though Vice President Mike Pence will be there as well as other former presidents.
In another first, Trump has yet to publicly congratulate Biden on his win, wish him luck, or invite him for the customary cup of tea in the Oval Office.
Biden is coming in with a strong message of unity, insisting that he can bring a divided country back to the center and confront the nation’s multiple crises, starting with Covid-19, together.
To symbolize the new spirit, Biden has invited the two top senators — Democrat Chuck Schumer and Republican Mitch McConnell — and other top congressional leaders to attend a church service with him on Wednesday before the inauguration.
A person familiar with McConnell’s plans confirmed to AFP the Republican congressional leader would join Biden, a longtime Senate colleague, in church.