More than two weeks since the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, Washington is starting to feel a little less like a city under siege, as barriers come down, streets reopen, and the country’s new leaders start the work of assessing the damage from the calamitous final weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.
As I walked to the White House on Friday — President Joe Biden’s second full day in office — signs of the democratic crisis we all just lived through weren’t entirely gone. Workers stacked black steel fencing that had blocked streets for multiple city blocks around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Sheets of plywood covering glass picture windows of storefronts had not been removed. Only a handful of cars drove along 17th Street next to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where the President’s economic and national security teams work and Vice President Kamala Harris has a large ceremonial office.
Two miles down Pennsylvania Ave., the Capitol Building is still surrounded by tall barriers, concrete blocks and razor wire and guarded by thousands of national guard troops who remain on duty. Inside, Senators are moving forward with confirmations for some of Biden’s cabinet officials. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she will send impeachment articles to the Senate on Monday, which will likely initiate a trial in the coming weeks.
Polls show the country is still deeply divided and the distrust Trump and his allies have sowed will not be easy to repair. Even before he told a crowd to march to the Capitol to demand the election result be overturned, Trump spent months actively undermining trust in the election results, spreading false doubts on voting by mail, standing by as the post office made changes that slowed mail delivery, and using the powers of his office to promote his political candidacy.
Now as the immediate crisis of the 2020 election begins to fall away, Washington is left to reckon with the other urgent and deadly crisis that got lost in the chaos of Jan. 6: the pandemic. More than 400,000 people have died, vaccine distribution isn’t coming fast enough, and not enough Americans are wearing masks or keeping distance to slow the spread of the virus in the meantime. That crisis, too, is present in the daily rhythms of the new White House. Even as a flurry of executive actions, fact sheets, phone calls, and daily press briefings punctuated the first three days of Biden’s presidency, the West Wing —usually a hive of activity in the first days of an administration — is largely quiet.
Many Biden aides are continuing to work remotely and conduct meetings over Google Meet and Zoom. As Chief of Staff Ron Klain helps Biden set up the West Wing, he is limiting the number of staff in the halls on any given day, he told TIME in an interview before Biden took office about the President’s plans for the first 100 days. Aides that were there in person — in addition to rolling out a brisk set of presidential actions — were sorting out their email lists, learning the phone system and making sure their colleagues had the badges they needed to come on and off the secure campus.
Klain is trying to avoid letting the White House become another COVID-19 hot spot, as it was under Trump in the fall. Before entering the White House, I had to walk to a building nearby for a rapid COVID-19 test. Under Trump, only press that were in the pool and likely to be in a room with Trump that day were required to be tested by White House medical staff. Under Biden, every reporter coming into the West Wing needs to have a test beforehand.
To jumpstart the nation’s response to the pandemic, Biden has challenged all Americans to wear masks for the next three months and required masks be worn on federal lands. He has named a new COVID-19 response coordinator and reversed Trump’s effort to split from the World Health Organization (WHO). Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease official who Biden sent to speak to the WHO executive board on Thursday, said it is a “liberating feeling” be able to speak openly about what the science shows. He said statements Trump and other Trump Administration officials made about the medical use of hydroxychloroquine and other parts of the COVID-19 response made him uncomfortable because “they were not based in scientific fact.”
“One of the new things in this administration is, if you don’t know the answer, don’t guess,” Fauci told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “Just say you don’t know the answer.”
Outside the West Wing shortly after 10AM on Friday, movers silently unloaded boxes and furniture and rolled them inside on dollies. A Marine walked out of the West Wing doors to stand sentry, a sign that Biden was in the Oval Office.
Over the last few days, I watched Biden take off from an airport in Delaware and land at an Air Force Base near Washington and be driven through barricades and guard posts into the capital. I watched Trump walk out of the south entrance of the White House for the last time and board a waiting helicopter to take him away from what he lost. I stood in the reviewing stands on Lafayette Park as newly inaugurated President Biden and First Lady Jill Biden embraced for an extra several seconds as the doors of the White House didn’t open as expected. That pause, that nervous anticipation, fell to relief on their faces when the doors, finally, opened.
As I walked out of the White House on Friday, two large flat bed trucks pulled up to cart away stacks of black barrier fencing that had been up for days in anticipation of another riot. A Secret Service agent seemed to express relief as well. “Can’t wait to get rid of all this stuff,” he said.
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