It has been an eventful week, and The Middle is here to walk you through it.
So without further ado, here are the week’s top stories.
1. Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was formally inaugurated on Wednesday, marking the end of the Trump presidency and a start to the Biden era. Placing his hand upon a Bible that has been in his family since 1893 and has carried him through his 50-year political career, Biden took the oath of office and officially became the 46th president of the United States.
Moments earlier, Kamala Harris had taken a history-making oath of her own, properly becoming the first woman to ever hold the office of Vice President.
2. Biden made quick work of his first few days in office, issuing a string of executive orders that reversed a number of the policies enacted during the Trump era. These orders:
- Require masks and social distancing on all federal property and by all federal employees
- Rejoin the Paris Agreement and reinstate ties with the World Health Organization
- Fortify DACA by calling on Congress to enact legislation providing permanent status and a path to citizenship for Dreamers
- Revoke the exclusion of non-citizens from the census count
- Overturn Trump-era orders of “harsh and extreme immigration enforcement”
- End the Muslim ban and re-start visa processing for those from affected countries
- Halt construction of the border wall
- Revoke the permit for the Keystone pipeline
- Reverse the rollbacks to vehicle emission standards and enforce a temporary moratorium on oil and natural gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
- End the 1776 Commission
- Revoke the Trump administration order limiting the government’s ability to hold diversity and inclusion training
- Direct federal agencies to review and report on equity within 200 days and proffer a plan on how to remove barriers to opportunity
- Reinforce the Civil Rights Act by reinstating protections for sexual orientation and gender identity
- Extend a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures
- Pause federal student loan payments and and the accumulation of interest
- Establish ethics rules that “restore and maintain trust in the government”
- Freeze Trump-era regulations, subject to review
- Fill COVID-related supply shortfalls with the Defense Production Act
- Increase FEMA reimbursement for assistance with the National Guard and PPE
- Establish the “COVID-19 Pandemic Testing Board” and expand testing, bolster access to treatments and clinical care, improve the collection and analysis of data, administer 100 shots in 100 days, provide guidance on safely reopening schools, offer OSHA guidance for keeping workers safe, require face masks at airports and other modes of transportation, establish a “COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force,” and support international response to restore U.S. global leadership
Today, Biden will reportedly sign two additional orders designed to reduce hunger by boosting food benefits, to bolster federal workers’ rights, and to make more efficient the delivery of stimulus payments to the American people.
Critics suggest that Biden is abusing his power in issuing such a wide array of executive orders, and he is indeed issuing orders at a record pace. For perspective, Donald Trump issued four in January of 2017; Barack Obama, eight in January of 2009; George W. Bush, two in January of 2001; and Bill Clinton, two in January of 1993.
Thus far, Biden has issued 17, with more on the way.
3. Cabinet news:
- Avril Haines made history on Wednesday when she was confirmed by the Senate as the first woman ever to serve as Director of National Intelligence. Haines’ confirmation passed by a vote of 84-10.
- Pete Buttigieg’s confirmation hearing took place on Thursday, as the Senate Commerce Committee considered his nomination for Secretary of Transportation. If confirmed, Buttigieg will become the first openly LGBTQ Cabinet member in U.S. history.
- The Senate Finance Committee will vote this morning on whether to send Janet Yellen’s nomination to the Senate floor. Yellen, the former chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, is being considered for the role of Treasury Secretary, and should her nomination pass committee this morning, the Senate could vote on her full nomination by end of day.
- Meanwhile, both the House and the Senate approved a waiver on Thursday for Defense Secretary nominee Gen. Lloyd Austin. U.S. Code requires that a commissioned officer of an armed force be retired for at least seven years prior to being eligible for the civilian role, and Austin had been retired for just four. With his waiver, Austin joins George Marshall and Jim Mattis as the third defense secretary to receive such an allowance, and if confirmed, he will make history as the nation’s first Black Pentagon chief.
4. Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock were sworn in on Wednesday, officially giving Democrats control of the Senate. In his first speech as majority leader, Chuck Schumer heeded Biden’s call for unity, saying, “President Biden, we heard you loud and clear. We have a lengthy agenda. And we need to get it done together.”
Mitch McConnell, now minority leader, argued that the narrow results demonstrated that Americans “intentionally entrusted both political parties with significant power” and refused to enter a power-sharing agreement unless Democrats agreed to preserve the filibuster. Schumer has thus far declined to make any decisions on that front.
Sen. Alex Padilla, too, was sworn in on Wednesday. Padilla assumes the former seat of Vice President Harris and becomes the first Latino to represent California in the U.S. Senate.
5. Prior to leaving office, Donald Trump issued a slew of executive grants of clemency on Tuesday, pardoning 73 individuals and commuting the sentences of 70 more. High profile recipients of these grants included rappers Lil Wayne and Kodak Black, as well as former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who was under indictment on charges of fraud.
A more extensive list can be found here.
While Trump ultimately granted executive acts of clemency to fewer individuals than some of his predecessors–Obama, for example granted executive acts of clemency to 1,927 individuals to Trump’s 237–he has been criticized for flouting norms and guidance on who is worthy and granting an uncommon number to friends and associates.
6. The Justice Department formally closed an insider trading probe into GOP Sen. Richard Burr, declining to pursue criminal charges. Burr had previously come under scrutiny after dumping $1.7 million in travel stocks just weeks before COVID-19 caused markets to plunge.
“Tonight, the Department of Justice informed me that it has concluded its review of my personal financial transactions conducted early last year. The case is now closed,” Burr said in a statement.
7. Joe Biden requested the resignation of National Labor Relations Board general counsel Peter Robb and ultimately fired him when Robb refused to resign.
“I respectfully decline to resign from my Senate-confirmed four-year term appointment as General Counsel of the NLRB less than 10 months before the expiration of my term,” Robb said in a letter.
Robb becomes the first NLRB general counsel to be removed in over 70 years, effectively breaking with prior precedent. Donald Trump, for example, refrained from firing Obama’s NLRB general counsel, Richard Griffin, allowing him to serve out the remaining nine months of his term.
Critics argue that the move undermines the independence of the agency, while others lauded the decision as a victory for American workers.
8. China imposed sanctions Wednesday on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and 27 other Trump administration officials. China’s foreign ministry released a statement just moments after Joe Biden took office, revealing that it had decided to sanction those who had “planned, promoted and executed a series of crazy moves which have gravely interfered in China’s internal affairs, undermined China’s interests, offended the Chinese people, and seriously disrupted China-U.S. relations.”
Those sanctioned will be prohibited from entering mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macao and will be restricted from doing business with China, along with any companies or institutions associated with them.
In response to his sanction, former national security adviser John Bolton tweeted, “”I accept this prestigious recognition of my unrelenting efforts to defend American freedom.”
9. Islamic State groups have claimed responsibility for the twin suicide bombings in Iraq on Thursday. The site of the attack, a crowded Baghdad market, had suffered a similar attack in 2018, when two suicide bombers killed 35 people and injured 90 more, as laborers gathered to look for work.
In Thursday’s attack, the first suicide bomber pretended to fall ill, then detonated his explosive belt once enough concerned onlookers had gathered around him. The second suicide bomber detonated his belt in the chaos shortly thereafter.
At least 32 people lost their lives in the attack, which injured in excess of 100 more.
10. The House will deliver Trump’s impeachment article to the Senate on Monday, Chuck Schumer announced Friday morning. In response, Mitch McConnell expressed concerns that Trump would lack adequate time to mount a defense and proposed that the House send the article on Thursday, paving the way for a February trial.
“Senate Republicans are strongly united behind the principle that the institution of the Senate, the office of the presidency, and former President Trump himself all deserve a full and fair process that respects his rights and the serious factual, legal, and constitutional questions at stake,” McConnell said in a statement. “Given the unprecedented speed of the House’s process, our proposed timeline for the initial phases includes a modest and reasonable amount of additional time for both sides to assemble their arguments before the Senate would begin to hear them.”
Butch Bowers, a South Carolina attorney and former special counsel for voting matters in the U.S. Department of Justice, will represent Trump at trial, after White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, Alan Dershowitz, and Rudy Giuliani all declined.
Conviction will require a two-thirds vote, and it is not yet clear how many Republicans would be willing to convict. That number will likely depend upon the stance that Mitch McConnell opts to take, and when the Senate reconvened on Tuesday, McConnell addressed his colleagues by saying the following: “The last time the Senate convened, we had just reclaimed the Capitol from violent criminals who tried to stop Congress from doing our duty. The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
McConnell is still undecided, however, on whether or not he will vote to convict.
UPDATE: Lloyd Austin has been confirmed as Defense Secretary by a vote of 93-2.