AUSTRALIAN EXCLUSIVE: Phil Mattingly, Senior White House Correspondent, CNN, tells TV Tonight about the mood in Washington D.C. and what to expect from Inauguration Day.
This takes place at noon Eastern Standard Time on Wednesday 20 January in the U.S. (4am AEDT Thursday 21 January in Australia).
What is the mood in Washington ahead of the big day?
PM: It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. This will be my fourth inauguration, and the prior three were celebrations; hundreds of thousands of people arriving, street vendors on every corner selling merchandise tied to the incoming president. It’s always been more of a celebration than anything else.
This is the opposite of that. There is significant trepidation about what’s coming, major security concerns, and the areas around the White House and Capitol are locked down to a degree I’ve simply never seen before. Obviously, this is a result of a combination of things – what occurred on 6 January, and law enforcement continuing to see significant threats in the days leading up to inauguration. But it’s still jarring to witness.
What security arrangements are in place?
PM: Downtown Washington is essentially shut down. There is massive fencing that makes up security perimeters around the White House and Capitol that are far larger, and far more intensive, than any I’ve ever seen. And to be completely clear: inaugurations are always heavily, heavily secured events. The current outlay makes those efforts seem very, very small.
In the Capitol currently there are roughly 20,000 members of the National Guard taking shifts around the perimeter. When they aren’t on watch, they are quite literally sleeping on the floors in the basement of the Capitol Building.
Notably, it is a National Special Security Event. An inauguration always is (as are events like the Super Bowl), but what that means is that the full weight of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence capabilities are deployed. This means heavy police presence, police dogs, sharp shooters, flight restrictions around the city, WMD units throughout. This, in and of itself, isn’t rare for inauguration – it’s always the case; what’s different is the massive reach of the security perimeters and, of course, the huge military presence throughout the city.
What are Joe Biden’s main challenges as he begins his presidency?
PM: The list is long. The Biden team will tell you the most significant is the pandemic, both on the public health and economic fronts. The President-elect just laid out his $1.9 trillion economic recovery plan, which Congress will have to begin work on shortly after the inauguration. Biden’s team has also started to lay out its plans on vaccine production and distribution and what it plans to implement (or advise) on the public health front as Covid hits inarguably its worst stage since its arrival.
There are also huge foreign policy challenges. Whether it’s Iran, or China, or the still-deployed U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, there are massive issues on his team’s plate from the moment they walk in the door. Some of those issues are driven by fundamental policy differences with the outgoing administration. Some are driven by world events that continue to transpire and, in some cases, devolve, on a seemingly weekly basis. Whatever the reason, Biden will major foreign policy challenges to address in his opening days.
What else can we expect on the day?
PM: The day itself will be different from any inauguration we’ve ever seen. Obviously, the security threats have changed things – there won’t be spectators on the National Mall, for example. And obviously Covid has changed things. Biden’s team has made clear this will be much more of a scaled back and virtual event than what is traditionally held.
But you also have to factor in the outgoing president will not attend the inauguration. That’s obviously a huge shift in precedent – a precedent that symbolizes the peaceful transfer of power. It will be the first time a sitting president has boycotted the ceremony since 1869.
All that said, traditions remain. There will be a swearing in ceremony held on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol, as is always the case. Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in Biden shortly before noon. Biden will give his inaugural address. Former Presidents and First Ladies George W. and Laura Bush, Barack and Michell Obama and Bill and Hillary Clinton have said they will attend, as is custom.
At least two big celebrities will participate in the swearing in – Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem and Jennifer Lopez will give a musical performance. Afterwards there will be a virtual parade – a major shift from past live parades. There will be some kind of review of troops, which is also the norm.
CNN International will have live coverage throughout the day and on CNN.com.