By Somar Wijayadasa*
January 20 was a historically momentous day as Joseph Rabbinate Biden, Jr., was sworn in as the 46th President of the United States of America, and Kamala Harris, a person of colour was sworn in as the first woman Vice President – and now the highest-ranking woman in US history.
After taking the oath of office, President Biden said he wants “to restore the soul of America, bringing America together, uniting our people, and uniting our nation”.
He promised to defend America for the “public good” and said, “together we shall write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division … a story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness”.
It is also a dark day in America’s history as the Ex-President Donald Trump, for the first time in 152 years, boycotted the inauguration of his successor – a ritual that epitomizes the ceremonial transfer of power.
In another history-making ignominy, Trump, now impeached twice left the White House after a disastrous and tumultuous four-year term that has been characterized by hatred, racism, corruption, lies, xenophobia, nepotism, arrogance, bigotry and ultimately, contempt for the country’s democratic electoral process.
At age 78, Biden is the oldest president in the nation’s history and is also the most qualified person ever elected to be the US president.
Well-known as a compassionate and empathetic person, Biden has under his belt 36 years of experience in domestic and international policy in the Senate, and eight years as Barack Obama’s vice president from 2008-2016.
That is an unblemished 44 years of experience that bode well for America and its citizens. That reminds me of the words of Auguste Rodin: “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely”.
Biden comes into power with the Democrats controlling all three legislatures, the White House, the Congress, and a 50-50 Senate that will be controlled by Democrats thanks to the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.
No matter what he does, I am confident that there will be an abundance of civility, candour, empathy, and straight talk, and concrete actions beneficial to all Americans.
On the night before his inauguration, depicting a national moment of grief, Biden and Harris held a memorial by illuminating 400 lights along the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, to remember the 400,000 Americans who have died of Covid-19.
“To heal, we must remember” Biden said at the memorial, and Kamala Harris remarked, “For many months, we have grieved by ourselves and tonight, we grieve and begin healing together”.
Biden’s monumental agenda
Biden’s ambitious agenda includes a $1.9 trillion package of temporary measures and help for the unemployed attached to a permanent hike in the minimum wage to $15 per hour to end the pandemic and save the economy.
It is packed with extended unemployment benefits, rental assistance, aid to small businesses and $1,400 more in stimulus payments, in addition to the $600 already appropriated.
At a time when the US coronavirus death toll exceeds 400,000, Biden is determined to administer 100 million coronavirus vaccines in his first 100 days, and wants $20 billion for a national vaccine plan, $50 billion for expanding coronavirus testing, and plans to hire an army of 100,000 public health workers.
There are also a galore of complex foreign policy issues – some chaotic – for Biden to deal with.
Among his priorities are: Joining the Paris climate accord, returning to the World Health Organization, rebuilding America’s alliances in Europe and Asia, and engaging in more confrontational issues with Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, etc., and damage control of many others affected by illogical sanctions on many countries around the world.
But the million-dollar question is how the Senate is going to juggle so many burning issues: appointing Biden’s Cabinet and senior staff, passing the urgently needed coronavirus vaccine plan, and $1.9 trillion package, and at the same time deal with Trump’s second impeachment.
Referring to this monumental workload to be accomplished soon, Vice President Kamala Harris commented “We know how to multitask there [in the Senate]” and Senator Bernie Sanders said the Senate will have to show the world that it can “walk and chew gum at the same time”.
However, under current uncertain and difficult circumstances it may take some time to deliver on Biden’s promises.
Trump impeached twice and more to come
Within days of the violent attack that I described in my article “The Assault on the Citadel of US Democracy” the US House of Representatives passed a resolution to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office but Vice-President Mike Pence refused to invoke the amendment, suggesting that it would set a “terrible precedent”.
The following day, the House impeached Trump for inciting a violent insurrection against the government of the United States – making him only the third US president to ever be impeached, after Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998.
Trump will go down in history as the only President to be impeached twice with committing high crimes and misdemeanours – a condemnation that Trump will forever live in infamy
Senate may convict and disqualify Trump
Constitutionally, it is now up to the Senate to convict him. The Senate rules require two-thirds of the 100-member body to convict a president – a high bar to muster the support of 17 Republican senators.
Also, upon conviction, an official can be punished with “removal from office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States”.
If Trump is convicted and disqualified, he could also lose his rights to receive a pension, a yearly travel allowance and a security detail, which are normally afforded to former presidents.
It entirely depends on the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s willingness to convict and disqualify Trump. Recently, addressing the Senate, he rebuked Trump and his supporters for instigating the insurrection saying, “The mob was fed lies” and they “were provoked by the president and other powerful people”. That may encourage his Republican colleagues to vote their conscience.
The Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told the Senate that he is ready to convict and disqualify Trump from holding any future federal office. He said, “After what he has done, the consequences of which we were all witness to, Donald Trump should not be eligible to run for office ever again”.
Federal investigations continue
Since the insurrection to storm the Capitol, Federal prosecutors have scrutinized the ample evidence available in photos, video clips and rioters cell phones taken from the moment President Trump – live on TV – incited his supporters with rhetoric such as “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”.
This video footage from inside the capitol siege provided by the reporters of the New Yorker magazine portrays the ferocity of the attack. https://www.newyorker.com/news/video-dept/a-reporters-footage-from-inside-the-capitol-siege
Prosecutors have already charged a couple of hundred rioters, and I am confident that all who incited and indulged in violence will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
As Schumer said, “Healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability, not sweeping such a severe charge, such awful actions, under the rug”.
*Somar Wijayadasa, an International lawyer was a Faculty Member of the University of Sri Lanka (1967-1973), worked in UN organizations (IAEA & FAO from 1973-1985), was a Delegate of UNESCO to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000.