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News Brief: Inauguration Is A Day Away, Confirmation Hearings, Migrant Caravan


We haven't heard much from President Trump in his last few days in office.


He's had less to say since Twitter cut him off, and he hasn't appeared in public since taking a trip to the border wall one week ago. The president has had some meetings, including one with a pillow salesman who, according to news reports, brought by one last proposal for a coup. The departing president also released the 1776 report arguing his administration's view of the greatness of American history. And he's been making last-minute personnel and policy changes to leave Joe Biden's incoming administration. We do not yet know how the president might use this, his final full day in office. He still has the power of the pardon. But we do know that Congress has a lot of work to do on this day.

KING: Yes, it does. And with us now to talk some of it through, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Good morning to you both.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning.


KING: Sue, let's start in the Senate because they sure have a lot to get done in the first days of the Biden administration. What is first on their agenda?

DAVIS: Well, today starts the confirmation process for Biden administration nominees. There's going to be five hearings happening on Capitol Hill today for Lloyd Austin at Defense, Tony Blinken at State, Avril Haines as director of National Intelligence, Alejandro Mayorkas at Homeland Security and Janet Yellen at Treasury. The focus with these early hearings is obviously tasked with the national security and economic team. I would say these are all nominees probably expected to get through the Senate pretty easily. Senate Republicans haven't raised many concerns about them, and most of them have already been through a confirmation process for other government jobs.

The Senate's still in a bit of political limbo, Noel. It hasn't formalized its incoming Democratic majority yet. Democrats hope that there are three new senators are going to be sworn in on Inauguration Day and that would officially seal the 50/50 majority. The first order of business is what's called an organizing resolution. They need to work out the terms of their new majority. That includes things like how many seats each party gets on their committees. And, of course, there's a pending Senate impeachment trial against outgoing President Donald Trump that's likely to start in the coming days.

KING: And Mara, do we have any sense of what President Trump might be getting up to in the next 24 hours?

LIASSON: No, he's been very quiet. He doesn't have his Twitter feed, but of course, he still has the bully pulpit. If he wanted to talk to America, he could summon a whole bunch of cameras at a moment's notice. But he has been quiet. We are waiting to see what kind of final pardons he offers. There could be a lot of them. All presidents do these last-minute pardons. Many of them have been controversial in the past. Some presidents give pardons to their friends and associates, but no one has used the presidential pardon in this manner as much as Donald Trump. Trump will also be the first president since Andrew Johnson not to go to the inauguration of his successor. We're told he'll leave the White House tomorrow morning. He'll have a departure ceremony of some sort at Joint Base Andrews. Then he'll fly to Florida and land there before Joe Biden is sworn in. After that, we don't know what he's going to do. He has a very ardent base of followers, loyalists all through the Republican Party apparatus, the RNC and the state parties. And he'll have a superPAC where he can fund his activities. So like Trump likes to say, we will see what happens.

KING: We will see what happens. In the meantime, Joe Biden is coming to Washington today. And I mean, you live in the city. What is he going to encounter here?

LIASSON: Well, first of all, he couldn't take his beloved Amtrak. Remember, he, as a senator, used to commute by Amtrak back and forth from Delaware. And that's because of security concerns. Not only is downtown Washington an armed camp because of the violent insurrection at the Capitol, he's also going to have a relatively depopulated inauguration celebration because of the pandemic. And his inauguration marks the first time in American history without a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.

KING: Yeah, to that point, I mean, Biden ran on uniting the country, but it will be right there in his line of sight when he sees those many, many National Guard troops, that that's not going to be that easy.

LIASSON: That's right. Of the many challenges and crises Biden is facing, one of the biggest ones is the fact that so many people do not accept his election. The latest NPR/Marist/PBS poll showed that 65% of Americans believe he was legitimately elected, but 70% of Republicans don't. Even though the election wasn't close, they believe the falsehood that somehow Trump won and had the election stolen from him. So that means that this idea that Biden ran on of restoring the soul of America - a lot of people thought that was kind of corny when he announced it, he said he ran because Donald Trump praised white supremacists after Charlottesville - that's more important than ever. And Biden's aides say the way he's going to try to heal the divisions and unite the country is by being honest and transparent and using the government to help ordinary people, first and foremost, as he puts it, managing the hell out of the pandemic, getting a vaccine program up and running.

KING: OK. So, Sue, in the meantime, one of the big we will sees is the impeachment trial where senators will serve as jurors. Do we know when that's going to happen?

DAVIS: Well, a Senate trial is triggered once the House formally notifies the Senate that someone has been impeached, and then the Senate has to go into a trial; they don't have a choice. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is essentially holding off on sending those until incoming Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer's ready for them. We are expecting that to happen in days, not weeks, but we don't have a certain timetable yet. You know, Democrats want to try and find some agreements with Republicans on how this trial is going to go. They're hoping to be able to split the schedule to try to do things like confirm those nominees in the morning before the Senate impeachment trial has to begin at 1 o'clock every day. It has to go six days a week until a verdict is reached. And they're going to need some bipartisan buy-in for this to go smoothly. Keep in mind, the president's first impeachment trial ran about three weeks. And I haven't talked to anyone who expects it to go much longer than that.

KING: OK. And then on the timing of the first 100 days, what does Chuck Schumer plan to do with the legislative agenda?

DAVIS: Well, the first order of business is Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill. And Democrats see this as a big and early test for this 50/50 Senate over whether they're going to be able to get any buy-in from Republicans to move legislation over the next two years or if it's just going to be hard party-line votes the whole time.

KING: And then, Mara, what do Joe Biden's first 100 days look like?

LIASSON: He's going to start with a flurry of executive orders; all presidents do that. Often many of them undo the executive orders of their predecessors. But he also has a pledge to deliver 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days. His aides are confident that they can both manufacture and administer those doses. So there's a lot of things that he plans to do on his own. But as Sue said, he needs congressional buy-in if he's going to pass legislation for his rescue act. And also he's planning to send up his immigration plan, which includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, to Congress on day one. As for impeachment, Biden's aides say they're determined to keep it at arm's length, focus on the pandemic, leave impeachment to Congress.

KING: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson and congressional correspondent Sue Davis. Thank you both.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

LIASSON: You're welcome.


KING: All right. Speaking of immigration, a group of migrants from Honduras, as many as 9,000 people, have crossed into Guatemala since Friday.

INKSEEP: Yeah. They were trying to head toward Mexico and, beyond that, the border of the United States. Guatemalan authorities tried to stop them. Police and soldiers beat them with batons and used tear gas. Many turned back.

KING: Freelance journalist Maria Martin has been following the story from Guatemala. Good morning, Maria.

MARIA MARTIN: Good morning.

KING: What is going on down there at the border between Guatemala and Honduras? What happened?

MARTIN: Well, what's been going on for the last few days is this - thousands of mostly Honduran migrants - it's estimated that as many as 9,000 were in the country at one point - had been able to get across the border beginning last week and this weekend when their numbers just overwhelmed security guards at an outpost between Guatemala and Honduras. Many of the migrants are young men carrying nothing but a small backpack. But there are also families, women pushing strollers with infants, even some older people in wheelchairs. There were the clashes that you mentioned. And for most of Monday, there was a standoff between the security forces in Guatemala and the migrants who were blocking a major highway. The migrants were given an ultimatum to move. Now, the Guatemalan government says that the migrants have finally been dispersed. Many have been transported back to the Honduran border, and others have broken away from the group and are trying to make their way north to Mexico and the U.S. But the Mexican government vows not to let the migrants enter their territory.

KING: OK. So it sounds like a state of disarray. I'm struck by this image of women with infants and older people in wheelchairs. What is going on in Honduras that these people are fleeing?

MARTIN: Many of these people are very, very low-income people. Most left the San Pedro Sula area of Honduras. Honduras is, of course, one of the poorest, most violent, most corrupt countries in the Americas and one of the areas hardest hit by the two hurricanes that struck Central America in November and October. I spoke with Father Ismael Moreno, known as Father Melo, who runs an independent radio station in the region.

ISMAEL MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

MARTIN: So with the hurricanes and the pandemics, says Padre Melo, thousands of Hondurans were left without jobs, homes and with no opportunities to get ahead. So many of the migrants say there was nothing for them in Honduras, that they were prepared for anything that the journey to the U.S. might have had in store for them, and that faced with a life of misery, violence and corruption in Honduras, they might try again.

KING: I wonder about the timing and whether it has anything to do with the fact that the U.S. is transitioning from President Trump to Joe Biden.

MARTIN: Well, actually, caravans gained strength during the Trump administration, despite the hard-line immigration policies. That's because people see migrating in caravans as a kind of safety in numbers proposition and cheaper than paying a smuggler. Of course, many do see hope for better treatment of migrants under Biden. But the timing, I think, has more to do with the devastation of the hurricanes, the pandemic, the lack of assistance coming from the Honduran government and its continuing corruption and, as Father Melo says, the misery and desperation of so many in Honduras.

KING: So the people who managed to flee the border, go deeper into Guatemala, they are still headed for the Mexican border. And what then?

MARTIN: Well, those who managed to evade the security round up and might make it to the border, they'll face heavy military presence and Mexico's resolve not to let them enter that country.

KING: Maria Martin in Guatemala. Thank you, Maria.

MARTIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.