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 1:38 AM ET, Wed January 20, 2021
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6:47 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Defense secretary nominee calls China the "ascending" threat

From CNN's Oren Liebermann

Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images
Greg Nash/Pool/Getty Images

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be Defense secretary, called China the "ascending" threat facing the United States, describing it as the "pacing threat" to the military.

He then described Russia as a threat "in decline," but one still capable of doing damage "as we've seen here in recent days," referencing the hack of SolarWinds

The answer came in response to Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, who asked about the focus of the next National Defense Strategy, which will be formulated under the next Defense secretary's tenure.

"China presents the most significant threat going forward because China is ascending. Russia is also a threat, but it's in decline. It can still do a great deal of damage as we've seen here in recent days, and it's a country that we have to maintain some degree of focus on. But China is the pacing threat," said Austin. "It is the pacing issue — the pacing threat currently and I fully expect that it will remain so going forward."

6:38 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Austin says he will recuse himself from matters concerning Raytheon, where he served on the board

From CNN's Michael Conte

Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be Defense secretary, agreed to recuse himself from matters concerning defense contractor Raytheon, where he previously served on the board of directors, in response to questions by Sen. Elizabeth Warren at his confirmation hearing.

“Raytheon is one of the world’s largest defense contractors, and I’m sensitive to the appearance, concerns that you raise in this particular situation,” said Austin.

He said he did not expect for there to be a circumstance that would arise that would compel him to seek a waiver from his recusal, but if such a circumstance came up, he said, “I would consider available alternatives to a waiver before seeking one, and would consult very carefully with agency ethics officials.”

“I can pledge to you that I’ll be mindful not only of the legal requirements that govern my conduct, but also of the appearances to ensure that the public has no reason to question my impartiality,” said Austin. “And I’ll consult with the DOD career ethics officials on these issues and will require everyone that serves with me to ensure that public service is and will remain a public trust.”

Austin further said he did not intend to seek employment as a lobbyist or to sit on the board of a defense contractor after his service.

6:23 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

UK prime minister says he looks forward to working closely with Biden administration

From CNN’s Luke McGee

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, in a statement issued Tuesday ahead of US President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday, that he is looking forward to working closely with the new administration.

“I warmly congratulate Joe Biden on his historic inauguration as 46th President of the United States and look forward to working closely with his new administration as we defeat Covid and build back better from the pandemic,” Johnson said in a statement.

“In our fight against Covid and across climate change, defense, security and in promoting and defending democracy, our goals are the same and our nations will work hand in hand to achieve them,” the prime minister added.

“I look forward to welcoming him to Carbis Bay for the G7 and Glasgow for COP as we join forces to protect our planet. Only through international cooperation can we truly overcome the shared challenges which we face,” the statement continued.

6:16 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Blinken says Biden intends to extend US-Russia arms treaty

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Nicky Robertson

 Alex Edelman/Pool/Getty Images
 Alex Edelman/Pool/Getty Images

Antony Blinken said Tuesday that President-elect Joe Biden intends to seek an extension of the New START Treaty, but suggested he has not made a decision on the length of that extension. A full extension is five years. 

The landmark US-Russia arms treaty expires just 16 days after the inauguration.

The secretary of state-designate noted that Biden “couldn’t really engage” on the issue during the transition because he was “very cognizant of the fact we have one president at a time.”

Blinken told lawmakers that he believes “this is something that we will be coming to you on pretty much immediately as soon as the president is sworn-in, and I know that he does intend to seek an extension, and he’ll have to make a decision as President about what duration he would seek.”

The Trump administration went back and forth with the Russians on the terms of the longstanding treaty after efforts to create a new trilateral treaty with Russia and China failed.

6:11 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

McConnell and Schumer still at odds over power-sharing agreement

From CNN's Manu Raju

Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer are still trying to hash out an agreement on their power-agreement, which will detail how committees are structured and provide general guidance of how the 50-50 Senate will operate.

There are still several sticking points, according to multiple sources.

One sticking point: ensuring that the filibuster remains intact, which McConnell is demanding.

Schumer doesn't have the votes to gut the filibuster, since several centrist Democrats have rejected calls to use the nuclear option to reduce the threshold from 60 votes to 51.

But as part of these talks, McConnell is asking Schumer to reassure the GOP that they won't seek to do away with the potent stall tactic in the Democratic majority.

Schumer, in a statement from his spokesperson, indicated that he wants the power-sharing agreement to mirror the 2001 deal that was struck to govern how the 50-50 Senate operated. Schumer's spokesperson asserted that the Democratic leader wants to keep "extraneous changes" out of the power-sharing agreement.

6:10 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

The State Department has to be non-partisan, Blinken says

From CNN's Kylie Atwood and Nicholas Neville

Pool
Pool

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken said the State Department “has to be” a non-partisan institution, breaking sharply from his predecessor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who has repeatedly engaged in political activity while serving as America’s chief diplomat.

"I could not agree more strongly that with regard to the State Department it has to be, and if I have anything to say about it, it will be, a non-partisan institution that is seeking only to advance the national interest," said Blinken to Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine who pointed out Pompeo's political activity on the job.

Blinken noted that he started his career in Washington at the State Department and he was never able to tell if the State Department officials he worked with were Democrats, Republicans or independents.

“They are simply professionals who are working to advance the national interest,” Blinken said of the State Department staff. “If the person who purports to lead them is not doing the same thing I think we’ve got a problem.”

Kaine said that Pompeo has turned the secretary of state into a “partisan political position,” by doing things such as speaking at the Republican National Convention which violated policy he had laid down for the rest of the department. He read Blinken the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell who said he would not engage in political debates in his role as secretary. Blinken agreed.

“I strongly agree with Secretary Powell. And that is the model I would follow,” Blinken said.

Kaine said he will be “extremely disappointed” if he sees Blinken partake in campaign events for any Democrats including the president or the vice president.

“I would welcome you holding me to that,” Blinken said.

6:03 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Biden administration intends to join global vaccine effort, secretary of state nominee says

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Nicky Robertson

Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken said that the Biden administration intends to join the global vaccine effort spurned by the Trump administration.

That effort, known as COVAX, is led by the World Health Organization. President Trump cut ties with WHO, but President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin it.

“We believe strongly that we can do that ensure that every American gets the vaccine, but also help make sure that others around the world who want it have access to it,” Blinken said during his Senate confirmation hearing.

5:46 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

400 lights illuminate the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in tribute to Covid-19 victims

Evan Vucci/AP
Evan Vucci/AP

There are 400 lights illuminating the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool in tribute to the more than 400,000 people who have died from Covid-19 in the US.

Hundreds of towns, cities and communities across the country plan to join in the solemn tribute with lighting ceremonies of their own at buildings from the Empire State Building in New York to the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington.

6:15 p.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Biden grieves Covid-19 victims: "To heal, we must remember"

From CNN's Maureen Chowdhury

Pool
Pool

President-elect Joe Biden paid tribute to the thousands of lives lost to the Covid-19 pandemic at a memorial held by the reflecting pool at the Lincoln Memorial at the National Mall in Washington, DC.

Biden began his remarks by thanking a Michigan nurse, Lori Marie Key, who sang "Amazing Grace" at the memorial.

"If there are any angels in heaven, they're all nurses. We know from our family experience what you do, the courage and the pain you absorb for others. So, thank you. Thank you," Biden said.

"To heal, we must remember. It's hard sometimes to remember, but that's how we heal. It's important to do that as nation. That's why we're here today. Between sundown and dusk let us shine the lights in the darkness along the sacred pool of reflection and remember all those who we lost," Biden said before introducing Yolanda Adams, who performed "Hallelujah."

The National Mall along with other places of significance around the country lit up in honor of Covid-19 victims.

Watch the moment: