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Ahead of inauguration, Washington DC turns into fortress

By Lalit K Jha
Last updated on: January 18, 2021 18:35 IST
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Ahead of the inauguration of United States President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris on Wednesday, the American capital has been virtually turned into a garrison city, amidst multiple reports of threats and more armed violence by pro-Trump supporters to disrupt the events.

IMAGE: National Guard troops receive guns and ammunition outside the US Capitol building as supporters of US President Donald Trump are expected to protest against the election of President-elect Joe Biden, in Washington DC. Photograph: Erin Scott/Reuters

In the aftermath of last week's Capitol riots, Washington DC is preparing for the scaled down inauguration of the 46th US president with extreme security measures -- closing roads, erecting barbed wire fences and deploying more than 25,000 National Guards along with thousands of local police personnel and those from other security agencies.

The area in and around Capitol Hill, a large part of Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House has been made out of bounds for the general public with eight-feet high iron barricades being erected.

US Marshals are deploying 4,000 officers to Washington DC. Major parts of the majestic National Mall, which during the inauguration is usually thronged by thousands of people, have been closed off.

The entire city is on high-alert as authorities are receiving multiple reports of violent threats from various groups at the level of the incident that happened on January 6 -- when hundreds of supporters of outgoing US President Donald Trump stormed Capitol Hill, disrupting the constitutional process of certification of electoral college votes.

The unprecedented violence forced hundreds of lawmakers to take shelter at safe locations within the iconic building amidst vandalism by the mob. At least five people, including a police officer, died in the incident.

Despite the heightened security concerns, Biden plans to go ahead with the inauguration ceremony in its traditional location.

IMAGE: Razor wire is seen on a fence around the US Capitol as National Guard members stand guard ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration, in Washington. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

In addition to converting downtown Washington DC into a fortress, security in and around 50 State Capitols has also been put on high alert to ensure a peaceful transition of power.

“I think this will be an inauguration unlike any other. It was already destined to be, given COVID concerns and some of the limited seating and public access. But having our fellow Americans storm the Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the government certainly warrants heightened security,” Mayor of Washington DC, Muriel Bowser, told NBC News.

“Our police department is working with our federal law enforcement partners and the United States Army also has a plan to pivot if we have any attacks in our neighbourhoods,” she said.

“We've never believed that so-called patriots would attempt to overthrow their government and kill police officers. That's exactly what happened. So, I do think we have to take another posture in our city that is more domestic terrorist focused than external to our country and act accordingly.

"We don't want to see fences. We definitely don't want to see armed troops on our streets. But we do have to take a different posture,” Bowser said.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation in its internal bulletins has warned of the potential for violence in Washington DC and at all 50 state Capitols.

"Our posture is aggressive. It's going to stay that way through the inauguration," FBI Director Christopher Wray said on the agency's plans for security on Wednesday.

IMAGE: A woman walks past barriers installed as a security measure on a mostly deserted street in downtown Washington. Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/Reuters

He added that the agency was monitoring "extensive" online chatter about further potential armed protests and issued a warning to the men and woman who wreaked havoc on the Capitol.

US defence officials say they are also worried about an insider attack or other threat from service members involved in securing Biden's inauguration, prompting the FBI to vet all of the 25,000 National Guard troops being deployed here for the event.

Police have arrested two people near security checkpoints in Washington, D.C.

A 22-year-old Virginia man carrying a firearm, three high-capacity magazines and 37 rounds of unregistered ammunition was arrested on Sunday near the Capitol Hill.

On Saturday, a woman claiming to be a law enforcement officer and part of the presidential Cabinet was stopped at an inauguration checkpoint, where US Capitol Police say they arrested her for impersonating an officer as well as failing to obey and fleeing from law enforcement.

“We are concerned, certainly, about these threats in other places,” incoming White House Chief of Staff Ron Klein said.

“I do think the Secret Service and all their assets, the help they're getting from the National Guard, will keep the inauguration itself safe and the official ceremonies in Washington safe. But these broader threats are concerning,” Klein said.

IMAGE: Military vehicles are parked in front of the Cannon House Office Building as supporters of US President Donald Trump are expected to protest against the election of President-elect Joe Biden, in Washington DC. Photograph: Erin Scott/Reuters

He said US President Trump did incite the mob on January 6, and that's "very, very disconcerting".

"We are obviously getting briefings from the outgoing administration about the efforts to try to secure state capitals, secure Washington, D.C., the National Capital Region,” he said.

Jamie Raskin, the lead House impeachment manager, called Trump's actions “the most dangerous crime committed against the United States,” saying that the rioters “came within a hair's breadth of hanging the vice president”.

US Vice President Mike Pence was in the initial stages of presiding over the congressional certification of the Electoral College vote that Biden won over Trump when the mob stormed the Capitol.

IMAGE: National guard troops receive guns at the US Capitol as security tightens ahead of presidential inaugural events on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photograph: Erin Scott/Reuters

Raskin accused Trump, a Republican, of doing nothing to stop his supporters from storming the US Capitol.

“He was watching it on TV, an insurrection tailgate party,” he told CNN.

No date has been set for Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate on a single charge that he incited insurrection by urging thousands of his supporters to fight to overturn his loss to Biden, a Democrat.

The trial of Trump, the only US president to be impeached twice, could start soon after Biden's inauguration, or in the days to follow. If convicted by a two-thirds vote in the politically divided Senate, Trump could be barred, on a simple majority vote, from ever holding public office again. 

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Lalit K Jha
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