Biden prepares for inauguration on Trump's last full day in office

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Veronica Rocha, Mike Hayes and Melissa Mahtani, CNN

Updated 0638 GMT (1438 HKT) January 20, 2021
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6:04 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Biden's secretary of state nominee says Trump was right to take tougher approach to China

From CNN's Kylie Atwood

Alex Edelman/Pool via AP
Alex Edelman/Pool via AP

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken bluntly said that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China, even though he does not agree with the Trump administration’s tactics.

“Let me just say that I also believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China. I disagree, very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas but the basic principle was the right one and I think that's actually helpful to our foreign policy,” Blinken told members of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

He did not detail the exact areas where he took issue with Trump’s approach to China.

Blinken — who described China as posing the “most significant challenge of any nation state to the United States” – said the country must be approached from a “position of strength.” He explained that a position of strength can be accomplished when the US works with allies, leads in international institutions, investing at home and stands up for human rights.

“If we come together and do them,” Blinken said taking the actions to put the US into a position of strength. “I think we can then deal with the specific challenges that China poses from that position of strength, not a position of weakness.”

3:27 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

GOP Sen. Hawley blocks quick consideration of Biden's Homeland Security nominee

From CNN's Phil Mattinlgy

Sen. Josh Hawley in December.
Sen. Josh Hawley in December. Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley blocked the quick consideration of President-Elect Joe Biden’s Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas.

Mayorkas appeared before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee for his confirmation hearing.

Hawley released a statement following his actions, saying that Mayorkas "has not adequately explained how he will enforce federal law and secure the southern border given President-elect Biden’s promise to roll back major enforcement and security measures."

"Just today, he declined to say he would enforce the laws Congress has already passed to secure the border wall system. Given this, I cannot consent to skip the standard vetting process and fast-track this nomination when so many questions remain unanswered," he said.

The Missouri senator has fielded a wave of backlash in the days since Jan. 6, when he and other Republicans in Congress raised objections to the counting of some Electoral College votes for Joe Biden, pushing false claims of voter fraud that were echoed by members of the mob incited by President Trump.

3:24 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Louisiana State Capitol will be closed on Wednesday

From CNN's Kay Jones

A general view of the Louisiana State Capitol in April 2020.
A general view of the Louisiana State Capitol in April 2020. Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge will be closed on Wednesday.

The closure is "out of abundance of caution" and will only apply to Wednesday, according to the offices of house speaker Clay Schexnayder and Morgan Robertson, of the state senate. The capitol building will reopen on Thursday, both offices told CNN.

In a statement released on Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards said that federal, state and local officials have been in touch about warnings of planned protests. He said that "while so far no violence or lawlessness has occurred at protests in Louisiana, we are prepared and will respond as necessary."

As CNN previously reported, Edwards will be in attendance at Wednesday's inauguration ceremonies in Washington, DC. 

3:17 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Blinken: "No doubt" that China "poses the most significant challenge of any nation state" to US

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Nicky Robertson

Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP
Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said that “there is no doubt” that China “poses the most significant challenge of any nation state to the United States.”

Speaking at his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing, Blinken said the US had to “start by approaching China from a position of strength, not weakness.”

Part of that strength, he said, was in working with allies and engagement with international institutions.

3:13 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Blinken: US has "an urgent responsibility" to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Nicky Robertson

Alex Edelman/Pool via AP
Alex Edelman/Pool via AP

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said the incoming administration has “an urgent responsibility to do whatever we can to prevent Iran from acquiring record or getting weapon or getting close to the capacity to having the fissile material to break out on short notice."

He did not offer specific steps with regard to rejoining the Iran nuclear deal, telling lawmakers “we're a long way from there, we would have to see once the President-elect is in office what steps Iran actually takes and is prepared to take.”

He pledged to consult with Congress on actions related to the matter.

“In my judgment, the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] for whatever its limitations, was succeeding on its own terms in blocking Iran's pathways to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order,” he said at his confirmation hearing Tuesday.

“The challenge we face now is that we pulled out of the agreement,” Blinken said, noting the steps that Tehran had taken to reduce its compliance to the landmark agreement.

“And that potentially brings us right back to the crisis point that we were reaching before the deal was negotiated,” he continued. “And so, the President-elect believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would too. But, we would use that as a platform with our allies and partners who would once again be on the same side with us, to seek a longer and stronger agreement. And also, as you and the chairman have rightly pointed out to capture these other issues, particularly with regard to missiles and Iran's destabilizing activities. That would be the objective,” he said.


3:09 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Biden's pick for Defense secretary testifies at confirmation hearing

From CNN's Kate Sullivan

Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin is appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be considered for secretary of Defense. 

Austin, a retired Army general, is a former commander of the US Central Command. He would make history as the first Black person to lead the Pentagon, if confirmed by the Senate.

Austin would need a congressional waiver to be confirmed for this civilian post because federal law requires seven years of retirement from active duty before taking on the role, and he retired from active-duty service only four years ago. He has worked closely with Biden in the past.

While Biden was vice president, Austin served as the vice chief of staff of the Army and commanding general of US forces in Iraq, and later the commander of CENTCOM. Biden and Austin had discussions on a range of issues, including those in the Middle East and Central and South Asia.

Austin is among five of President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet nominees who are having confirmation hearings today.

Biden is set to take office tomorrow without key members of his Cabinet in place, as the Republican-controlled Senate has moved more slowly to schedule confirmation hearings for his nominees than it has for previous presidents. 

But the timeline for confirming Biden's nominees could accelerate in the coming days, when Democrats take control of the Senate.

3:02 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Democratic senator says Senate could install metal detectors outside chamber

From CNN's Ryan Nobles, Ali Zaslav and Phil Mattingly

Sen. Dic
Sen. Dic Alex Wong/Getty Images

Soon-to-be Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday the United States Capitol complex “will never be the same,” in terms of security after the Jan. 6 insurrection, even suggesting there will “probably” be metal detectors placed outside the Senate chamber, which have already been installed on the House side.

“There will be metal detectors in the House and probably in the Senate. There will be limited access to certain parts of the building. I’m sure that the guard of the perimeter of the building will be enhanced,” Durbin said as he left Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken’s confirmation hearing.

“We're reaching a point where it is — if we have to fear that some members will bring firearms on the floor or visitors will, then we have to take extra precautions,” Durbin said.

He also said, however, that he hasn’t spoken to incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer about placing metal detectors in front of the Senate chamber and it’s his decision.

When CNN's Ryan Nobles asked whether he shares concerns about some members of Congress being involved in the Capitol riot in the days leading up to it, Durbin replied that if any were involved “they need to be held personally responsible.” 

“I don’t have any evidence. I’ve heard the rumors,” he continued.

On Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s floor remarks today where he said President Trump “provoked” the Capitol attack, Durbin said that as days pass the Kentucky Republican gets “stronger in his rhetoric” about the events of Jan. 6. “I think he takes it very seriously,” Durbin said.

The Illinois Democrat said that he has his “fingers crossed” that Schumer and McConnell can reach a power-sharing agreement by the end of today, when asked by CNN’s Phil Mattingly. “The sooner the better,” he said, adding that it could take more than one negotiation session. 

Asked if he would support delaying the start of the impeachment trial, he replied: “I can support making sure that it fits into the rest of the schedule.. we need to get President Biden his team. America is in a terrible situation with this pandemic. We have issues of national security that are still in front of us.”

On timing of the impeachment trial and nominations on the Senate floor, Durbin said it’s up to leadership, but they will also need cooperation from senators.

2:54 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

12 US National Guard members removed from inauguration for questionable behavior

From CNN's Mike Callahan 

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Twelve National Guard members have been removed from the inauguration mission in Washington, DC, the chief of the National Guard Bureau said Tuesday. 

Two members were removed because of inappropriate comments or texts, but no specific details were given. Another 10 were removed for questionable behavior found in the vetting process. 

"I’m not concerned as a large part of our organization, if you look at 25,000, we’ve had 12 identified and some of those they are just looking into, it may be unrelated to this, but we want to make sure out of an abundance of caution as I stated earlier that we do the right thing until that gets cleared up," Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, Chief, National Guard Bureau said. 

Pentagon spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman reiterated the vetting process is in place.

"I don’t want to get into the actual vetting and what the partner organizations have found, but much of the information is, as the general mentioned, unrelated to the events taking place at the Capitol or to concerns that many people [have] on extremism. These are vetting efforts that identify any questionable behavior in the past, or any potential link to questionable behavior, not just related to extremism."
3:07 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Trump talked out of pardoning his kids and Republican lawmakers, sources say

From CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Kevin Liptak and Pamela Brown

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump received an unsettling warning on his final Saturday night in the White House.

Huddled for a lengthy meeting with his legal advisers, Trump was warned the pardons he once hoped to bestow upon his family and even himself would place him in a legally perilous position, convey the appearance of guilt and potentially make him more vulnerable to reprisals.

So, too, was Trump warned that pardons for Republican lawmakers who had sought them for their role in the Capitol insurrection would anger the very Senate Republicans who will determine his fate in an upcoming impeachment trial.

White House counsel Pat Cipollone and another attorney who represented Trump in his first impeachment trial, Eric Herschmann, offered the grave warnings as Trump, his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner listened. Other lawyers joined by telephone. They all told Trump he should not pardon himself, his family or any GOP lawmakers in a prospective manner unless he was prepared to list specific crimes.

Cipollone and former Attorney General William Barr both warned Trump earlier this month they did not believe he should pardon himself, multiple sources familiar with the matter told CNN last week. Barr conveyed this position to Trump before resigning last month, sources say.

Trump continued to bring the matter up in the ensuing days, even after officials believed the issue was resolved. But the sobering meeting on Saturday evening at the White House seemed the idea to rest.

While Trump often discards advice he doesn't agree with — particularly coming from Cipollone, with whom he has a fractured relationship — the message Saturday resonated. The conversation spooked Trump in a way few others have, a person familiar with his reaction told CNN.

Now, Trump will leave office muted and disheartened at being unable to wield the power he has cherished most while president. Boxed in by his own actions that helped spark the riots at the Capitol, Trump finds himself constrained in a way he mostly avoided for his entire tenure.

His final batch of pardons, due later today, is expected to contain few of the controversial or outlandish criminals that have characterized his earlier use of his clemency powers.

Trump could still change his mind, and retains his sweeping clemency powers until noon on Wednesday. Trump continues to bring up pardons that aides one thought were off the table, including for former strategy Steve Bannon, leading to general uncertainty about whether Trump will continue adhering to his lawyers' advice.

But White House officials and others familiar with the matter describe a muted President, concerned about his pending impeachment trial and swirling legal problems, who was talked out of his long-discussed notions following the Capitol insurrection.

Several Republican lawmakers who are alleged to have been involved in the rally that preceded the deadly riot on the US Capitol have sought clemency from Trump before he leaves office, but after meeting with his legal advisers for several hours on Saturday, Trump decided he would not grant them, according to two people familiar with his plans.

The fear of legal exposure is not limited to Republicans who promoted or spoke at the rally, including Reps. Andy Biggs, Mo Brooks and Paul Gosar. Those who participated, organized and fundraised for it are also concerned, sources told CNN, including his eldest son Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle, who both spoke at the rally.

Top figures associated with the groups that helped organize it — including Women for America First and Turning Point Action, the political action committee arm of Turning Point USA — have also voiced private concern about legal repercussions, a person familiar tells CNN.

Several of Trump's closest advisers have also urged him not to grant clemency to anyone who breached the US Capitol, despite Trump's initial stance that those involved had done nothing wrong.

As CNN has previously reported, one of the top organizers of the movement that aimed to overturn the election results claimed he worked closely with Republican congressmen. Ali Alexander, a leader of the "Stop the Steal" group, said in several livestream videos he planned the rally with Gosar and two other congressional Republicans, Mo Brooks of Alabama and Andy Biggs of Arizona.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins has more: