Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Updated: Tue, 12 Jan 2021 16:04:05 GMT
President Donald Trump is leaving America in a vortex of violence, sickness and death and more internally estranged than it has been for 150 years.
The disorientating end to his shocking term has the nation reeling from a Washington insurrection. The FBI warned Monday of armed protests by pro-Trump thugs in 50 states, which raise the awful prospect of a domestic insurgency. Lawmakers have been briefed about a plot to surround the US Capitol by extremists inspired by Trump's false and dangerous claims the election was stolen. Health officials fear 5,000 Americans could soon be dying every day from the pandemic Trump ignored. Hospitals are swamped and medical workers are shattered amid a faltering rollout of the vaccine supposed to end the crisis.
It took 200 years for the country to rack up its first two presidential impeachments. Trump's malfeasance has led the country down that awful, divisive path twice in just more than a year. With House Democrats expected to formally impeach the President for inciting a mob assault on Congress on Wednesday, he will rely on the Republican enablers who refused to rein in his lawlessness to save him from conviction again.
Millions of Americans have bought into the delusional, poisoned fiction that an election Trump lost was stolen, and there are signs that some police and military forces have been radicalized by the grievance he stokes.
The city Trump has called home for four years is being turned into an armed camp incongruous with the mood of joy and renewal that pulsates through most inaugurations. In a symbol of a democracy under siege, the people's buildings -- the White House and the US Capitol -- are caged behind ugly iron and cement barriers.
This is the legacy President-elect Joe Biden will inherit in eight days when he swears to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution -- an oath that Trump trampled when inciting the Capitol attack last week from behind a bulletproof screen while buckling the cherished US chain of peaceful transfers of power.
With unintended irony, Biden's team has picked "America United" as the inaugural theme -- a motto that is now more apt in defining Biden's hoped for destination rather than the splintered land he will begin to lead.
Trump's pattern of violence
It is becoming ever more obvious that the horrific scenes on Capitol Hill on Wednesday were not a one-off. Instead, they now look part of a pattern including the White supremacist marches in Charlottesville that Trump refused to condemn, and the gassing of peaceful anti-racist protesters in the square outside the White House so he could hold an inflammatory photo-op.
In a chilling new warning, the FBI revealed the possible next stage in this now nationwide wave of radicalization, saying armed protests were planned at state Capitols in all 50 states between January 16 and Inauguration Day, January 20. Even as a nationwide sweep widens for the perpetrators of last week's outrage, the bureau said new protests were planned for Washington for three days around the inauguration.
There are threats of an uprising if Trump is removed by way of the 25th Amendment. The FBI said it was also tracking threats against Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. In Washington, two Capitol Police officers were suspended and more are under investigation for allegedly helping the mob.
Rep. Conor Lamb told CNN's "New Day" on Tuesday that lawmakers had been warned about a plan by extremists to encircle Congress as well as more threats against legislators.
"They were talking about 4,000 armed 'patriots' to surround the Capitol and prevent any Democrat from going in," the Pennsylvania Democrat said.
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was shocked by the magnitude of the bureau's intelligence on possible new violence.
"I don't think in the entire scope of my career working counter terrorism issues for many, many years, I don't think I ever saw a bulletin go out that concerned armed protest activity in 50 states in a three- or four-day period," McCabe said on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer."
Biden told reporters that despite the warnings, he was not afraid of taking the oath of office outside next week -- but the combination of a massive security effort to protect him from Trump's supporters and social distancing amid the Covid-19 pandemic mean his will be the most hollowed out inauguration in years.
Trump's acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf resigned on Monday, in a yet another sign that the country lacks effective government at a moment of stark danger. By contrast, senior officials from the outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration worked closely together in the Situation Room on January 20, 2009, when there was concern about the authenticity of terror threat to the inauguration.
So far, after a massive domestic terror attack on the citadel of US democracy, there has been no major public briefing by any major federal law enforcement agency or the White House, an omission that fosters a sense of an absent government.
The current atmosphere of fear and wild political insurrection are a lesson in what happens when a figure as powerful as a President deliberately tears at America's deep racial and social fault lines as a tool of his own power. Trump's presidency revealed a new insight about the all-powerful modern presidency -- the character of the person in the Oval Office chair really matters.
A Congress that can't constrain a President
Momentum towards impeachment is now all but unstoppable in the House after Pelosi rejected a suggestion from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of some kind of censure motion.
McCarthy did acknowledge to Republican caucus members Monday that the President bore some responsibility for last week's insurrection, according to a person familiar with the call. But some of his other responses to the outrage -- an overhaul to the electoral certification process and legislation to promote voter confidence -- hinted at the insincerity of the Republican approach.
With a few exceptions, Republicans -- who indulged and in many cases supported Trump's blatantly false claims of electoral fraud for weeks -- have responded to the uproar over last week's Capitol attack by complaining that by pushing impeachment, Democrats are fracturing national unity. It's as if the last four years never happened.
There are also questions over whether Republicans understand the seriousness of last week's events. Remarks by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt are still reverberating through the Capitol.
"My personal view is that the President touched the hot stove on Wednesday and is unlikely to touch it again," Blunt said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
His comment eerily recalled the rationalizations of Republicans who declined to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial after he tried to get Ukraine to interfere in the election to damage Biden.
America has emerged from many dark periods since the Civil War. The country was torn by resistance to the Civil Rights movement. And the Vietnam War turned generations against one another. But the fact that millions of people now appear to deeply mistrust the electoral system that is the basis of US democracy means that the country's internal political cohesion is now being tested as it has rarely been in the last century-and-a-half.
And the Republican indulgence of the President's repeated political arson has revealed a massive constitutional blind spot. When one party's lawmakers are in thrall to a strongman leader, their duty to ensure checks and balances to constrain presidential power is soon forgotten.
Trump to reemerge
Trump has not appeared in public for days. And the suspension of his social media accounts amid concern that he could stir up more violence mean the country has been unable to assess his mood.
But the President is due to make a trip to visit the border wall that he said Mexico would pay for but instead saddled the taxpayers with the bill. White House sources said that the President is determined to spend his last full week in office touting his achievements and is expected to release another round of controversial pardons. CNN reported Monday that former Attorney General William Barr and White House counsel Pat Cipollone have advised the President not to attempt what would be yet another epic abuse of power -- an attempt to pardon himself.
The virus is meanwhile running rampant. Eleven states and Washington, DC, just recorded their highest 7-day average of new cases of Covid-19 since the pandemic began. For the first time, the country is averaging over 3,000 deaths from the pandemic per day. Trump's outgoing head of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Robert Redfield warned in a recent interview with McClatchy newspapers that the pandemic would get worse for the rest of January and parts of February and that the country could see 5,000 deaths a day.
And hopes that the nation could soon turn a corner are being tempered by the glitches in the vaccine roll out. Just as with the early stages of the crisis, poor coordination between federal and local and state authorities and the overall lack of a broader distribution plan are hampering the effort.
Like everything else, it will be up to Biden to fix it.