“The President Has Sought to Fan the Flames”: As Trump Burns, Bidenworld Is Still Planning to Keep Calm and Carry On


The Joe Biden insider was projecting confidence that next week’s inaugural will be safe. The main reason? This time—unlike the deadly January 6 Trump-inspired attack on the Capitol—the Secret Service is in charge of coordinating security preparations. As soon as we hung up, news broke that Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, the agency that oversees the Secret Service and all inaugural security, was quitting. Followed quickly by the news that the Secret Service was investigating one of its own agents for cheering on the Trump rioters. So the Bidenworld confidence about how Inauguration Day will unfold is tempered with wariness. No one underestimates Trump’s ability to further inflame the situation. 

The assault on Congress during which five people died angered and saddened the president-elect’s advisers. But they also saw the insurrection as further confirmation that Biden is the right man for this fraught moment. “I think that every day it becomes clearer how important his victory was,” says Anita Dunn, the master strategist who guided Biden’s general election win. “He got into the race because of the violence and death in Charlottesville, and because the president said that there were fine people on both sides. He talked about that throughout his campaign, and obviously the events of the last week bring that moment back. The divisions predate Trump, but they certainly are ones that president-elect Biden, throughout his campaign, pointed out are ones that the president has sought to fan the flames of and take advantage of.”

Diagnosing—and worsening—the illness is far easier than curing it. Biden’s campaign theme of “restoring the soul of America” appealed to 81 million people; putting it into action is going to require the messier business of contending with the more than 74 million voters who lined up behind Donald Trump, and the radical fraction that is willing to ransack in his name. The public debate about how Biden should tackle the polarization covers a wide spectrum, from turning the page and cutting off Trump’s publicity oxygen to ramping up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that can assign accountability for the sins of the past four years. The conversation among Biden’s inner circle, however, is considerably narrower. “The president-elect has said the Justice Department is going to be independent and not an extension of the White House political arm like it was during this administration,” a senior Biden operative says. “It’s going to make its own determinations based on the law.”

Which is how it should be. There is justice to be pursued beyond the purely criminal, including a full accounting of how the Trump family used the presidency to enrich itself. Yet Biden is more interested in encouraging what he sees as hopeful signs of bipartisanship—in December’s congressional COVID-19 relief package, and in the number of Republicans who have finally, grudgingly started to break with Trump. Still, Biden is savvy enough to understand he can’t simply play nice with Republicans in Congress (who will likely lose interest in playing nice by February) and lose support among progressive Democrats. Suggesting that a possible second impeachment trial of Trump might occupy only half the Senate’s working day is one attempt to thread that needle. Getting Mitch McConnell to hold confirmation hearings at the same time would be even more artful. “The president-elect is really trying to stay focused on what he can control, which is the legislative package on COVID, on the economy,” the Biden insider says. “And he’s been clear that he wants to be a conciliator and to bring people together. That’s how he approached the campaign over the last two years, and it’s been his M.O. throughout his career.” Given the fury that’s built up on the left over the past four years—and the widespread disgust following Trump’s stoking of the Capitol siege—Biden’s balancing act will need to be Olympic-gymnast caliber. 

That performance will officially begin at noon on January 20, and it is still scheduled to happen in public, on the west front of the Capitol, just as it has every four years since 1981, when Ronald Reagan moved it from the traditional east side portico location. Only this time there will be 10,000 National Guard troops lining the perimeter, supplemented by thousands of other law enforcement agents. The scenery, and the mood, will be starkly different from the last time Biden was in Washington, and at the Capitol, to pay his respects to the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September. The January 6 riot didn’t just stiffen inaugural security planning—it is informing the writing of Biden’s inaugural speech. “When he announced he was running he said it was to restore the soul of the nation, to unify a divided nation,” Dunn says. “He will address the nation on the best ways to do that next Wednesday. I’m not going to get in front of him.”

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