Hours after he was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden signed 17 executive actions to begin overhauling the nation's approach to the coronavirus pandemic and undo some of the most controversial policies of former President Donald Trump.
Entering the Oval Office for the first time as President in the midst of the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, Biden signed actions that, among other things, instituted a mask mandate for federal buildings and inter-state travel, rejoined the Paris climate accord and rescinded Trump's ban on travelers from predominantly Muslim countries.
Biden told reporters he was starting his term "keeping the promises" he'd made, as he sat at the Resolute Desk Wednesday evening. But he noted that the nation has "a long way to go" and that Congress would need to pass legislation to follow through on his priorities, which include a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief bill.
Biden and his family had walked onto the White House grounds on their own hours earlier, as did Kamala Harris -- who made history Wednesday when she was sworn in as the first female, the first Black and first South Asian vice president of the United States. She entered the Eisenhower Executive Office Building for the first time as vice president after walking a parade route to the White House grounds with her family.
As one of her first acts in office, Harris -- who is now the tie-breaking vote in a Senate that is divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans -- swore in incoming three senators. She administered the oath of office to Alex Padilla, who will replace Harris as the junior senator from California. She also swore in Georgia Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, who won hard-fought runoff races that flipped control of the Senate, giving Democrats control of Congress and the White House.
Trump had left Washington Wednesday morning, ahead of the peaceful transfer of power that took place at noon in the heavily guarded capital city. Though Trump did not attend the swearing-in, he left a letter for his successor. During his brief exchange with reporters Wednesday, Biden described the letter as "generous" but said he would not reveal its contents until he spoke with Trump.
After Biden was sworn in, he headed to Arlington National Cemetery for a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He was joined by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, along with their spouses, in a show of continuity and bipartisanship that did not include Trump.
Biden took his oath of office at the US Capitol just two weeks after a mob of insurrectionists invaded that building seeking to overturn the presidential election based on Trump's lies about the results. The new President set out on the daunting task of uniting the nation by urging Americans to come together as they confront the deadly pandemic, an economic collapse that has left millions unemployed and deep divisions over issues of racial justice and police brutality.
"Today on this January day, my whole soul is in this — bringing American people together, uniting our nation, and I ask every American to join me in this cause," Biden said in his inaugural speech.
The former vice president, who decided to run for the White House after Trump's shocking reaction to the White supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, noted that the nation is struggling through a rise of White nationalism, racism and deep political divisions.
"Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path," Biden said, calling on Americans to come together. "We have to be different than this. America has to be better than this."
"I will be a president for all Americans," Biden said speaking directly to those who did not support him in the November election. "I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as those who did."
After a tumultuous year that began a new chapter of the civil rights movement as Americans took to the streets to protest against racial injustice and police brutality after the death of George Floyd, Harris' swearing in was a remarkable achievement for a country that has often struggled to live up to its ideals of equality for all.
Biden noted the historic nature of Harris' swearing in during his speech.
"Here we stand looking out on the great Mall, where Dr. (Martin Luther) King (Jr.) spoke of his dream. Here we stand where 108 years ago, at another inaugural, thousands of protesters tried to block brave women marching for the right to vote. Today, we mark the swearing-in of the first woman in American history elected to national office, Vice President Kamala Harris," Biden said.
In soaring tones before a bipartisan audience -- that symbolized a moment of democracy restored after the turmoil of recent weeks -- Lady Gaga performed the National Anthem and Jennifer Lopez sang a medley of American musical selections including "This Land is your Land" and "America the Beautiful."
Trump, who was the first president in more than 150 years to refuse to attend his successor's swearing-in ceremony, arrived in Florida before Biden was sworn in. In Washington, more than 25,000 National Guard troops were in place to ensure that the nation's transfer of power took place peacefully.
Unlike the former president, former Vice President Mike Pence, who was in the Capitol when it was stormed by Trump's supporters earlier this month and presided over the certification of the election results, and former second lady Karen Pence attended the inauguration -- walking out onto the inaugural stands to bipartisan applause. The incoming vice president and outgoing vice president and their spouses shared a laugh shortly before the Pences departed for private life.
"Somehow we've weathered and witnessed a nation that isn't broken, but simply unfinished," Gorman said in the poem she read after Biden's speech. "We've seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it. Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded. But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated."
Biden reflected on that dark moment for the nation several times during his speech, noting that the world is watching after its entire system of government came under attack.
"Here is my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested and we've come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's challenges," Biden said.
The new President also said the nation's success in getting through this moment will hinge on whether Americans can come together and set aside their differences to defeat the pandemic that has ravaged the nation, costing more than 400,000 lives. He highlighted some of the previous challenges the nation has confronted, including the Great Depression, two world wars and the September 11 attacks.
"I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days; I know the forces that divide us are deep and are real, but I also know they are not new," Biden said in his speech, calling on Americans to forge a new way forward. "We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbors —speaking to each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. Without unity there is no peace, only bitterness and fury; no progress, only exhausting outrage; no nation, only a state of chaos."
He asked his audience to unite to meet the moment as one nation: "If we do that, I guarantee you, we will not fail."
"At this time, in this place, let's start afresh," Biden said.
A day after honoring the Covid-19 victims who have died, Biden is immediately turning his focus to overhauling the Trump administration's politicized response to the pandemic into a functional operation that can accelerate the delivery of vaccines to Americans and right the flagging US economy.
He wants to show that he will move swiftly to undo Trump's legacy, with aides readying about a dozen executive actions that Biden can take as soon as he is sworn into office that include rejoining the Paris climate agreement and ending Trump's ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries. The President plans to extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for families affected by Covid-19 and to sign an order requiring masks on federal property and during interstate travel.
Trump leaves Washington
Biden's tone at his inaugural speech could not have been more different than the bitter, divisive one adopted by Trump throughout his presidency as he slashed his political opponents and anyone who dared to criticize him on Twitter and during his ranting campaign speeches, threaded with lies and threats to whip up his crowds.
The former president left the White House as president for the last time Wednesday morning, flying to Florida with first lady Melania Trump, dispensing with the tradition of greeting the incoming President and first lady at the White House and riding with them to the Capitol. CNN's Kate Bennett reported that White House chief usher Timothy Harleth will meet the Bidens later at the White House.
On his way out of the Washington area, Trump -- who was not wearing a mask -- again used the racist term "China virus" to describe the coronavirus, describing it in the past tense, and touted his administration's work on developing a vaccine.
He thanked his staff and family and wished the next administration "great success" but did not mention his successor by name.
"We love you, this has been an incredible four years," Trump said in unscripted remarks at Joint Base Andrews shortly before leaving for Florida. "We've accomplished so much."
"I will always fight for you. I will be watching. I will be listening."
Biden's task has been complicated by the fact that Trump has still not conceded the election and impeded the transition between administrations. But Trump left the White House as a disgraced and diminished figure. CNN's White House team has reported that although dozens of current and former officials had been invited to the Wednesday morning farewell ceremony, many declined to attend. Pence said his final goodbyes to Trump on Tuesday.
Biden and Harris attended a service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in DC ahead of the inaugural ceremonies with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, in a show of unity and Biden's intent to work with leaders from both parties.
Pamela Brown, Chandelis Duster and Betsy Klein contributed to this report.