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Biden Takes Office In Locked Down Washington

The president-elect plans a raft of executive orders on his first day as the post-Trump era dawns.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
The Capitol building is seen with decorative flags on the National Mall on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. Tight security measures are in place for Inauguration Day due to greater security threats after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
The Capitol building is seen with decorative flags on the National Mall on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. Tight security measures are in place for Inauguration Day due to greater security threats after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Biden takes office as Trump leaves for Florida, Jack Ma reemerges in China, and South Korean President Moon Jae-in nominates a new foreign minister.

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Biden Sworn In Amid Pandemic And Weak Economy

Four years after one president spoke of “American carnage,” another is offering healing and reconciliation as Joe Biden prepares to take the presidential oath of office on Capitol Hill today.

Although Trump won’t be there (he leaves for Florida at 8 a.m.), his mark on the ceremony will be impossible to miss: 25,000 National Guard troops will stand watch over proceedings within a heavily fortified “Capitol Green Zone” that has sprung up since the attack on the U.S. Congress by pro-Trump supporters only two weeks ago.

The coming weeks and months will show whether Biden has learned from his years under President Barack Obama—another president who faced crisis (if not at the same scale as the one facing Biden), but who perhaps took too long to realize that appeals to bipartisanship no longer held sway in Washington.

Biden’s first moves. Biden seems eager to get to work. A raft of executive orders are planned for today, including moves on immigration, rejoining the Paris climate accord, and reversing the Trump administration’s ban on travel from mostly Muslim countries.

Tougher challenges will come in Congress, where he is pushing for a $1.9 trillion coronavirus recovery package. A lot will depend on how Biden plans to move procedurally as most legislation requires 60 votes to withstand a filibuster in a Senate that is divided 50-50.

His first 100 days. Although he faces a Republican party (and to some extent a Democratic party) in identity crisis in Congress, he’ll have the most freedom when it comes to foreign policy. An FP reporting team of Robbie Gramer, Amy Mackinnon, Jack Detsch, and Christina Lu have put together a list of the ten biggest challenges facing Biden as he takes office today.

Biden’s world. Writing in FP’s 50th anniversary issue, Heather Hurlburt takes a deep dive into the foreign policy philosophy of the 46th president and sees him with two unenviable tasks: “He needs to transcend the foreign-policy paradigms that formed him. But he must also inspire a new set of categories by which Americans can judge him and around which a new coalition can assemble that outlasts the animosity to Trump that elected him.”

What We’re Following Today

Trump issues 11th hour pardons. Hours before leaving the White House, outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump issued a flurry of pardons to Republican allies, former advisors, and a number of others. The list of 143 pardons includes his former chief strategist Steve Bannon, Republican donor Elliott Broidy, three House Republicans, and the rapper Lil Wayne.

The GOP schism. In a speech on the Senate floor on Tuesday, Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell said he believed Donald Trump “provoked” the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as the soon-to-be-ex-president’s Senate impeachment trial approaches. Unlike some of his Senate colleagues, McConnell appears to have finally sided with the official result of the 2020 election, calling Biden “the people’s clear choice for their 46th president.”

Facing a possible Republican revolt during his trial, Trump is preparing a counterpunch. The Wall Street Journal reports that Trump has suggested to aides that he would form his own political party called the “Patriot Party.” 

Ma reemerges. Jack Ma, the founder of retail giant Alibaba and financial firm Ant, has resurfaced after months away from the spotlight, as rumors have swirled surrounding the reasons for his disappearance. Ma, one of China’s richest people, participated in an annual livestream highlighting the work of rural educators, excerpts of which were posted on the nationalist Global Times social media channels. Ma had disappeared from view in November after Chinese authorities cancelled the initial public offering of Ant—set to be one of the world’s largest—after Ma made comments critical of Chinese regulators.

South Korea’s new foreign minister. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has nominated his former national security advisor Chung Eui-yong to serve as the country’s new foreign minister in order to “breathe new life into the lineup of diplomats and regroup their forces in time for the inauguration of the Biden,” according to a presidential official. At 74, Chung is seen as a seasoned hand, and worked behind the scenes to broker the first meeting between Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Moon has called for an early summit with Biden in order to jumpstart North Korea talks.

Keep an Eye On

Vaccine access. Representatives from India and South Africa made a fresh call for a waiver of intellectual property rights related to COVID-19 vaccines and treatments at a private World Trade Organization meeting on Tuesday. India and South Africa’s argument that IP restrictions are hindering distribution has gained momentum in recent weeks as rich countries plow on with vaccine programs, often procured directly from manufacturers, while poorer countries wait for vaccines to arrive. The European Union and United States oppose the move.

U.S.-Saudi relations. Under questioning during her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday Avril Haines, Joe Biden’s incoming director of national intelligence, indicated that she would release a classified CIA intelligence report to Congress outlining the murder of Jamal Khashoggi  in 2018 by a Saudi death squad—a document that Michael Eisner and Jack Steele urged the Biden administration to release publicly in Foreign Policy earlier this week. The report is expected to include a CIA assessment that the killing was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, marking an immediate break with the more pro-Saudi policies of Donald Trump.

Odds and Ends

Slumber 10. British authorities have publicly denied reports that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been napping on the job. The denial came after The Times quoted an anonymous Downing Street source describing Johnson’s “executive power naps” adding that it “would not be entirely uncommon in the diary for him to shut the door and have a kip for half an hour or so.”

Johnson’s press secretary rebuffed the claim, saying the British leader had no time for naps. If true, it would set him apart from his conservative predecessors, including Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill, who were both known to nod off during the day after a short night’s sleep.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn