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Muted Biden–Harris Inaugural Bends To Pandemic As Trump Flies South

In a socially distant ceremony with few in attendance, Biden cast himself as his predecessor’s antidote.

When President Joseph R. Biden Jr. looked out on the National Mall and swore his oath on Wednesday, the flap of 400,000 flags greeted him instead of a sea of faces. The subdued event, shrunk in scale because of the Covid-19 pandemic, came also at a national moment when Americans continued to absorb details about a mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol two weeks earlier. Former President Donald J. Trump, whose denunciations of an election he lost inspired the chaos, was already in Florida.

Echoes of the Jan. 6 attack, which left a U.S. Capitol Police officer and a rioter dead, were visible on Washington streets and near monuments where thousands of National Guard troops guarded the ceremony from threatened violence as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. swore Biden in.

Vice President Kamala D. Harris took her oath of office first, administered by Supreme Court Justice Sonya M. Sotomayor, the first Latina to serve on the highest U.S. court. Harris’s own rise has been heralded as a glass ceiling-breaking moment, the first time a woman took up position so close to the reins of power.

Seating Wednesday, both single chairs and twosomes, was six feet apart. Photos Tuesday showed the careful social-distance measuring. Lawmakers, former first families, Biden aides and invited guests stayed masked. Only the speakers and the singers took theirs off, after an unheralded aide sanitized the podium each time.

U.S. Capitol police stand guard for the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. (Kaitlin Newman/Zenger News)
Flags decorate the “Field of Flags” at the National Mall near the U.S. Capitol ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
A man carries a U.S. flag ahead of the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington, D.C. (Kaitlin Newman/Zenger News)

Presidents often make conciliatory gestures toward their predecessors. But without naming Trump, Biden struck a stern blow at his hatred of journalists and their habit of calling him a serial fabricator. “Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson,” Biden said. “There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”

And the answer to Americans’ fear of a Covid-strained economy, he said, “is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don’t look like you. Or worship the way you do. Or don’t get their news from the same sources you do.”

Biden also cast his White House transition as a dark-to-light transition from Trump’s post-election protests to a simpler recognition that voters’ collective will prevailed. “We’ve learned again that democracy is precious, democracy is fragile and, at this hour my friends, democracy has prevailed,” he said.

Former Vice President Michael R. Pence and his wife Karen attended the inauguration, appearing on TV screens around the world shortly after Air Force One landed in West Palm Beach, Florida with Trump and his family aboard.

By then the globe had heard Lady Gaga sing the U.S. National Anthem, with the U.S. Marine Band as her accompaniment. Garth Brooks serenaded Amazing Grace with none at all. Jennifer Lopez, dressed in white to honor the pioneers who won voting rights for women a century ago, sang “America the Beautiful” and “This Land Is Your Land.”

And America’s youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, 22, read a soaring composition while wearing a gold ring fashioned into a “caged bird.” It came from Oprah G. Winfrey, she said on Twitter, in remembrance of the late poet Maya Angelou, whose memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is required reading in thousands of U.S. schools.

U.S. President Joe Biden greets former U.S. President Barack Obama after Biden’s inauguration. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President of the United States as her husband Doug Emhoff looks on during the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Infographic: Biden Cabinet Takes Shape | Statista

Before leaving Washington, Trump left what Biden called a “very generous” letter on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. The new president didn’t disclose what it said.

Trump didn’t let the name “Biden” escape his lips in public on Wednesday but offered an “I told you so” in advance in case he wins tax increases to finance legislative initiatives.

“I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they’ll have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular,” Trump said before departing for his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. ”So, just a goodbye. We love you. We will be back in some form.”

The day’s broadest bipartisan gesture came from Sen. Roy D. Blunt (R-Mo.), who served as the inaugural committee chair. He had told reporters a week after the November 2020 election that Trump “may not have been defeated at all.”

With the nation turning a page, however, he said in his speech that Biden’s was “not a moment of division. It’s a moment of unification. A new administration begins and brings with it a new beginning. And with that our great national debate goes forward.”

(Edited by Kristen Butler, Alex Patrick and David Martosko)