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‘Boring is a good thing’: A day in post-Trump Washington

President Biden signed an executive order in the Oval Office on Monday reversing the ban on transgender troops that was imposed by the Trump administration.
President Biden signed an executive order in the Oval Office on Monday reversing the ban on transgender troops that was imposed by the Trump administration.DOUG MILLS/NYT

WASHINGTON — With a stroke of his pen just before 12:20 p.m., President Biden had made it official: Another hallmark of the Trump administration — in this case, a ban on transgender people serving in the military — had fallen away.

It was just one sign on one day of a brand new administration determined to transform government and purge the tumult of the past four years.

Inside the West Wing, a place that was literally scrubbed down last week, there are empty picture hooks on walls that used to be covered in framed photographs of Donald Trump. There is a new and exhaustive regimen to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the White House complex. There is a responsive press operation and a more diverse administration staff. There are even dogs.

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And in place of a president who relished political combat is one who wants Washington to eliminate the vitriol.

“I think that’s already beginning to change,” Biden said Monday afternoon, “but God knows where things go.”

But a glimpse inside the halls of government farther down the National Mall on the same day revealed the extent of Trump’s continued influence on Washington and the depth of the division that will make it difficult for Biden to achieve his goals. Amid broken windows and piles of riot shields, vestiges of the deadly mob egged on by Trump on Jan. 6, Democrats launched the opening salvo of his Senate impeachment trial while most Republicans displayed little enthusiasm for working with Biden.

On Monday, the first day of the first full week of Biden’s presidency, his administration methodically worked the levers of governance and took early steps to restore the nation’s role on the world stage as the battle lines became clearer on Capitol Hill. A close look at the day shows what has already changed in Washington and the scope of the challenges and entrenched division that will make it difficult for Biden to turn the page.

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The eerie emptiness of morning in downtown Washington, which is pocked with closed restaurants and boarded-up buildings, lays the story of a crushing year — and the economic crisis he has pledged to allay — on Biden’s doorstep.

Lafayette Square, the stately park where federal officers tear-gassed peaceful protesters last summer, is still cordoned off with unclimbable fencing plastered with messages — some for Biden, some for Vice President Kamala Harris, some for Trump — from a nation in pain. “George Floyd’s life mattered.” “You’re fired.” “Dear Joe, don’t f— this up.”

Inside an unmarked brownstone on the park is one of the first, clearest signs of the Biden administration’s break with the past: a COVID-19 testing center where every reporter on their way to the White House has to stop first.

During the Trump administration, only a small group of on-site reporters was tested daily — and those tests took place inside the White House. Now, everyone gets a test — plus a wristband to prove it. Biden’s staffers wear masks even when they are just sitting at their desks, a departure from the Trump administration’s lax mask usage. At one point Monday, a reporter was reminded by a photographer that her cloth mask wouldn’t cut it in a workspace that now requires heavy-duty masking.

Because COVID has limited the number of reporters now allowed on the grounds, the briefing room has a staid calm that contrasts sharply with the freewheeling atmosphere of the early days of the Trump administration, when reporters and media personalities like Jeanine Pirro squeezed in to shout questions.

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White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s calm briefing contrasts with the freewheeling atmosphere of the early days of the Trump administration.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki’s calm briefing contrasts with the freewheeling atmosphere of the early days of the Trump administration.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

If the White House seemed quiet, the Biden administration’s effort to restore America’s global image — and erase Trump’s legacy on climate — was already in full swing. Around 9 a.m., John Kerry, Biden’s international climate envoy, joined a climate summit, organized by the Netherlands, from the library of his Boston home and promised the country would “mobilize in unprecedented ways” to meet the challenges of climate change and make up for lost time.

“I’m so happy to hear John Kerry say this because we need the US to be back at the center of the action,” rejoiced Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands.

Back at the White House, there was no shocking tweet to upend the morning; instead, the administration was churning out a flurry of executive orders and proclamations that covered COVID-19 travel restrictions, government procurement, and the military.

As Biden signed the order on transgender soldiers in a two-minute event that Trump might have turned into an impromptu news conference, one reporter listening from the airless warren of desks elsewhere in the complex marveled at the sudden sense of discipline in the White House.

A simple act, like a staffer answering a reporter’s e-mail, felt like a massive departure from the dysfunction and combativeness of the end of the Trump days. But would they some day come to miss having unfettered access to a mercurial president’s thoughts, or the drama of the Trump era?

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“I probably won’t receive as many views as before,” said Ching-Yi Chang, the White House correspondent and chief editor for the Shanghai Media Group, who said he had racked up 100 million page views in the last six months of Trump’s presidency.

“Right now,” he added, “boring is a good thing.”

Another novelty in the post-Trump world soon followed: A daily press briefing. Reporters lobbed questions about Trump at press secretary Jen Psaki, naming him 12 different times, but she never let the T word escape her lips.

As Biden took questions about two hours later after signing an executive order, he confronted the possibility that the “unity” he ran on might not materialize on Capitol Hill, where his economic relief package has been coolly received by Republicans.

“If you pass a piece of legislation that breaks down on party lines but it gets passed, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t unity; it just means it wasn’t bipartisan,” Biden said.

As Biden left the stage, a CNN reporter yelled out a question about whether impeachment imperiled his agenda.

He did not answer.


Even as Biden and his administration attempted to rapidly turn the page on Trump, Capitol Hill was still very much wrestling with his ghost.

On Monday afternoon, a group of journalism students in red masks emblazoned with the University of Oklahoma logo ambled through a hallway outside the Senate chamber. Their professor explained that this was the same corridor where a pro-Trump rioter had managed to break in with a Confederate flag three weeks earlier.

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The university group, under the watchful gaze of some of the thousands of National Guard members still stationed at the Capitol, had to navigate through a maze of concertina wire barriers to enter the building.

Senate staff, reporters, and visiting National Guard troops, left, waited in a corridor just outside the chamber during a vote on how to proceed on the impeachment against former president Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday.
Senate staff, reporters, and visiting National Guard troops, left, waited in a corridor just outside the chamber during a vote on how to proceed on the impeachment against former president Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington on Tuesday.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

“It was haunting,” Gil Klein, who coordinates the school’s Washington program, said of taking his students through the Speaker’s lobby where Ashli Babbitt was fatally shot during the insurrection.

Denizens of the Capitol were still struggling to adapt to the changes — in ways large and small.

“When the majority leader comes through here — well, minority leader now — this has to be clear,” one staffer said, as he shooed reporters away from Mitch McConnell’s pathway to the Senate chamber.

Other signs pointed to a hangover from the Trump years — like the riot shields still stacked behind the now empty information desk where Capitol staff once greeted lawmakers.

As senators bounded from the subterranean subways that bring them from their offices into the Capitol to vote on one of Biden’s nominees, Trump’s name was uttered almost as often as Biden’s.

Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, a Republican, said the impeachment trial against Trump was “unconstitutional”— a claim echoed by many of his colleagues. And even as most Republicans condemned the attack on the Capitol, support for his impeachment among them appeared to be wafer-thin.

How would it affect a Republican’s career to support it?

“I guess it depends on what state you’re in, what phase in your career you are,” said Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, with a chuckle, as he rushed into the Senate chamber.

Earlier that morning, news that Senator Rob Portman of Ohio would retire rather than run again, the third GOP centrist to head for the Senate exits ahead of 2022, shocked his colleagues and underscored Graham’s point.

Democrats, now in control of both houses of Congress with the slimmest of majorities, were in better spirits than their Republican counterparts. On their way into the Senate chamber to confirm Janet Yellen’s nomination for treasury secretary, they spoke of new beginnings.

“Frankly, I sleep better,” Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland said of the past few days. “Now I don’t have to worry about the president of the United States saying something that’s absurd.”

Senator Alex Padilla of California pumped his fist in celebration as he greeted his staffers outside the Senate chamber after casting his vote for Yellen — one of his first as a new senator. “I’m excited to get to work,” he said. “There’s no time to waste.”

Biden hopes that work will be bipartisan, and is in talks with several moderate Republicans over a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. But at the Capitol, few Republicans seemed enthusiastic about the proposal.

Even some Republicans who said they liked Biden personally took an aggressive stance against his fledgling agenda. Standing by the Capitol subway after joining just 14 other Republicans to vote against Yellen, Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming said he had a “good” relationship with Biden when they served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee years back. But he immediately began listing all of the Biden initiatives that he opposes.

Shortly after the vote, the nine House impeachment managers walked silently through the Capitol’s soaring rotunda and over to the Senate chamber, where they formally delivered the article. Just three Republican senators waited inside: McConnell, Mitt Romney, and Roger Marshall, who joked to an aide: “I think I’m the only one who got a memo.” They were outnumbered by more than two dozen Democratic senators.

“Donald John Trump engaged in high crimes and misdemeanors by inciting violence against the government of the United States,” Representative Jamie Raskin said on the floor.

And in just a few moments Monday night, it was over, the impeachment managers scattering back across the Capitol, readying themselves for the battle to come in two weeks.

“It felt solemn,” said Representative Ted Lieu, as he walked toward the exit. “And historic.”


Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. Liz Goodwin can be reached at elizabeth.goodwin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin. Reach Jazmine Ulloa at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.