AMNA NAWAZ: A new president in the spotlight while the shadow of his predecessor still looms.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) So help me God.
CHIEF JUSTICE JOHN ROBERTS: (From video.) Congratulations, Mr. President.
MS. NAWAZ: Joseph R. Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States.
VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: (From video.) President Joe Biden has called upon us to summon now the courage to see beyond crisis.
MS. NAWAZ: And Kamala Harris, his barrier-breaking vice president, pledging to reunite the republic.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Democracy is precious, democracy is fragile, and at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.
MS. NAWAZ: And renew the fight against COVID.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Our national plan launches a full-scale wartime effort to address the supply shortages.
MS. NAWAZ: As President Biden gets to work, lawmakers are still working to impeach his predecessor.
SENATE MAJORITY LEADER CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From video.) A trial will be held in the United States Senate and there will be a vote whether to convict the president.
MS. NAWAZ: Next.
ANNOUNCER: This is Washington Week.
MS. NAWAZ: Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. I’m Amna Nawaz.
Before this week’s inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, there was the insurrection incited by former President Trump. Just over two weeks ago, the Capitol was a crime scene breached and defiled by a violent mob. This week, a different scene: Those same steps were the sight of an historic, peaceful transfer of power. Joe Biden took the oath in a fortified city and spoke before an empty National Mall closed over security concerns and to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now – once-in-a-century virus that silently stalks the country, a rise of political extremism, White supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.
MS. NAWAZ: And Biden wasn’t the only one taking his place in history. Vice President Kamala Harris became the first woman of color to ever serve in the role. And as the Biden-Harris administration gets underway, so does the Senate impeachment trial of former President Trump.
It’s been a week in Washington like no other, and joining us now are some of the top reporters covering it all: Laura Baron-Lopez, White House correspondent for Politico; and Ashley Parker, White House bureau chief for The Washington Post. Welcome to you both and thanks for being here.
Ashley, let’s start with you because if you look over the last couple of weeks, a lot happened. We went from the same steps where the insurrection happened being the site for Biden’s swearing-in. When you think about that, what is it we just witnessed? Was this sort of the last chaotic shudder of the Trump era, or is that indicative of the country that Biden now inherits?
ASHLEY PARKER: We don’t – (inaudible, technical difficulties).
MS. NAWAZ: Ashley, I’m going to cut you off; I apologize. We’re having some trouble with Ashley Parker’s audio. We’ll try to reconnect with her and bring her back to make sure we can hear what she’s saying.
But Laura, let me go to you because it’s worth reminding people in between that insurrection and the inauguration there was impeachment – there was a House vote to impeach President Trump – and we know now from what Senator Schumer has announced tonight there’s a timeline for that impeachment trial. We should also remember that President Biden’s inaugural address was centered around this idea of unity and moving forward together. Does that effort towards accountability for President Trump, does that complicate Biden’s plan for unity moving forward?
LAURA BARON-LOPEZ: Well, I think, Amna, that these things don’t happen in a vacuum, and so as President Biden and his administration has said, they’re arguing that the Senate can multitask. If you’ve been a Hill reporter like I have been for nearly a decade, you constantly hear lawmakers say that they can walk and chew gum at the same time, and so Biden, knowing that, is, well, not trying to actively encourage any Republicans so far as we know yet to vote to convict Trump. He’s taking this hands-off approach, but White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki did say over the last few days that they think that the Senate can not only carry out the impeachment trial but also get to work on confirming his nominees and the legislative agenda that Biden is hoping to press forward.
MS. NAWAZ: And joining us now I want to welcome to the conversation Errin Haines, editor at large for The 19th News. Errin, welcome back to the show. We’re talking about this moment in time where you have an impeachment trial for the previous president moving forward at the same time the Biden administration is trying to get its agenda off the ground. There’s a bit of a split screen, a bit of a jarring moment happening in U.S. politics right now. How are you processing those two truths right now?
ERRIN HAINES: Well, I think that it speaks to the divided reality that we are in as a country as this new administration takes office and attempts to govern. We, obviously, have already seen three very dramatic Wednesdays in the – in the first three Wednesdays of this year, and you know, we don’t know what’s going to happen next Wednesday; that’s just how uncertain the times are that we now find ourselves. But you know, what I wrote on inauguration day really spoke to the idea of even as, you know, the president and vice president are calling for unity and healing in this country, you know, we are still very much in what Joe Biden campaigned on, which is a battle for the soul of America, and you’re seeing women at the forefront of that battle on both sides of the aisle, whether we’re talking about, you know, newcomers to the Democratic or Republican Party or the veterans that are, you know, part of the more traditional parts of the party, you know. What they are saying is that unity and healing is not a conversation that can happen without, you know, some accountability and acknowledgement and recognition of the events of the past several weeks, but also the past few Wednesdays before, you know, people can talk about really coming together and moving forward to govern and also unite what is still a very fractured and fragile electorate.
MS. NAWAZ: Laura, it’s been so interesting to see President Biden is really keeping his distance from the whole issue of impeachment. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been asked about this time and again, and has said time and again he is deferring to Congress on how and when to move forward on this. But when you look at his legislative priorities, clearly pandemic relief is top of mind, right? He has been talking about it relentlessly for the last couple of days. Just today we saw him sign a couple of more executive orders aimed towards providing economic relief for people who need it in the pandemic, and he was talking about the economic and the moral imperative of the moment for Congress to act. Take a quick listen to what he had to say today.
PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: (From video.) We cannot, will not let people go hungry. We cannot let people be evicted because of nothing they did themselves. They cannot watch people lose their jobs, and we have to act. We have to act now.
MS. NAWAZ: Laura, the pandemic is clearly the single biggest crisis President Biden inherits. Now, when you and your Politico colleagues hosted a series of conversations with mayors from around the country, what is it that they want and need from this administration when it comes to that relief?
MS. BARON-LOPEZ: Yeah. They’re talking about having a clear message from leaders at the top. So, one, that it’s a whole of government approach, and that’s something we did not see in the previous administration with mixed messages that came from the Health and Human Services Department, the Trump administration itself. When we’re talking about masks and the use of wearing masks, when we’re talking about social distancing there was mixed messaging across the board.
And so what a lot of the mayors were saying was that to be – to have someone that is following more of the science, that is also leveling with the American public in saying that we are nowhere need the end of this pandemic, and that there are going to be harder times ahead potentially before we reach the end of the finish line with this disease, and the loss of life that could be incurred because of that. So that was a lot of what they were saying, a really all-hands approach in terms of vaccine distribution, and that they wanted to be able to communicate well with each other, whether that’s at the federal, state, or local level, to also assist other cities, to assist other states in terms of making sure that the vaccines reach people in a speedy manner.
MS. NAWAZ: Errin, I want to bring you back in here because when you look at where the need is when it comes to the pandemic and its effect we know that Black and brown and native communities continue to be among the hardest hit. And one of the things we saw messaged early from the Biden administration as they were incoming was they were going to address these racial inequities. Have you seen from them specific plans that deal exactly with those problems, getting the vaccine to some of those hardest-hit communities, addressing some of that vaccine skepticism?
MS. HAINES: Well, I think that that is going to be factored into this national plan that is still very much taking shape here on, you know, day three of the Biden-Harris administration. But we have seen, to your point, Amna, you know, three days of daily press briefings, right? That were not just broadcast on television but were also put on social media platforms in an attempt, I think, to kind of reach folks where they are. I mean, I just moderated a conversation with, you know, four of the women who are leading the Biden-Harris communications team.
And what they said was that truth and transparency, even in the difficult conversations for the hard days ahead that the country is going to have on coronavirus, you know, and this pandemic, are going to be key to really keeping, you know, Americans informed and also, you know, restoring trust not just in the press but in the public’s relationship to government, you know, as this vaccine rollout takes place.
But, you know, as we sit here today we know that there is no 1-800 number that people can call yet. There is no, you know, website where somebody can just kind of punch in their ZIP code and figure out where they can go to get help. And so that is really what at least President Biden has indicated, you know, that the response of the federal government should be more national, and something that they are planning to work on, with an eye towards, you know, the folks who we know have been disproportionately impacted by this virus – that being, you know, Black and brown and other marginalized folks in our society.
MS. NAWAZ: Let’s bring in now another reporter who’s been covering all of this. Joining us now is Anna Palmer, founder of Punchbowl News, and the host of The Daily Punch podcast. Anna, always good to see you.
I want to ask you about this plan. Errin has mentioned, of course, the vaccine rollout is what everyone’s waiting for. It needs to be ramped up. That depends on the money being released and funded by Congress to actually have it move forward. The Biden proposal so far, a massive $1.9 trillion plan. He says he wants bipartisan support to move that forward. What are your sources telling you? Is that going to happen?
ANNA PALMER: Certainly, the president wants bipartisan support. But so far he is not finding much support in the Republican camp. His administration is going to be reaching out to this – what we’re calling the sweet 16 bipartisan group in the Senate, where you have Republicans and Democrats trying to come together to try to form some kind of unity in the middle. So far there’s been a lot of skepticism by Republicans that you might think would potentially be open to a bipartisan deal – Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, for instance; Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska – skeptical of not only the price tag but also the timing, the fact that Congress just passed a massive bill before the holidays and wondering if now is what is needed to do that. But there’s going to be a lot of room that he is going to have to make up. And I don’t – the president isn’t – (inaudible). He just doesn’t have – (inaudible). If Republicans don’t come together on COVID relief in the next couple of weeks you’re going to see him move very quickly to move a Democratic bill through a policy kind of situation called a reconciliation where they can move legislation without the need for Republican votes.
MS. NAWAZ: Laura, what about the pressure from his own party? We’re talking a lot about how Republicans will work with him, but you’ve got pressure from progressives saying: Forget bipartisan support. Act quickly. Now is the time to act boldly and move forward. How is that weighing on President Biden right now?
MS. BARON-LOPEZ: Well, so far there’s no indication that he’s going to pursue some of the biggest wish list items that progressives have outlined for him, particularly through executive order. A lot of progressives say that they would love for Biden to use his executive authority to forgive up to $50,000 in student loan debt, that they say that he can just do that with the stroke of a pen. Biden has made clear since well before he assumed the presidency that he does not think that he has the authority to do that through executive order, has said he doesn’t want to use executive orders in that way. And so he’s saying: Congress, it’s up to you. And he supports forgiving some $10,000 in student loan debt.
So there’s a number of wish list items like that that progressives certainly want. And Biden is saying the way that he wants to pursue that is through Congress. Now, the question again also that a lot of progressives have on their mind is how long is Biden going to wait and see if Senate Republicans in that 50-50 Senate are going to work with him, and whether or not things can actually move through reconciliation? And so what’s when we enter questions about are Democrats actually going to pursue getting rid of the legislative filibuster tool so that way they don’t have to rely on Republicans to push through that agenda?
MS. NAWAZ: Well, when it comes to getting moving on some of those agenda items President Biden wasted no time getting to work on day one, signing a slew of executive orders on immigration, on the environment and the pandemic right after being sworn in. And on Thursday, Biden did something that President Trump had long resisted, invoking the Defense Production Act to speed up production of vaccines and the supplies to deliver them. Biden also rejoined the World Health Organization and issued a mask mandate on trains, planes, and in federal buildings. Another sign of the changing times? The Biden administration rejoined the Paris climate accords, halted construction of the border wall, and ended the so-called Muslim ban – all signature Trump administration policies.
So guys, I think Anna is still with us now, when you look at these priorities – I know Punchbowl News obtained documents that outline those first 100 day – those crucial first 100-day policy priorities. Democrats just have the majority on Capitol Hill. (Laughs.) So what are the real priorities among all of those list and how is he going to get this done, Anna?
MS. PALMER: He clearly wanted to lay out a plan and have day by day what they were going to do. A lot of it had to do with COVID, really. I think we saw the president signal today really that’s the message of pulling on the heartstrings of Americans about the need for COVID relief not only for the pandemic but also the economic crisis that he was entering into. So I think that is going to be a massive focus. Yes, he did things along the way with the Paris Climate Agreement and other things. But it was really a signal to the world about the new leadership and how it’s going to be all COVID, economic relief, potentially something with infrastructure to try to kind of, you know, stimulate the economy now. But that’s going to be the massive focus for him. And it’s going to be a real challenge.
MS. NAWAZ: I think Ashley Parker from The Washington Post has rejoined us now. Ashley, I want to ask you about something that candidate Biden ran on the whole time, saying it was his relationships in the Senate. That’s what he was going to bank on to be able to stop the gridlock in Washington and push things through. When it comes to some of these key legislative items right now what do we know about how much he’s doing behind the scenes, who he’s calling and what he’s saying?
MS. PARKER: Well, one thing that came up in the briefing today that was somewhat surprising was that his team has been tasked with a lot of outreach. So you had Brian Deese talking about reaching out to a bipartisan group of mayors, talking about an upcoming call on Sunday with a group of 16 Democratic and Republican senators. But it is unclear, for instance, exactly what that personal touch Biden promised is happening, and when we’re really going to see it. And one sign that is potentially disconcerting for the Biden folks is if you look at his big-ticket items that Anna was just discussing, and if you look at some of the Republicans who you would expect for him to get – and, frankly, you absolutely need for him to get. Someone like Senator Susan Collins, someone like Senator Mitt Romney. Even they are already expressing some skepticism and reluctance to key portions of his COVID relief bill. And so these calls for unity are aspirational and they are important, but he’s going to have to find a way to go beyond simply that, to actually make this bipartisan connection and muscle something through Congress.
MS. NAWAZ: Errin, when you look at the calls for unity, they’re complicated somewhat by the calls for accountability, especially after the insurrection earlier in January, and there is a real divide, we should point out, within Republicans. You have someone like Mitch McConnell, who has accused Trump of provoking that insurrection. Then you have the number-three House Republican, Liz Cheney, voting to impeach the president. What is the thinking behind this divide in the Republican Party right now, Errin?
MS. HAINES: Well, you know, Amna, with President Trump out of office the future of the Republican Party and the direction that they are going to go in is very much in question. I mean, you had Marjorie Taylor Greene, you know, in the wake of Joe Biden being inaugurated calling for his impeachment, and you have, you know, folks like another freshman, Laurie (sic; Lauren) Boebert, who is – who is, you know, wanting to carry a gun onto the House floor, you know. So that really seems at odds with, you know, some other Republicans who try to strike maybe a more conciliatory tone, if not a tone that felt, you know, disingenuous, frankly, to some Democrats that I spoke to given, you know, their role in kind of stoking the claims of a rigged election that, you know, a lot of folks, you know, say did fuel the events of January 6th. And so, you know, again, these are lawmakers that are coming to work with colleagues that they do not trust right now, you know, given the events of January 6th, the fact that, you know, there was an insurrection and questions of whether some of their co-workers were involved in that insurrection or aided that insurrection in some way. And so, you know, while the impeachment trial has been put off by a couple of weeks and, you know, we don’t know what that will do to kind of, you know, cool folks’ temperaments on that, you know, this is something that still is out there, that still is unresolved, you know, not just for the American people but also for these lawmakers that have to find a way forward together. And how they do that without addressing the events of that day is really unclear.
MS. NAWAZ: And Anna, I should mention and I failed to mention earlier, of course, Kevin McCarthy has said that impeachment is a non-starter, that it just works to further divide the country. That’s the divide for the GOP right now, but what about Democrats? Very briefly, is there a political consequence for them if they don’t work towards accountability?
MS. PALMER: I mean, I think that the impeachment question is going to hang over them for the next couple of weeks. (Inaudible) – I don’t see enough Republicans coming onboard with that at this point. You still have more Republicans questioning whether it’s even constitutional to try to impeach a former president, not a sitting president. The concept of accountability for Democrats I think is going to be, to Laura’s point, around what progressives want. That is where the energy of this party is. That is who got Joe Biden elected, and they want change. Four years of – (inaudible) – doing things their way – (inaudible) – feel like it is time for Democrats to move forward with their agenda and stop worrying about whether or not Mitch McConnell will come along for the ride.
MS. NAWAZ: Ashley, when you look at the impeachment schedule ahead right now, it looks like Mitch McConnell got that delayed timeline. It looks like it will not begin, the trial in the Senate, until about February 9th. What did Democrats get in return?
MS. PARKER: Well, you know, Joe Biden was asked sort of in general terms about that timeline, and he said – he seemed to imply that he’s happy for that as well. He’s happy to have, as you said, a little extra time to get his government up and running. You know, the Biden White House kept on saying – and it is technically true – that senators can do two things at once. They can, you know, chew gum and hold an impeachment trial, or chew gum and confirm the president’s nominees. But what Democrats got in some ways was also more time to push through some of Biden’s Cabinet nominees.
MS. NAWAZ: So we see now the Biden administration working hard to get underway. I can’t thank the four of you enough for joining me. That is all the time we have for tonight. Thank you for joining us on this inauguration week. And thank you to our incredible reporters Laura Baron-Lopez, Errin Haines, Anna Palmer, and Ashley Parker.
To end this week’s show, a little bit of hope as America begins to write her next chapter. Here now from the inauguration is youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman.
AMANDA GORMAN: (From video.) We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover. In every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country, our people, diverse and beautiful, will emerge, battered and beautiful. When day comes we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it, for there is always light if only we're brave enough to see it, if only we're brave enough to be it.
MS. NAWAZ: Can’t think of better words to end this week. Thank you to Amanda Gorman.
For more on Joe Biden’s inauguration and this historic week, make sure to watch the Washington Week Extra. That’s streaming on our website and on our social media accounts.
I’m Amna Nawaz. Good night and please stay safe.