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We’re in this weird eddy where Republicans are trying to cling to past politics to gain advantage and the Biden administration is trying to move forward into the future. On top of this struggle are stories about how the previous administration pushed the boundaries of our laws or, worse, broke them.
This week, two Republican governors, Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi, ended mask mandates and other coronavirus restrictions for their states. So far today, the Johns Hopkins University tracker has reported 88,611 new cases and 2,189 new deaths. The numbers are dropping, but they are still wildly high compared to other nations. Texas and Mississippi are both in the top ten states in terms of deaths per capita.
It is hard not to see the reopening of Republican-led states as a deliberate affront to President Joe Biden, who asked for a 100-day mask mandate and who has sped up vaccine production to end the pandemic before new variants throw us back into a crisis. The Biden administration has tried to take politics out of the national response to the coronavirus, and has made it a point to respond quickly to the crisis in Texas two weeks ago, when the unregulated Texas energy system froze. Health officials worry that a rush to reopen will undo all the progress we have made against the virus, and they are begging Texas and Mississippi to reconsider.
Nonetheless, Abbott has reopened his state and today tweeted: “The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities. The Biden Admin[istration] must IMMEDIATELY end this callous act that exposes Texans & Americans to COVID.”
While Abbott is mired in past politics, the Biden administration laid out a new approach to foreign affairs. Shortly before the White House released a paper explaining its national security policies, Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave a speech reiterating the administration’s belief that the world needs American leadership and engagement to help create order, and that countries must cooperate with each other.
Blinken promised to stop Covid-19 both at home and abroad, and to invest in global health security. He said we would address the economic crisis and the climate crisis and create a more stable, inclusive global economy. The United States will “renew democracy,” he said, “because it’s under threat.” Blinken promised to “incentivize democratic behavior” overseas without “costly military interventions or attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force.”
Blinken identified China as the greatest modern rival of the United States and promised to “engage China from a position of strength,” working with allies to counter that nation’s rising power through diplomacy.
The Secretary of State emphasized again that the Biden administration sees domestic and foreign issues as complementary. “Beating COVID means vaccinating people at home and abroad,” he said. “Winning in the global economy means making the right investments at home and pushing back against unfair trading practices by China and others. Dealing with climate change means investing in resilience and green energy here at home and leading a global effort to reduce carbon pollution.”
“[D]istinctions between domestic and foreign policy have simply fallen away,” Blinken said. “Our domestic renewal and our strength in the world are completely entwined.”
Biden’s paper was even clearer, noting that we are at an inflection point that will determine whether democracy will fall to autocracy. “I firmly believe that democracy holds the key to freedom, prosperity, peace, and dignity,” he wrote. “We must now demonstrate — with a clarity that dispels any doubt — that democracy can still deliver for our people and for people around the world. We must prove that our model isn’t a relic of history; it’s the single best way to realize the promise of our future.”
Meanwhile, stories continue to break about the previous administration.
We have learned that under Trump loyalist Attorney General William Barr, the Department of Justice refused to investigate or prosecute Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, even after that department’s inspector general asked for a review of what it said was a misuse of her office. The inspector general found repeated instances of Chao using her office to benefit the Chao family company, Foremost Group, a shipping company run by Chao’s sister.
Chao is married to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
In addition, the inspector general for the Department of Defense issued a review of Representative Ronny Jackson, who was Trump’s White House physician before he was elected to Congress from Texas in 2020. The review says he has an explosive temper, made “sexual and denigrating” comments about a woman who was his subordinate, created a hostile work environment, and drank alcohol and took Ambien while on duty. The inspector general recommended that the Navy take “appropriate action” with regard to the retired officer. Jackson said, “Democrats are using this report to repeat and rehash untrue attacks on my integrity.”
The biggest story about the previous administration, though, came from the Senate hearings about the January 6, 2021, attack, held before the committee of Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and the committee on Rules and Administration. While there is still confusion about what happened when, it became clear that there were some serious lapses in the protection of the Capitol, and it appears those lapses originated with Trump appointees in the Pentagon.
Because the District of Columbia is not a state, its National Guard is under the control of the Defense Department, and it is overseen by Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy. The Commander of the D.C. National Guard, Major General William Walker, told the Senate that, in response to a request from D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the director of D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, Dr. Christopher Rodriguez, Walker requested approval for the mission from McCarthy on January 1.
McCarthy’s approval did not come until January 5, when the event was already upon them. And, in what Walker saw as an unusual move, McCarthy withheld approval for Walker to deploy the Quick Reaction Force, guardsmen equipped with helmets, shields, batons, and so on, to respond to civil disturbance, without the approval of the Secretary of Defense.
Then, at 1:49 pm on January 6, then Chief of the U.S. Capitol Police, Steven Sund, called Walker to say that the Capitol had been breached. “Chief Sund, his voice cracking with emotion, indicated that there was a dire emergency on Capitol Hill and requested the immediate assistance of as many guardsmen as I could muster,” Walker told the Senate. Walker immediately called the Pentagon for approval to move in his troops, but officials there did not give the go-ahead for 3 hours and 19 minutes. Once allowed in, the National Guard troops deployed in 20 minutes. But by then, of course, plenty of damage had been done.
The delay in deployment stood in dramatic contrast to the approval accorded to the National Guard to deploy against Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020. Today’s testimony suggests that the Pentagon placed unprecedented restrictions on the mobilization of the National Guard on January 6, preventing it from responding to the crisis at the Capitol in a timely fashion.
The House will not meet today out of fears that militants will attack the Capitol again, expecting (according to Q) that March 4 will see former president Donald Trump sworn in for a second term.
Heather Cox Richardson is a Professor of History at Boston College. This post originally appeared at her Substack, Letters from an American.