WASHINGTON – There were few protesters and sparse crowds or violence Wednesday as Joe Biden was sworn in as the nation’s 46th president against a backdrop of historic security.
The inauguration, limited by law enforcement constraints and the coronavirus pandemic, was supplemented by about 25,000 National Guard members who descended on a city already blanketed in state and local law enforcement personnel. The mission was to ensure there was no repeat of the deadly riot that rocked the Capitol and the nation two weeks ago.
Biden visited Arlington National Cemetery after taking the oath of office, then was dropped off at Pennsylvania Avenue amid a phalanx of security agents to walk the final blocks to the White House. As the president made his way alongside first lady Jill Biden and members of their family, he briefly broke away from the group a few times to greet supporters, reporters and Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser.
Moments later, Vice President Kamala Harris, her husband, Douglas Emhoff, and their family walked the same parade route.
Janie Bowen and Joy Stepherson traveled from South Carolina for the inauguration and waited for hours to get into a parade viewing point along Pennsylvania Avenue. They barely caught a glimpse of the motorcade passing by but said the experience was worthwhile.
“It’d probably been a better experience on a different year,” Bowen said. “But we’re really excited about the transition.”
The streets of Washington were quiet and security was tight throughout the day. Spokespeople with the D.C. Metro Police Department and U.S. Capitol Police told USA TODAY on Wednesday afternoon that they had not made any arrests.
A bomb threat was called in targeting the Supreme Court, across the street from the Capitol, just before the inauguration ceremonies began, but it appears to have been a hoax.
“The court received a bomb threat, the building and grounds were checked out and the building is not being evacuated,” court spokeswoman Kathleen Arberg said. The building has been closed to the public for months because of the pandemic.
Concrete barriers, chain-link fences and military trucks have blocked access to many downtown streets and buildings for days.
“Violence and senseless criminal conduct are not the right way to resolve differences or promote change in our country,” Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen said in a statement. “Anyone who does that will be caught, and they will be prosecuted.”
Mike Pence, now the former vice president, attended the inaugural, but noticeably absent from the festivities was now former President Donald Trump, still clinging to his discredited claims that the election was stolen. Trump exited the White House for the final time as president early Wednesday, bound with his wife Melania Trump for Florida and their home at Mar-a-Lago.
Security had been tightened at most state capitols across the nation, but no major incidents were reported.
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Inside a security perimeter along Pennsylvania Avenue, only 25 people were allowed to gather because of security and COVID-19 restrictions. Some arrived early Wednesday morning, others waited in line for hours. The small group, about half spectators and half journalists, stood along what had been the parade route of years past, this time lined with police officers.
The Trump hotel sat a block away, heavily fortified and inaccessible to the public.
Korbin Niehaus, 27, was just hoping to catch a glimpse of the historic day. “At least I can say I was here,” he said as the group waited for President Joe Biden to arrive at the White House, just across Freedom Plaza but blocked by a sea of law enforcement.
Niehaus, who voted for Biden, came to try to see the inauguration after having spent three years in Germany. He moved to D.C. on Jan. 5. The next day, his first full one in the nation’s capital, he stayed glued to the TV watching scenes from the Capitol riot.
Niehaus, who serves in the military, was shocked to see what unfolded. Even U.S. military veterans were among the pro-Trump mob.
“I don’t question their patriotism, but I think it might have been misplaced,” he said.
— Ryan W. Miller
Floridian Mark Thompson, a Trump supporter, had planned for nearly a year to take his son Daniel, a college student, to the inauguration. He bought plane tickets and made hotel reservations last February hoping that by booking so far in advance he could find bargain prices. But between the pandemic and Capitol riot, any hope of actually witnessing the event vanished. Thompson decided to come to Washington anyway.
“We’ve just been walking the fence line,” that covers most of downtown Washington, Mark Thompson said.
Olivia Houlden, a senior at George Washington University who had just returned to Washington after studying abroad, said it was “weird how different” the city looked from before she left.
“It’s really sad,” she said of the cordoned-off streets and security checkpoints that made it impossible to approach the National Mall to witness Biden’s inauguration. “It’s just so hard to see something like that happen in a city that you love.”
– David Heath and William Cummings
Warnings of possible violence had been issued for state capitols as the U.S. Capitol, and most states had ramped up security as well. Temporary fencing, roadblocks and National Guard soldiers were more rule than exception. But no violence and few protests were reported. In Kansas, two protesters showed up at the statehouse in Topeka – one pro Trump, one pro-Biden. At North Carolina’s state Capitol building in Raleigh, fewer than a dozen protesters encountered a blanket of law enforcement.
“It’s peaceful, and I don’t mind the police,” said Thomas Conner of Beaufort, adding that he feared Biden’s presidency will mean “losing a way of life.”
– Brian Gordon
David Minette, 65, drove from San Jose, California, with his son who was starting a new job in D.C. this week at a local hospital. He planned to come down to Biden’s inauguration as he was helping his son get settled. Now a Phoenix resident, Minette is a retired plumber. His son is a perfusionist, operating heart-lung machines during surgery. The amped-up security to enter one downtown checkpoint kept Minette waiting in a line for well over 30 minutes. Minette called the fortress of security “overdone” but “I kind of get it. If you let one in, 50,000 will get in.” But he was encouraged by the Biden presidency.
“He’s an old guy but he’s a good guy,” Minette said of Biden. “Trump is, well, Trump. I’m glad he’s gone.”
– Ryan W. Miller
In another year, T-shirts featuring the first woman to ascend to the vice presidency might have been easier to sell than hand warmers on the chilly streets of Washington. But this is 2021, just two weeks removed from an insurrection on the Capitol, and with tourists urged to stay away, vendors were left with lots of merchandise and few customers.
A few blocks from the White House, a roughly 2,000-square foot store in Penn Quarter was empty, save for three employees. The area was safe and well-chronicled: Journalists outnumbered regular citizens about 15 to 1.
– Gabe Lacques
Salana Reed is from Savannah, Georgia, but lives in Dublin. She arrived in Washington on Tuesday night and was walking near the city’s Union Station on Wednesday.
“I felt led by the Holy Ghost that I should come and walk around and pray for certain people and pray for our former president and our new president,” Reed said. “And take in some of the sights.”
She said she felt “blessed” and that she believes “this year is going to be a wonderful year. … Things will start to look up.”
– Rasha Ali
Robbie Shiver was walking his 2-year-old blue-nosed pitbull, Blue, in front of Union Station on Wednesday morning. Shiver, wearing a black face mask bearing Breonna Taylor’s name, described the atmosphere in Washington this week as “crazy.” But he said he was hardly surprised to see the mostly white rioters treated differently than the mostly Black protesters during marches for social justice over the summer.
“I feel like some of the signs were coming,” he said. “It’s just been a really divisive time. I’m hopeful that with Biden coming into office, we can kind of start to heal some of those wounds and move forward eventually.”
– Thomas Schad
Six blocks away from the barricades and overwhelming military presence downtown, life was continuing as normal. In Logan Circle, residents jogging or walking their dogs. Emily Brown, a graduate student at Catholic University wearing a bright red Biden/Harris sweatshirt, said she was going to try to get near the Capitol but expected she’d have to stream the event online. Brown said she’s optimistic about the next four years.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” she said. “But there’s plenty of work to be done.”
– N’dea Yancey-Bragg
On a normal Inauguration Day, Washington is packed with protesters for causes of all shapes and sizes. But tight security restrictions have discouraged such activity. The DC Action Lab, an organization that helps other groups navigate the convoluted permitting process, secured space at Union Station’s Columbus Circle for one protest that will be largely virtual, the Washington Post reports. A giant screen will project speeches and videos for the Working Families Party calling on President-elect Joe Biden to enact “more progressive policies,” according to the Park Service permit.
Three former members of the U.S. military who belong to the extremist group Oath Keepers have been charged with plotting the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. The FBI said Thomas Edward Caldwell, 66, of Clarke County, Virginia, appeared to be the leader of a group that included Jessica Watkins, 38, and Donovan Crowl, 50, both residents of Champaign County, Ohio. Caldwell served in the Navy, Watkins in the Army and Crowl in the Marines.
All three are linked to paramilitary activity and have been charged with conspiracy and other federal counts, the first of more than 125 people arrested in connection with the deadly riot to face conspiracy charges.
Court documents filed Tuesday reveal some insight into planning and coordination behind the attack, as well as message exchanges between the defendants and others. Some of the messages referred to the legislators in the Capitol as “traitors” and called for “night hunting.”
Contributing: Cara Kelly, Grace Hauck