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What we know about Biden’s inauguration plans

This year will feature pared-down festivities and beefed-up security.

The US Capitol building seen through a mesh fence.
Heightened security measures are being put in place around the US Capitol Building.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on January 20 at noon ET — but in light of the coronavirus pandemic and security concerns in the wake of the violent storming of the US Capitol building, the ceremony will look much different from previous ones.

Under normal circumstances, thousands of people gather on the National Mall while the president-elect takes the oath of office on the West front of the Capitol, followed by a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue with thousands of military personnel representing each branch and, at night, an inaugural ball.

But the Biden team has significantly pared down the festivities this year due to the pandemic, at the advice of public health experts. The theme is “America United” — a central message of Biden’s presidential campaign.

Biden had initially planned to kick off the schedule by taking the train from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, to Washington, DC, the same trip he famously took for many years while serving in the Senate. But those plans were canceled on account of escalating security concerns, CNN reported.

He will still take the oath of office at the Capitol, accompanied by socially distanced members of the military, but officials are actively discouraging people from traveling to DC for the ceremony. Instead, they have organized a televised virtual event featuring performances from communities across the US, much like the one featured in the Democratic National Convention last summer.

But the violent insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month, which led to five deaths and the opening of at least 25 domestic terrorism cases, has cast a shadow over the inauguration plans. There remains fear that additional mobs of Trump supporters could descend on DC or on state capitol buildings in the days ahead, especially given that President Donald Trump still refuses to concede the election.

Discussion of future armed protests has been percolating on Twitter, the company said when announcing Trump’s permanent ban from the platform. Colorado Democratic Rep. Jason Crow said in a statement recently that the Defense Department has identified “further possible threats posed by would-be terrorists in the days up to and including Inauguration Day.”

Law enforcement is consequently scrambling to beef up security measures, including erecting new barriers at the Capitol and conducting an internal threat assessment of the 25,000 National Guard troops who have been stationed in DC amid fears that there could be extremists among their ranks.

Trump won’t attend the inauguration

Amid bipartisan calls for his removal from office, Trump announced earlier this month that he would not attend the inauguration, becoming the first president in 152 years to decline to attend his successor’s swearing-in.

Typically, an outgoing president invites the president-elect to the White House before the inauguration ceremony, but that also will not happen.

Trump will instead hold a departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews on the morning of Inauguration Day and depart for a final trip on Air Force One to Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, NPR reported. He reportedly had been considering announcing a 2024 presidential bid on Inauguration Day or holding a rally upon his arrival in Florida, though he is no longer expected to do so.

However, Vice President Mike Pence — whom Trump has publicly criticized for refusing to undermine the counting of the Electoral College votes — reportedly plans to attend the event. He and his wife, Karen Pence, may host Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, at the vice presidential residence prior to the inauguration ceremony, but security concerns could prevent them from doing so, according to the New York Times.

Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton will also accompany Biden and Harris to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery shortly after Biden and Harris take the oath of office.

Jimmy Carter, now 96 and spending the pandemic at home, has announced that he will not attend, marking the first time that he has missed the inauguration since his own in 1977.

Security concerns have cast a cloud over inauguration plans

Biden has faced questions about whether he should scale back the inauguration plans even further due to safety concerns. After the insurrection at the Capitol, it’s possible that Trump supporters could descend on DC once again on Inauguration Day (though absent a literal invitation from Trump, such efforts might not be quite as organized as they were on January 6).

But Biden has maintained that the show must go on.

“I am not concerned about my safety, security, or the inauguration,” he told reporters on January 6. “I’m not concerned. The American people are going to stand up, stand up now. Enough is enough is enough.”

Local and federal officials have been reassessing their plans for the inauguration in the aftermath of the Capitol insurrection.

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser extended a citywide emergency declaration through the day after the inauguration, saying that the “motivation [of those who stormed the Capitol] is ongoing.” The declaration allows local officials to apply for financial assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to protect people and property in DC. She also extended pandemic-related restrictions on indoor dining until January 22 as a means of crowd control.

Bowser has asked that the Homeland Security Department implement additional security measures ahead of the inauguration, including canceling public gathering permits from January 11 to 24 “given the new threats from insurgent acts of domestic terrorists.” Several groups applied for such permits to protest Biden’s inauguration, identifying as pro-Trump.

It’s not clear whether those permits will be revoked. But DHS has extended the “national special security event” period, a designation that facilitates cooperation among federal law enforcement agencies to respond to terrorist or other criminal threats.

The National Guard presence is expected to increase to about 25,000 throughout DC to aid the Secret Service and other law enforcement agencies in responding to potential threats on Inauguration Day. Fewer than half that number have typically been present at inaugurations in recent history.

Some troops were seen sleeping in the halls of the Capitol building, which is now protected by anti-climb fencing and a heavily guarded perimeter that now also stretches around the White House and other federal buildings. They have been pouring into DC for weeks, closing streets and bringing armored vehicles.

Despite the environment of heightened threats, organizers on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies are coordinating with security partners to ensure that they can proceed with planned festivities.

“The outrageous attack on the Capitol ... will not stop us from affirming to Americans — and the world — that our democracy endures,” Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who lead the committee, said in a statement. “Our committee’s bipartisan, bicameral membership remains committed to working with our many partners to execute ceremonies that are safe and showcase our determined democracy.”