Trump leaves Washington, Biden to assume U.S. presidency

STEPHANIE KEITH / GETTY IMAGES VIA AFP

Republican President Donald Trump left Washington on Wednesday ahead of Joe Biden's swearing in as the 46th president of the United States.

The Democrat is set to assume the helm of a country beset by deep political divides and battered by a raging coronavirus pandemic.

Biden, 78, will become the oldest U.S. president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington that has been largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus as well as security concerns following the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

Trump left the White House for the final time just after 8 a.m. (1300 GMT) by helicopter on his way to a sendoff event at Joint Air Force Base Andrews, although top Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence, were not expected to see him off.

The president's refusal to greet his successor before attending the inauguration represents a break with more than a century and a half of political tradition, seen as a way to affirm the peaceful transfer of power.

With only a small number of attendees present, Biden will take the oath of office before U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts just after noon (1700 GMT), placing his hand on an heirloom Bible that has been in the Biden family for more than a century.

His running mate, Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, will become the first Black person, first woman and first Asian American to serve as vice president after she is sworn in by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's first Latina member.

The ceremony will unfold in front of a heavily fortified U.S. Capitol, where a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building two weeks ago, enraged by his false claims that November's election was stolen with millions of fraudulent votes. The violence prompted the Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives to impeach Trump last week for an unprecedented second time.

Thousands of National Guard troops were called into the city after the siege, which left five people dead and briefly forced lawmakers into hiding. Instead of a throng of supporters, the National Mall will be covered by nearly 200,000 flags and 56 pillars of light meant to represent people from U.S. states and territories.

Biden, who has vowed to "restore the soul of America," will call for American unity at a time of crisis in his inaugural address, according to advisers.

He will waste little time trying to turn the page on the Trump era, advisers said, signing a raft of 15 executive actions on his first day in office on issues ranging from the pandemic to the economy to climate change. The orders will include mandating masks on federal property, rejoining the Paris climate accord and ending Trump's travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.

In an early sign of his plan to reach across the political aisle, Biden has invited top congressional leaders, including House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, to join him at church on Wednesday morning.

Vice President Mike Pence, former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and both McCarthy and McConnell are all expected to attend Biden's inauguration ceremony.

Trump, who has grown increasingly isolated in the waning days of his tenure, has still not formally conceded the November 3 election.

He issued more than 140 pardons and commutations in his final hours in office, including a pardon for his former political adviser, Steve Bannon, who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he swindled Trump supporters as part of an effort to raise private funds for a Mexico border wall.

But Trump did not issue preemptive pardons for himself or members of his family, after speculation that he might do so.

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