Even before last week’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration was going to buck tradition.
Next Wednesday, there won’t be a crowd gathered on the National Mall to see Biden take his oath of office or hear his first presidential address. People won’t line Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House, cheering and waving flags as he and incoming first lady Jill Biden parade past. And revelers won’t don formal attire for one or many balls, partying into the wee hours of the morning.
And that was because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, plans have changed again after five people were left dead when supporters of President Trump, incensed over the 2020 election results, stormed the Capitol.
Biden’s inaugural committee last month urged the public to steer clear of Washington, D.C., amid the worsening COVID-19 outbreak, fearing the celebrations could become a superspreader event.
But with Biden’s inauguration taking place exactly two weeks after die-hard Trump backers became violent as they tried to stop the certification of the former vice president’s majority of electors, more stringent crowd control measures are being imposed for the festivities.
Up to 15,000 National Guard troops from across the country have been authorized to be deployed to Washington in the coming days to bolster thousands of police and law enforcement forces who will secure Biden’s inaugural. Those forces include the Secret Service, U.S. Capitol Police, and Park Police. And the response is complicated by the district’s unique status and each force’s different jurisdiction.
The beefed-up security pales in comparison to Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser’s request of 340 unarmed D.C. National Guard troops for a strict crowd, traffic, and access control mission before last week’s “March to Save America” rally that turned deadly. And an estimated 9,000 troops who were called up for former President Barack Obama’s inauguration. Bowser’s ask this cycle was separate from the 2,000-strong Capitol Police force, which is solely responsible for the congressional complex.
After criticism and a blame game over the lack of preparedness before the riots, Bowser last week extended a district-level emergency declaration before requesting over the weekend and being granted on Monday a federal emergency declaration from Trump. The moves free up readiness resources. Bowser has also asked federal authorities to cancel permits for seven Inauguration Day demonstrations on the Mall.
On top of the declarations, the Homeland Security Department announced Monday that it would fast-track its designation of Biden’s inaugural as a National Special Security Event by a week. Under the designation, forces will be stationed around the city, and parts of downtown Washington will be locked down from Wednesday. The extra time is meant to facilitate better intragovernment coordination.
But while the posture of officials has shifted compared to pre-Jan. 6, mirroring the erection of 7-foot, “non-scalable” barriers around the White House, the Capitol, and other federal buildings, concerns about continuity confusion and a leadership vacuum reign. Anxieties were exacerbated by acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf’s resignation Monday. Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund, as well as then-House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving and his Senate counterpart, Michael Stenger, all stepped down, too, after the siege.
At the same time, an FBI internal bulletin circulated Monday warned that armed protests were being planned for state capitals nationwide from Saturday and at the Capitol from Sunday. Another group intends to travel to Washington, D.C., this weekend so it can stage a “huge uprising” if Trump is removed from office using the Constitution’s 25th Amendment.
Pennsylvania Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb shared one particular plot Tuesday after lawmakers were briefed on the situation Monday. That threat involved “4,000 armed ‘patriots'” surrounding the Capitol to “prevent any Democrat from going in.” The group had even published rules of engagement.
At the moment, Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president during a platform ceremony at the Capitol next Wednesday. The formalities will be followed by a military pass in review and an Arlington National Cemetery wreath-laying event attended by Obama and former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. A virtual parade will also replace the customary procession down Pennsylvania Avenue.
But questions are being raised over whether Biden should take his oath of office in public. And there are plenty of precedents for private iterations other than Lyndon B. Johnson’s after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, according to historian David Pietrusza.
“Theodore Roosevelt had to rush down from the Adirondacks to Buffalo to be sworn in at a private home in Buffalo” after William McKinley’s death, Pietrusza told the Washington Examiner. Before that, “Chester A. Arthur was sworn in at his living room in New York,” following James A. Garfield’s demise, he said.
Pietrusza added that Calvin Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administered his oath in Vermont after Warren G. Harding’s heart attack, but Coolidge took a pledge “again privately by a judge when he reached Washington.”
And “because of World War II, FDR was sworn in outside the White House rather than at the Capitol. There was no parade or other festivities,” he said.
Despite the risks posed to himself and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Biden exuded confidence in his security team Monday.
“I’m not afraid of taking the oath outside,” Biden told reporters in Delaware.