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News Brief: Inauguration Day, Trump Issues Pardons, COVID-19 Variant

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Precisely at noon today, Joe Biden becomes the nation's 46th president.

NOEL KING, HOST:

Chief Justice John Roberts will lead Biden through the oath of office. Roberts did the same for Donald Trump and, before him, Barack Obama. That's one piece of continuity in an otherwise unusual inauguration. Biden will take the oath on the same stage where rioters who'd been incited by President Trump swarmed the Capitol this month. The National Mall will be filled with flags representing people who can't come because of the pandemic. And on the night before their inaugurations, other presidents have held celebrations at the Lincoln Memorial. Last night, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris went there to honor people who died of COVID.

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JOE BIDEN: To heal, we must remember. It's hard sometimes to remember. But that's how we heal. It's important to do that as a nation.

KING: Biden has repeatedly said the pandemic will be his top priority.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Scott Detrow is part of our team covering the inauguration at the U.S. Capitol today. And. Scott, where are you this morning?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Well, there's enormous security around the Capitol. And as a sign of that, I'm actually in the basement of the Senate building right now trying to make my way through the intense security. There's been a little bit of a mix up. That is a sign of how seriously they're taking this. Walking into the building this morning, I passed fences with barbed wire, multiple security barriers, National Guardsmen all over - on duty, standing there with their rifles, off duty, sleeping in the hallways. This is, for all intents and purposes, an occupied zone right now.

INSKEEP: And the intent being, of course, to avoid any effort to repeat the attack on the Capitol on January 6. But with that said, the inauguration is going ahead. Of course, we will have coverage of that on NPR stations throughout the day. And then Joe Biden heads off to the White House and expects to get things done today. What's he going to do?

DETROW: This is going to be a working day for Biden. He's going to find 17 executive orders in the Oval Office later today covering a wide range of areas. Just to name a few big ones - on COVID, he's going to rejoin the WHO and require masks on federal property and interstate travel; on climate and the environment, he's going to rejoin the Paris climate agreement. That's something he promised for more than a year now to do on his first day. He's going to start the process of undoing 100 Trump administration environmental rules. And he's going to revoke the presidential permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. And on racial justice, just to name one thing, he's going to revoke the Trump administration's order limiting diversity training and is also going to send a sweeping immigration proposal to Congress. Along with many other things, it would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented people living in the country.

INSKEEP: OK. And we should mention that the president-elect is already in Washington, D.C., traveled over from Delaware yesterday. And as he departed, this is some of what he had to say.

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BIDEN: I am proud, proud, proud, proud to be a son of Delaware. And I am even more proud to be standing here doing this from the Major Beau Biden Facility. Ladies and gentlemen, I only have one regret. He's not here. Because we should be introducing him as president.

INSKEEP: Beau Biden, of course, his son, died a few years ago. Joe Biden as a parent and Jill Biden had to bury a son. The president-elect speaks as president at midday today. Scott, what's on his mind?

DETROW: You know, he has given a series of big-picture speeches about trying to bring the country back together, and those give us a good sense of what will be in this inaugural address. Two themes that you can expect to hear - one constant theme he's talked about is that America is flawed but has always gradually worked toward the (unintelligible) founding; the other, that the country has the ability to deescalate this political tension right now, to start to see each other again and solve some of these enormous problems. I expect big themes like that today.

INSKEEP: Scott, have you made any progress through the security, even as we've been speaking the last few minutes?

DETROW: Well, the next step was to go down several flights of stairs. So I decided to stay here to stay on the line with you and cell service but hopefully next.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, when you get through to the other side, we'll be listening for your coverage throughout the day. Thanks so much.

DETROW: Thank you.

INSKEEP: NPR's White House correspondent Scott Detrow.

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INSKEEP: All right. Now, once Joe Biden is sworn in as president, Donald Trump will be a private citizen living in Florida.

KING: On his way out, Trump is using some of the powers of his office. He issued last-minute clemency to 143 people last night, including Steve Bannon, an on-again, off-again ally.

INSKEEP: And let's go to NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, who is not on-again, off-again. She's just on. She's on, always on with us. Hi there, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: All hours. Good morning.

INSKEEP: All hours. So quite a list of pardons - 143. Can you talk us through at least a few of them?

KEITH: Well, you know, there had been talk of Trump pardoning himself or his adult children, but as of 5:12 a.m. today, that didn't happen. Still, he followed a pattern that he has throughout his presidency - rewarding friends and political allies, even celebrities, with pardons and clemency. The big names are, as you say, Steve Bannon, who was indicted for allegedly defrauding hundreds of thousands of people in an online campaign to raise funds for building a wall on the southern border, then pocketing some of the money. He was one of the architects of Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and then fell out of favor with the president but worked his way back in in recent - like, in the last year, in part by publicly defending the president during his first impeachment.

There's Elliott Broidy, a big Republican donor who previously pled guilty to conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws, and also a handful of former Republican lawmakers and former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. And then there are the celebrities. Trump granted a pardon to rapper Lil Wayne, who pled guilty to weapons charges and also endorsed President Trump during his 2020 campaign. The rapper known as Kodak Black and Michael "Harry-O" Harris, the co-founder of Death Row Records, also had his sentence commuted.

INSKEEP: Tam, I'm thinking of a statement by Republican Senator Lamar Alexander a few weeks back. He said to Donald Trump, when you're in public life, people remember the last thing you do. He was trying to urge the president not to challenge his obvious defeat in the election. Well, the last thing the president has done, the last major thing the president has done, is incite a violent attack on democracy. How is that affecting his farewell?

KEITH: You know, he is isolated. He's not going to the inauguration. He is throwing himself a departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews this morning. But many Republicans won't be there. The vice president isn't going to be there. And top Republican leaders in the House and Senate, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell, they will not be there. They're going to mass with Joe Biden this morning. And both have publicly rebuked him for the riot, which also led them to have to evacuate the Capitol.

INSKEEP: And let's just listen to a little bit of Mitch McConnell speaking about that yesterday on the Senate floor.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.

INSKEEP: This was a powerful speech by the Republican Senate leader, Tam, not only saying flat-out that they were lies but also saying flat-out that the president provoked the crowd.

KEITH: And this is the question at the center of what will be former President Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate coming up very soon.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome.

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INSKEEP: OK. The coronavirus death toll in the United States stands at more than 400,000 now, and the virus has killed more than 100,000 of those people in the past five weeks alone.

KING: Things are especially bad in California, where health officials are worried that a new COVID variant is contributing to a surge in cases there. This variant is more contagious and there are more variants emerging all across the world.

INSKEEP: Which is a story that NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff is following. Good morning.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how many variants are there?

DOUCLEFF: So, yes, there are many variants of the virus. Every region has slightly different versions of the virus circulating around. The vast majority of these variants are not a concern at all. They don't behave any differently than previous versions of the virus.

INSKEEP: You said the vast majority. Why are scientists sometimes worried here?

DOUCLEFF: Well, in the past month or so, three variants have cropped up on three different continents that do seem to behave differently from the rest. They seem to be more dangerous, more contagious, and they could possibly evade the immune system more easily. Scientists are calling these variants variants of concern, and they don't contain just one or two mutations. They contain about 20. And the most worrying thing is that some of those mutations are similar across all three variants. So it's like the virus has figured out independently at least three times now the same way to kind of spread more easily. Scientists call this convergent evolution. And I talked to Ravi Gupta about this. He's a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge and helped detect the U.K. variant. He says the rise of convergent evolution could possibly prolong the pandemic.

RAVI GUPTA: It is worrying because I don't think there's going to be a single solution that just kind of comes along in 2021 and says, that's it, we're done. That's not what's going to happen now. We are going to be in a cat-and-mouse game with the virus for a while.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So the cat-and-mouse game is like, can we get enough people vaccinated before these variants take off?

INSKEEP: And I guess we're hoping and assuming that the vaccine is still effective against these variants, that that's not a variation so great that the vaccine itself would have to be changed.

DOUCLEFF: Well, yes.

INSKEEP: And what variants are scientists particularly worried about?

DOUCLEFF: Yes. So there's one in the U.K. which is highly contagious and is now circulating in the U.S. at low levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predict it will cause surges in March if communities don't get enough of the population vaccinated. There's also a variant spreading in South Africa and two in Brazil, which have mutations in them which in the lab can decrease the ability of antibodies to neutralize the virus. And so what's worrying about that is that, yes, these variants may more easily reinfect a person who's already been sick and possibly make the vaccine a little less effective.

INSKEEP: Oh, that doesn't sound good.

DOUCLEFF: Yes. Well, remember, Steve, that these vaccines are highly effective. So a little drop in efficacy, they will still work. And in fact, everyone I spoke to said with the rise of these variants, getting vaccinated is even more important than ever before.

INSKEEP: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff, thanks so much for the update.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "DYING LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.