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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11:12 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Biden Homeland Security pick says threat of domestic terrorism "one of the greatest challenges" DHS faces

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez

Alejandro Mayorkas told lawmakers Tuesday during his confirmation hearing that the threat of domestic extremism “is one of the greatest challenges the Department of Homeland Security confronts, and it has unique capabilities in confronting that challenge.” 

In an exchange with Ranking Member Gary Peters, Mayorkas cited the Office of Intelligence and Analysis as a resource in combating extremism. 

“Its Office of Intelligence and Analysis is a critical partner with state and local, tribal and territorial governments in gathering information and intelligence about the threat that we face here at home and disseminating that information so that our brave and noble first responders are best equipped to tackle it. I look forward to playing a critical role in empowering the Office of intelligence and analysis in an apolitical non-partisan way to do its important job and tackle the, the threat that domestic extremism is today,” Mayorkas said. 
11:04 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Haines pledges to keep politics out of intelligence after Trump's wars with community

From CNN's Jeremy Herb, Vivian Salama and Michael Conte

Avril Haines, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee to be director of national intelligence, pledged Tuesday to turn the corner after President Trump’s warring with the intelligence community.

“To be effective, the DNI must never shy away from speaking truth to power — even, especially, when doing so may be inconvenient or difficult,” Haines said at her confirmation hearing Tuesday. “To safeguard the integrity of our intelligence community, the DNI must insist that, when it comes to intelligence, there is simply no place for politics ever.” 

The intelligence community Haines would lead upon her Senate confirmation has been frequently under assault from a President who has accused a so-called “deep state” of undermining his presidency, particularly when it came to Russia and his impeachment.  

Trump has fired officials in the intelligence community, and he placed a loyalist in the top intelligence post, John Ratcliffe, who clashed with career officials declassifying documents related to the FBI’s Russia investigation and the extent that Russia and China sought to interfere in the 2020 election.

Haines was introduced during her confirmation hearing by Dan Coats, Trump’s first director of national intelligence and a former GOP senator, who repeatedly clashed with Trump over Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

“Most important to me as former director of national intelligence,” Coats said of Haines’ qualifications, “is her commitment to bringing non-politicized truth to power and restoring trust and confidence in the intelligence community and the American public.”

A former deputy CIA director and deputy national security adviser under President Barack Obama, Haines would be the first woman to lead the intelligence community in a role that was created following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who will become chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, once Biden is sworn in Wednesday, said that Haines’ job will be to ensure the intelligence community “recovers” from the Trump era. 

“The dedicated men and women of the Intelligence Community have been through a lot over the last four years,” Warner said in his opening statement. “Our intelligence professionals have been unfairly maligned. Their expertise, knowledge and analysis has often been ignored or even sometimes ridiculed by a president who seems oftentimes uninterested in facts. Those who bravely spoke the truth were vilified, reassigned, fired or retaliated against.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the outgoing acting Republican chairman of the intelligence panel, did not mention Trump’s fights with the intelligence community in his opening statement, but said that it was important to fill the key national security role as quickly as possible.

In addition to pledging to restore trust both inside and outside the intelligence community, Haines noted the many challenges US intelligence agencies face, from China to the global Covid-19 pandemic to cybersecurity threats like the recent SolarWinds hack. 

“We must strengthen our cybersecurity, safeguard our critical infrastructure, and turn the ongoing technological revolution from a threat to an advantage by integrating new technologies to improve the capacity and superiority of our intelligence into the future,” Haines said.

Haines is likely to be among the first Biden Cabinet officials to be confirmed by the Senate, and there’s expected to be little-if-any opposition to her nomination.

The Intelligence Committee had initially sought to schedule her confirmation hearing last Friday in order to expedite the process, but a senator objected to holding the hearing virtually, leading to Tuesday’s in-person session.

10:56 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

GOP Senator says it's unconstitutional to convict Trump once he's out of office

From CNN's Lauren Fox

Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Iowa, told reporters at the Capitol that she does not believe that it is Constitutional to convict a former President in an impeachment trial. She joins Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, in that view.

Ernst said her priority is to move ahead with nominations and not to spend time on an impeachment trial now that Trump is leaving office. 

"Why are we doing this when the President is out of office?" she asked.

Asked if she believes it is Constitutional to convict Trump once he’s out of office, she said "I don’t think it is." 

"I have read arguments on both sides, but he is not our President after tomorrow," she added.

Ernst said it is time to "start healing."

Ernst’s comments underscore a growing segment of the GOP conference. While many members have made it clear they are frustrated by Trump’s actions on Jan. 6 and some even find him responsible for what occurred, Republicans are finding a way to straddle a middle ground by saying that while they don’t approve of Trump’s actions, they don’t think it is Constitutional to convict a President once they have left office.

There are competing academic arguments on this point. The Constitution nor Senate Rules are 100% clear, but it’s something that members on both sides have spent quite a bit of time in recent days digging into. 

11:26 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Republican senator kicks off confirmation hearing with Mayorkas visa controversy

From CNN's Geneva Sands

Sen. Rob Portman questions Alejandro Mayorkas during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday, January 19, in Washington, DC.
Sen. Rob Portman questions Alejandro Mayorkas during the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday, January 19, in Washington, DC. Bill Clark/Pool/Getty Images

Sen. Rob Portman, Republican from Ohio, dredged up Alejandro Mayorkas’ controversial past as he opened the nomination hearing for President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Homeland Security Secretary. 

Portman raised concerns about Mayorkas’ role in a visa scandal while he led US Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Obama administration. 

“This is not the first time Mr. Mayorkas has been before this committee as a nominee. In July 2013, his committee considered his nomination to be deputy, Deputy Secretary of DHS while he was under investigation by the Inspector General for exerting improper influence in the EB-5 investor visa process in his role as director of US Citizenship and Immigration Services,” said Portman. “As a result, Mr. Mayorkas his nomination was reported out of this committee on a strict party line vote with no Republican support. He was later confirmed by the Senate and the same way -- party line with no Republican support.”

More context: During his time at USCIS, Mayorkas was accused of "giving special access and treatment" to wealthy foreign investors with ties to politically connected people, according to a watchdog report that cited concerns from more than a dozen employees.

At the time, the DHS inspector general was unable to determine Mayorkas' motives for his actions and found each of the decisions was "legitimately within his purview." He had wide discretion in overseeing the EB-5 visa program.

A transition spokesperson previously told CNN that Mayorkas took steps to reform the visa program and "strengthen the quality and integrity of the process."'

“Today we have the findings of that Inspector General’s report, and they are concerning,” Portman said, adding that he would give Mayorkas the opportunity to respond to the allegations. 

10:45 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Top senators on Homeland Security Committee underscore need for leadership at agency

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez and Nicky Robertson

Top senators on the Senate Homeland Security Committee used their opening remarks to underscore the need for leadership at the Department of Homeland Security, which has been rattled by constant leadership turnover amid national security concerns. 

"There’s no question we need strong and we need stable leadership in the Department of Homeland Security now more than ever. Over the last four years the department has endured some chaos, mismanagement and instability, and as our third largest federal agency with more than 240,000 employees DHS is in desperate need of principled leadership. The turmoil and uncertainty at DHS headquarters has only been compounded by the security threats that are facing our nation," said Ranking Member Gary Peters, a Democrat, during the confirmation hearing for Alejandro Mayorkas. 

Mayorkas was tapped by President-elect Joe Biden to head DHS and would be the first Latino and immigrant to serve at the helm of the department if confirmed.

Under Trump, DHS has had six secretaries and hasn’t had a Senate confirmed secretary since April 2019.

 

10:40 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Republican responsible for overseeing inauguration says he feels good about security ahead of tomorrow

From CNN's Ali Zaslav

Sen. Roy Blunt speaks at a press conference with Senate leaders at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 15, 2020.
Sen. Roy Blunt speaks at a press conference with Senate leaders at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on December 15, 2020. Caroline Brehman/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, chair of the joint congressional inauguration committee that oversees planning of the ceremony, said ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration tomorrow that he feels “good about where we are on security.”

“It's clearly always a moment of where our government is most — at its most vulnerable, but also an important moment where we project, our strength as a democracy,” Blunt said before the Senate Intelligence Committee’s nomination hearing for Biden’s DNI pick Avril Haines on Tuesday.
10:38 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Senate Republican says we'll know more on impeachment "later today"

From CNN's Annie Grayer

Sen. John Thune speaks during a Senate subcommittee hearing on December 10, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Sen. John Thune speaks during a Senate subcommittee hearing on December 10, 2020, in Washington, DC. Samuel Corum/Pool/Getty Images

Sen. John Thune, the Republican whip, told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday that the timing for an impeachment trial is “still being discussed” between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

“I don’t think there’s any particular strategy at this point. We’ll know more later today," he said. 

Thune did not answer a reporter's question when asked how quickly he could process Biden's nominations.

10:32 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Watch confirmation hearings for Biden's picks to lead treasury, homeland security and intelligence community

From CNN's Kate Sullivan

President-elect Joe Biden's nominees for secretary of the treasury, director of national intelligence and secretary of Homeland Security are appearing now before Senate committees to be considered for their respective roles.

You can watch the hearings here:

  • Janet Yellen appears before the Senate Finance Committee to be considered for treasury secretary. Watch here.
  •  Avril Haines appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee to be considered for director of national intelligence. Watch here.
  • Alejandro Mayorkas appears before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee to be considered for secretary of Homeland Security. Watch here.

Later on in the day, Antony Blinken will appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be considered for secretary of state and Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee to be considered for secretary of defense.

11:21 a.m. ET, January 19, 2021

Biden's nominee for director of national intelligence is appearing now before a Senate panel

From CNN's Kate Sullivan

Avril Haines speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 19, in Washington, DC.
Avril Haines speaks during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 19, in Washington, DC. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Avril Haines is appearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee to be considered for director of national intelligence.

If confirmed, she would become the first woman to be director of national intelligence.

Haines served as assistant to the president and principal deputy national security adviser to President Barack Obama.

She chaired the National Security Council's Deputies Committee, which is responsible for formulating the administration's national security and foreign policy.

Haines previously served as the deputy director of the CIA. She was also legal adviser to the National Security Council. She served as deputy chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while Biden was chairman.

Biden is set to take office on Wednesday 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.