Headlines: January 19, 2021
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A day before President elect Joe Biden takes office, there are a flurry of cabinet nominee confirmation hearings to rush through ensuring that critical positions are filled during the transition. There are five nominees being vetted by lawmakers: Lloyd J. Austin III as Defense secretary, Antony J. Blinken for State secretary, Janet Yellen to head the Treasury Department, Alejandro N. Mayorkas for homeland security secretary, and Avril D. Haines for the position of National Intelligence Director. Responding to questions about raising the federal minimum wage, Treasury Nominee Janet Yellen said this. Ms .Yellen pushed lawmakers to be aggressive about stimulating the failing U.S. economy during her hearing. National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, during her opening remarks stressed the importance of keeping intelligence gathering and dissemination free of politics and also took an aggressive posture on China. The antiwar group Codepink has denounced Haines as a “torture-apologist & drone-lover.”
Alejandro Mayorkas, as homeland security nominee also addressed lawmakers. As the son of Cuban immigrants, Mayorkas was Deputy Secretary of homeland security under President Obama and expressed his horror at the Capitol riot during his opening statement on Tuesday. Biden’s team announced an ambitious plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration system in a proposal that he plans to send to Congress on Wednesday, his very first day in office. The proposed bill includes border enforcement but also an expansion of the U.S.’s refugee programs that were heavily curtailed under the current administration. And, most importantly, it includes an 8-year path to citizenship for the nation’s roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Mr. Biden has also made history with his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services. Rachel Levine, who is currently Pennsylvania’s Health Secretary, would be the nation’s first transgender person to lead HHS if she is confirmed. In a statement released Tuesday Mr. Biden said, “Dr. Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic — no matter their ZIP code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond.” In another decision warmly welcomed by progressives, news broke that Biden was planning to end the Keystone XL pipeline project upon taking office as well. A Gallup poll published Tuesday found that nearly 70% of Americans approve of the way Mr. Biden is handling his transition to the Presidency—not as high as Barack Obama but higher than Donald Trump.
As federal troops provide security for Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony, two Army National Guard members were removed from duty over their ties to far-right groups. The New York Times reported that, “The Pentagon is intensifying efforts to identify and combat white supremacy and other far-right extremism in its ranks as federal investigators seek to determine how many military personnel and veterans joined the violent assault on the Capitol.” Meanwhile the FBI is warning that Trump-supporting QAnon conspiracists may be posing as National Guard members to try to infiltrate the inauguration security. As Washington DC is blanketed in troops and other federal law enforcement, expected violence over the weekend did not transpire. At statehouses around the country where protests and potentially violent actions were expected, there were only small gatherings after security was beefed up.
Efforts to round up, arrest, and charge rioters who attacked the Capitol on January 6th continue as Thomas Edward Caldwell, a leader of the Oathkeepers militia from Virginia has become the first to face a “conspiracy” charge. Another two members of the same group from Ohio, Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl also face charges. Newly seated Republican lawmaker and Trump supporter Lauren Boebert faces accusations from fellow representatives that she gave a tour of the Capitol to a large group of visitors just before the riot.
Meanwhile former Attorney General William Barr and Trump loyalist admitted that the questioning of the 2020 election results “precipitated the riot,” but refused to blame Trump directly even though it was the President who led the charges and directed his supporters to the Capitol. Former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, still the Senate’s top-ranking Republican, found it within himself to finally say, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.” No other high-ranking elected official enabled President Trump for the past four years more than Mr. McConnell. A new poll shows support for convicting Trump in a Senate impeachment trial may slowly be increasing. About 20% of Republican voters now believe Trump should be held responsible; 86% of Democrats feel the same way. Mr. Trump’s final day in office is expected to be filled with issuing pardons and commutations. He is likely to not issue a self-pardon after being advised that it would make him appear guilty. The New York Times on Sunday published a damning report showing that Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani was essentially “selling” pardons for about $2 million a piece to anyone who could afford them.
As the COVID-19 death toll approaches 400,000, Americans are extremely worried about the on-going pandemic as a Washington Post-ABC poll concludes. According to the Post, “large majorities of people of all political affiliations say they think the deadly virus… is only somewhat under control or not at all controlled.” California, the nation’s most populous state, also has the largest number of infections and now may be the site of a newly identified virus mutation different from the one first identified in the U.K. It is not clear yet if this new mutation is more transmissible or less affected by the new vaccines. Incoming President Joe Biden’s pandemic plan –dubbed “maddeningly obvious” by one commentator — has been warmly welcomed by states that have had to struggle on their own without federal leadership for the past year.
And finally, in international news, ten years after a revolution that sparked the “Arab Spring,” mass protests are engulfing Tunisia once more. The Washington Post summarized how, “A fresh generation of Tunisian youth is protesting economic woes, social inequality, political corruption and other problems, driven by the unfulfilled expectations of a revolution that toppled their dictator.” The protests were organized in the wake of the tenth anniversary of the uprising last week.