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Biden’s challenge: Preaching unity at the scene of Trump’s insurrection

The US Capitol is seen behind a fence with razor wire during sunrise on Saturday.
The US Capitol is seen behind a fence with razor wire during sunrise on Saturday.Samuel Corum/Getty

WASHINGTON — Joe Biden, who ran on a message of unity and healing, will be sworn in as the country’s 46th president on Wednesday at the literal scene of a crime.

One hand on the Bible, the other in the air, Biden will stand in front of the US Capitol just two weeks after angry supporters of President Trump, including white supremacists, breached and then ransacked the building, leading to five deaths. The tanks, razor-wire-covered fences, and thousands of National Guard troops surrounding the stage will only further emphasize the precariousness of the peaceful transfer of power this year in a dystopian scene that clashes loudly with the inauguration’s official theme: “America United.”

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It’s a theme that also clashes with the mood of many Democrats after watching Trump, aided by many members of his party, attempt to steal an election and disenfranchise millions of voters.

“Why do we think we can have unity and no justice?” asked LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Voters Matter grass-roots organization that helped mobilize Black voters in Georgia and other swing states. “What’s very frustrating to me is usually ‘unity’ is reduced to meaning white comfort.”

At a time when the political system has been rocked to its core, it’s fitting, in a sense, that Biden’s unwavering message of uniting, returning to “normalcy,” and righting the ship of US democracy will take center stage this coming week. The outbreak of political violence underscores Biden’s campaign message that Trump, in encouraging extremism and racism, is a danger to the country.

But this moment also presents a formidable challenge to Biden’s hopeful vision of a post-Trump America, a place where Republicans would experience an “epiphany” about bipartisanship and join with magnanimous Democrats in a narrowly divided Congress to prove his mantra that “there’s nothing we can’t do if we do it together.”

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Democratic lawmakers, many of whom feared for their lives as the mob overran the Capitol, are arguing that justice must come before healing. The House impeached Trump for the second time on Wednesday, and a Senate trial to convict him could begin shortly after Biden is sworn in.

If Trump is convicted, senators could move to bar him from holding future office or take a separate vote to strip him from receiving post-presidential perks. There’s also a movement to expel any lawmakers who were found to have encouraged the riot.

“We need accountability in order to achieve unity,” said Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts. “We can’t turn a blind eye.”

The thirst for justice mirrors the attitude of voters overall. A slim majority of voters in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll said they believe Trump should be barred from holding future office; while nearly 90 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents said the same. A similar share of Democrats believe Trump should be charged with a crime for inciting the attack.

Biden has named those who attacked the Capitol “thugs” and called for their prosecution, as well as for a thorough investigation into the events of Jan. 6. But he’s stayed far away from the question of consequences for Trump himself, or for Republican lawmakers.

“I’m not going to tell the Justice Department who they should prosecute and who they should not,” Biden told reporters on Jan. 8. He also said he didn’t believe Senators Ted Cruz or Josh Hawley should be expelled from the Senate for pumping up the false claims of fraud and leading the congressional movement to contest the election results.

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Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, declined to say if Trump should be barred from holding office again in an interview with The Washington Post on Friday.

“The president is going to be on trial before the Senate — that’s going to be their business to sort out,” Klain said. “Our focus is on trying to get things done for the country.”

The reticence reflects both Biden’s reluctance to give a partisan sheen to any future consequences for the raid, as well as his desire to quickly move on from the Trump years when he takes office. Biden and his team have emphasized that they don’t want a Senate trial to overshadow his agenda, which is topped by battling the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. He introduced a $1.9 trillion relief package last week and outlined his vaccine distribution plan.

Markey said he believes the trial can be brief so that senators can also focus on approving Biden’s legislative priorities and nominations.

“We don’t need a long-winded investigation or multiple-weeks-long trial to determine that Donald Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors,” he said, pointing out that he and other lawmakers are eyewitnesses to the crime.

Even before Trump’s supporters sacked the Capitol, Biden’s promise to unite the country and work with Republicans seemed like a daunting undertaking, and garnered plenty of skepticism from progressive Democrats who believed he was naïve about the GOP’s intent to obstruct him. Since then, a global pandemic, economic woes, and Trump and many Republicans lying to their base about the election being “stolen” from them has created more division and anger than ever.

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A majority of House Republicans still voted to toss out millions of legally cast votes in the hours after the mob attack, displaying a harrowing problem for Biden and the country: a party that continues to embrace an anti-democratic lie that delegitimizes his administration. Meanwhile, many congressional Democrats are furious at their GOP colleagues for stoking the lies, their anger intensified by a recent COVID-19 outbreak they trace to sharing a hiding space during the insurrection with some Republicans who refused to wear masks.

“There will be no reset button. No return to normal,” Representative Ayanna Pressley of Boston tweeted on Thursday, in what appears to be a veiled warning to Biden not to embrace a nostalgic message that ignores the systemic injustices plaguing the nation. “The status quo was unjust in the first place.”

Biden’s team knows that not everyone is buying into the inauguration’s unity message.

“This whole ‘America United’ theme ... I know there are folks who are skeptical of that theme,” Maju Varghese, executive director of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said at a Georgetown Institute of Politics event on Thursday. “I don’t blame them.”

But Varghese added that coming together is the only way for the country to function. “I don’t know another way,” he said.

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Biden himself referenced the skepticism in a speech on Friday about his vaccine plan.

“Unity is not some pie-in-the-sky dream,” he said. “It is a practical step to getting things done.”

While the contents of Biden’s inaugural address are a closely guarded secret, Varghese said he would expect Biden to channel hope and optimism in his remarks, as well as being blunt about the challenges the country faces.

One Biden ally said the president-elect realizes that unity is impossible without Americans operating from the same set of facts. But that, too, seems optimistic given how many rioters parroted the dark and fantastical claims of the “Q” conspiracy theory, which the FBI has labeled a terrorist threat.

“I think Joe Biden understands that we have to be united in truth,” said Representative Stephen Lynch of South Boston. “We can’t proceed in a way that is united and strong if we’re chasing a fiction, if we’re entertaining some alternative reality.”

Chuck Hagel, the former GOP senator from Nebraska who served as defense secretary in the Obama administration, said he believes Biden may, counter-intuitively, actually be helped by the violent events of January.

Many Americans, including Republicans, were repulsed by what they saw, and even Senator Mitch McConnell, who will be the GOP minority leader in the Senate, has broken with Trump over the attack, leaving open the possibility of convicting Trump in an impeachment trial. That bodes well for the possibility of Republicans helping Biden pass pieces of his agenda in the future, Hagel said.

“In a way, President-elect Biden is going to have some wind at his back,” said Hagel. “With all the problems he’s got to deal with — COVID, the economy, and a divided country ― I think most people in this country are sick and tired of what they’ve seen in our country over the past few years.”

Reaching across the aisle and unifying is a message Biden has been preaching for decades. “He’s lived that,” Hagel said. “That’s who he is.”


Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.