The latest on the Biden presidency

By Meg Wagner, Melissa Macaya, Veronica Rocha and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 8:35 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021
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7:27 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

Senate Republicans say Trump should be held accountable for riot — but not by them

From CNN's Manu Raju, with additional reporting from Aaron Pellish 

To Senate Minority Whip John Thune, former President Donald Trump’s actions ahead of the deadly Capitol riot are totally indefensible.

“No – not at all,” the No. 2 Republican said when asked if he can defend what Trump did. “The way he handled the post-election, both in terms of his public statements and things that he tried to do to change the outcome, no.”

But like other Republicans, Thune has no clear answer to this key question: What should they do to Trump after he lied to his supporters into thinking the election was stolen, promoted the Jan. 6 rally and urged the demonstrators to go to the Capitol, which they later rampaged in a deadly riot?

“Well, that’s a good question,” said Thune, who faces reelection in South Dakota next year. “One way obviously would be in a court of law.”

As the impeachment trial for Trump gets underway, Senate Republicans are both criticizing Trump without doing anything about his actions, hoping to both put distance between themselves and Trump without casting any votes that could cause a backlash from the former President and his fervent supporters. Many say something should be done about what Trump did – but just not by them.

When asked about Trump’s actions in relation to the Jan. 6 riots on Capitol Hill, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a member of leadership, said: “I’m not going to defend them.”

“I think he’s been held accountable in the court of public opinion already,” Cornyn said when asked if the Senate should take any actions, arguing it would set a “dangerous precedent” to convict a former President.

The rhetoric showcases the split between House and Senate Republicans as the party struggles to find its voice after the tumultuous Trump era. Many House Republicans remain staunch Trump defenders, saying he did nothing wrong and shouldn’t be blamed for the violence that occurred in the Capitol.

“President Trump did not cause the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6,” freshman Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the controversial Georgia Republican, told her supporters this week.

A majority of House Republicans backed the efforts to throw out President Biden's electoral victories in two key states, while just a handful did in the Senate. After House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy walked back his criticism of Trump and made a jaunt to South Florida Wednesday to meet with the former President, he went out of his way to proclaim they were united in their fight to take back the House next year. Back in Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear this week he hasn’t spoken to Trump since Dec. 15, and it’s unclear if he ever will again.

Yet with the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection facing a sharp backlash from the right, Senate Republicans are well aware that they would face the same fate if they voted to convict next month. And McConnell, who has privately told associates he thinks Trump committed an impeachable offense, refused to say so publicly when CNN asked him on Tuesday – and he later voted with fellow Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul on a procedural motion this week aimed at dismissing the trial. 

With the trial set to begin Feb. 9, just five Republicans voted to kill a procedural motion offered by Paul aimed at dismissing the trial on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional. Paul told CNN that he informed the Republican cloakroom the night before the vote about his plans, a move that allowed most Republicans to quickly align themselves behind their message that the Senate had no role in holding a trial once a President has left office. 

The five who voted against Paul’s effort included one who is retiring (Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania), three who either haven’t said if they voted for Trump in November or voted for someone else (Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Ben Sasse of Nebraska) and another who voted to convict Trump in his first impeachment trial (Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah). Several of them argued that there is precedent for the Senate trying former federal office holders, a key point that Democratic impeachment managers plan to make during the trial.

But with that vote, both sides agree there’s virtually no path to the 67 votes needed to convict Trump, and also bar him from office, given that Democrats hold just 50 seats in the chamber.

“I’ve already condemned them,” GOP Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said when asked if he could defend Trump’s actions.

Asked then what Republicans should do about it, Cassidy said: “There is something in our nation called due process and there are things called kangaroo courts. We don't need a kangaroo court." 

Indiana Sen. Mike Braun initially signed onto objecting to Arizona’s electoral results but then dropped that effort after the rioters broke into the Capitol. Yet, he also is doing the Senate GOP dance: Criticizing Trump while indicating he won’t convict.

“I think most would have a lot of trouble saying there was no connection” between Trump’s actions and the deadly violence, Braun said. But the Indiana Republican contended he was worried about convicting someone no longer in office. “To me, it’s a terrible precedent to set. He’s not here, he’s a private citizen.”

Asked how they should hold Trump accountable now, Braun said: “I think he’s going to be held accountable in the way that people sort him out with whatever he intends to do in the future.”

5:35 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

Congresswoman: Democrats will work with GOP on stimulus but "we need to get the job done"

From CNN's Josiah Ryan

CNN
CNN

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee told CNN today Democrats want to work with Republicans on the next round of stimulus for Americans suffering from the Covid-19 crisis, but suggested they are willing to forge ahead without bipartisan support if necessary.

"We will take the lead from the President," said Lee, a member of the key House Budget Committee. "He wants it done. He wants it done legally and bipartisan. He wants it done where we collaborate as Americans, but frankly it has to get done."

"People are hurting all over America," she added. "They are hurting with different economic levels."

The Texas Democrat also addressed concerns that President Biden's administration has moved too quickly to unilaterally issue executive orders, saying "Republicans have to understand that elections have consequences."

"We're ready to work with Republicans but we've got to get the job done," she concluded, speaking of both stimulus negations and Biden's executive orders.

Watch here:

3:27 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

Russian president signs law on extending nuclear arms control agreement with US

From CNN’s Zahra Ullah

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law on Friday ratifying the extension of the New START Treaty with the US for five years until Feb. 5, 2026, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The treaty is a key nuclear arms control agreement, the last major pact of its kind between Russia and the US, following the US pulling out of the INF treaty during the Trump administration. 

Some background: Putin and President Biden spoke on the phone on Tuesday expressing “satisfaction” over the exchange of diplomatic notes between both countries on extending the treaty. A bill was submitted on the same day of the phone call to Russia’s Parliament on ratifying the agreement on extending the treaty for five years, due to expire next week. 

The Russian parliament voted to ratify the extension on Wednesday. The treaty was first signed for a period of ten years in Prague on April 8, 2010, and took effect on Feb. 5, 2011.

The treaty limits the number of “strategic offensive weapons” both countries can have. The Kremlin’s statement outlines the limitations, each side should have no more than a total of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers, no more than 1,550 warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs and heavy bombers for nuclear armaments and a total of 800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers.

2:39 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

Organizers of Capitol Hill staff letter on impeachment changed language to appeal to more GOP staffers

From CNN's Annie Grayer and Ali Zaslav

Organizers of a staff-led letter being drafted to send to senators urging them to vote to convict former President Trump have changed the opening lines of the letter to try to appeal to more Republican staffers and make them more comfortable to signing on. The Senate impeachment trial is set to begin Feb. 9.

There are currently approximately 250 signatures on the letter, which an organizer confirmed was “predominantly” Democratic staffers.

The new opening lines of the letter, which also addresses the Senate staffers starting to sign on, reads, “we write this letter to share our own views and experiences, not the views of our employers.”

A staffer familiar with the organizing of the letter explained why that line was added into the latest draft.

“As this letter has circulated, we’ve been working to ensure that more staff feel comfortable signing and opening it up to as much staff as possible, which is why there is amended language to include US Senate staff and also the line that these views and experiences are the views and experiences of staff, and not the views of our employers,” the staffer told CNN.

The staffer involved in the letter’s organizing also told CNN that making this available to both chambers would also ideally help encourage Republican staffers to sign on.

“This letter has made its way to both chambers. We’re hoping that empowers staff of both sides of the aisle to sign on because the trauma knows no bounds to what happened. And the only way move forward is if it is viewed through that lens and there is accountability. And there is an opportunity for there to be accountability here.”

On the reason why Senate staffers were added as co-signers of the letter, the staffer familiar told CNN, “it was noticeable that Senate staff started to sign on, so organizers of the letter changed the language to reflect that.”

The rest of the letter remains the same as the first draft that CNN initially reported on.

2:35 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

Biden is visiting wounded vets and seeing vaccine distribution efforts at Walter Reed this afternoon

From CNN's Nikki Carvajal 

Before leaving for Walter Reed National Military Medical Center today, President Biden told reporters he planned to visit wounded veterans and see Covid-19 vaccine distribution in action.  

“I’ve been at Walter Reed a lot,” Biden said. “I spent almost 6 months there myself as a patient, and in addition to that, as Vice President, every single Christmas we spent all of Christmas Day at Walter Reed.”

The President’s late son Beau Biden was treated for cancer at Walter Reed before he died in 2015. 

“These kids are amazing,” he said of the patients at the military medical center. “Thank God there’s not as many people to visit, so I’ll the people I’m seeing today who are being treated, four of them amputees, are people who are in fact retired.”

“They’re real heroes,” he added. 

2:34 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

Biden doesn't rule out reconciliation to get Covid relief and says it must pass with "no ifs, ands or buts"

From CNN's Allie Malloy 

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

President Joe Biden said his Covid-19 stimulus bill needs to pass with no “ifs, ands or buts” when asked whether he supported using reconciliation to pass the bill. 

Biden wouldn’t directly answer the question of reconciliation, which is an arcane budget process that would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority of Democrats, but he made his position fairly clear-answering, “I support passing Covid relief with support from Republicans if we can get it. But the Covid relief has to pass. There’s no ifs, ands or buts.”

Senate Democrats are staring down a massive undertaking as they plan to push ahead with reconciliation, a process that will be an early test of party unity even if it allows them to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid relief proposal without any Republican votes.

New Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has absolutely no room for error and he must convince every single Democrat to vote together or risk letting Biden's first legislative priority falter under his leadership.

The House and Senate could move as soon as next week on a budget resolution that gives committees instructions to begin work on the $1.9 trillion relief bill.

While not every Democrat has publicly voiced how they would vote on the resolution and the price tag of the bill is still up for debate, many have said they are comfortable taking that first step even if they have concerns about what will ultimately end up being included in a package.

2:21 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

Federal judge likely to extend hold on Biden's deportation pause

From CNN's Priscilla Alvarez

A federal judge in Texas said Friday he’ll likely extend his hold on the Biden administration’s deportation moratorium for another two weeks.

Earlier this week, Judge Drew Tipton of the Southern District of Texas, a Trump appointee, blocked the administration’s 100-day pause on deportations, delivering a blow to one of President Biden’s first immigration actions.

The temporary restraining order, Tipton argued, was appropriate under the Administrative Procedure Act. He also found that Texas could be harmed if the moratorium were to continue.

"In light of the foregoing, the Court finds that the threat of injury to Texas outweighs any potential harm to Defendants and the public interest is served and protected by the issuance of this TRO," Tipton wrote in his order, released Tuesday.

Tipton initially blocked the Biden administration from executing its deportation pause for 14 days.

But during a status conference on Friday, Tipton suggested he’d extend his block, as the case proceeds until Feb. 23. The Justice Department could appeal the temporary restraining order, but didn’t indicate Friday whether it intended to do so.

1:42 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

This is Biden's new top envoy for Iran

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The Biden administration has tapped Robert Malley, a progressive foreign policy expert who served on the Obama administration's negotiating team for the Iran nuclear deal, as its new top envoy for Iran.

In a harbinger of the fight the administration is likely to face over Iran, Malley's appointment was preceded by attacks from conservative lawmakers and Iran hawks. A contingent of progressive think tankers and NGO officials and government alumni released a statement in support of Malley in response to the criticism.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said that on Iran, Secretary of State Antony Blinken "is building a dedicated team, drawing from clear-eyed experts with a diversity of views."

"Leading that team as our Special Envoy for Iran will be Rob Malley, who brings to the position a track record of success negotiating constraints on Iran's nuclear program. The Secretary is confident he and his team will be able to do that once again," Price said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki also confirmed Malley's appointment during a briefing Friday.

Malley will face the challenges of confronting a Tehran that increasingly breached its commitments under the landmark 2015 nuclear deal during the four years of the Trump administration. The prior administration's "maximum pressure" campaign saw it abandon the nuclear deal and pursue a policy of sanctions aimed at crushing the regime.

1:04 p.m. ET, January 29, 2021

Where things stand in Congress with Biden's Covid-19 relief bill 

From CNN's Lauren Fox

Senate Democrats are staring down a massive undertaking as they plan to push ahead with reconciliation, a process that will be an early test of party unity even if it allows them to pass a $1.9 trillion Covid relief proposal without any Republican votes.

New Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has absolutely no room for error and he must convince every single Democrat to vote together or risk letting Biden's first legislative priority falter under his leadership.

The House and Senate could move as soon as next week on a budget resolution that gives committees instructions to begin work on the $1.9 trillion relief bill. 

While not every Democrat has publicly voiced how they would vote on the resolution and the price tag of the bill is still up for debate, many have said they are comfortable taking that first step even if they have concerns about what will ultimately end up being included in a package.

What comes next: The process of writing the bill is set to begin the week of Feb. 8 and span at least eight committees across the Capitol. House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal told CNN that his committee will be working in consultation with the Senate's Finance Committee, but the massive process will also require work from the House and Senate committees on small business, Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions, House Labor and House Energy and Commerce as well as Senate Banking.

"It is going to be an ongoing challenge," Neal said.

Those committees will also have to meet very specific and technical requirements so that the legislation can survive a review by the Senate parliamentarian. It could take weeks to finalize language and win support within the Democratic caucus.

In the House, the margin for error is also small. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would only be able to lose a handful of votes both on the budget resolution and the final bill. While the expectation is the budget resolution passes easily, factions of her caucus are already laying down markers of what they think the package should ultimately look like.