President-elect Joe Biden urged Americans on the eve of Thanksgiving to recommit to fighting the coronavirus, not one another – even as President Donald Trump continued to ignore the pandemic while he spent another day venting over baseless claims of election fraud.
Wednesday afternoon provided a stark look at two vastly different presidencies, one suffused with anger and recrimination in its final days and the other sober and deliberate as it prepares to start.
Biden, in a somber and sometimes pleading speech from a nearly empty music venue in Delaware, reflected on other times in history that have brought the nation suffering, on the pain felt by the families of the more than 260,000 people killed by the coronavirus, on the sacrifices many Americans are making by scaling back or canceling their holiday plans and on the additional deaths that will undoubtedly come in the “long, hard winter” ahead.
He urged Americans to do all that they can to lessen the number of deaths.
Other than a formal proclamation issued by the White House press office, Trump did not express sympathy for the dead or offer guidance to Americans conflicted about how to celebrate Thanksgiving safely but unleashed a steady stream of grievances, twice scream-tweeting: “RIGGED ELECTION!” Later in the afternoon, the president called in to a news conference held by his allies in a tightly packed Pennsylvania hotel ballroom to again falsely argue there was widespread voter fraud in November’s balloting, offering no evidence, and to falsely claim he won the election.
One of Trump’s few mentions of Thanksgiving came late Wednesday afternoon as he announced that he had pardoned his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, whom he had forced out for lying to Vice President Mike Pence and who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Flynn has since become one of many Trump loyalists cast by the president and his allies as having been unfairly targeted.
“Congratulations . . . I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!” Trump tweeted.
While Trump spent Wednesday railing about what he deemed the unfairness of the moment, Biden provided a sweeping look at episodes of suffering throughout American history, including on the first official Thanksgiving, in 1777.
While Trump praised his attorneys and allies for their “tremendous service to our country,” Biden praised front-line health-care workers “who have risked their lives . . . in the heroic battle.”
While Trump seethed and rambled through scattered examples of unproven voter fraud, Biden reflected on what it means to celebrate Thanksgiving at a time of such loss, when hope is difficult to find, using history and Christianity as a guide.
“Faith, courage, sacrifice, service to country, service to each other and gratitude even in the face of suffering have long been part of what Thanksgiving means in America,” Biden said during the speech in his hometown of Wilmington, Del. “Looking back over our history, you will see that it’s been in the most difficult of circumstances that the soul of our nation has been forged.”
Biden said that while the federal government has vast powers to combat the virus – powers that he said he plans to fully use once in office – individuals also have a responsibility and a “patriotic duty” to do all they can. He urged Americans to take “simple steps” like wearing a mask, limiting the size of gatherings and practicing social distancing.
“It has divided us, angered us, set us against one another. I know the country has grown weary of the fight, but we need to remember that we’re at war with the virus, not with one another, not with each other,” said Biden, standing before two American flags. “This is the moment where we need to steel our spines, redouble our efforts and recommit ourselves to the fight. Let’s remember – we are all in this together.”
He promised to not let the country lose the fight and urged Americans to resist surrender.
“We will get our lives back,” Biden said. “Life is going to return to normal, I promise you. This will happen. This will not last forever.”
Trump had originally planned to attend the election event in Pennsylvania with his attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, surprising some of his advisers, including campaign attorney Justin Clark and RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, three officials said.
The president was angry, several advisers said, at the perception that he had given up the election fight after allowing Biden’s transition to begin and saw the event as a way to keep his complaints alive.
But the trip was hastily canceled on Wednesday morning.
Much of the White House was empty ahead of the holiday, and several advisers said they were no longer paying attention to Trump’s antics. RNC lawyers are distancing themselves from efforts driven by Giuliani, and the campaign has stopped holding morning calls to discuss how to frame the attorney’s fights.
Few aides were around when the president called in to the event in Pennsylvania, reaching Ellis on her cellphone as Giuliani sat nearby.
“This is an election that we won easily. We won it by a lot – big energy,” Trump said via the phone’s scratchy speaker. “This election was rigged, and we can’t let that happen. We can’t let it happen for our country. This election has to be turned around.”
Some of Trump’s advisers worry that the president is hurting his reputation and legacy by continuing to make those sorts of comments as he clings to falsehoods and conspiracy theories while Biden prepares to take office.
Biden’s team, as it has for days, continued Wednesday to beef up a transition that began officially only on Monday evening, when the General Services Administration finally notified federal agencies they could cooperate with the president-elect’s team.
“The election is over. Virtually everyone on Earth has accepted that truth, except for Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani,” said Kate Bedingfield, a spokeswoman for the Biden-Harris transition team. “The Trump campaign has been laughed out of every courtroom with their meritless and baseless lawsuits meant to undermine the will of the American people. This is a sideshow.”
Bedingfield said that the transition team has been quickly making up for lost time since Monday night when GSA Administrator Emily Murphy gave the go-ahead, ending a weeks-long delay.
Since Monday night, the transition team has made contact or met with more than 50 federal agencies and commissions and held more than 30 virtual briefings, Bedingfield said. She praised civil servants assisting with the transition from the Trump administration for being “professional and welcoming” and for beginning to prepare weeks ago, despite Trump’s attempts to stall. She thanked them for clearing their schedules and, at in-person meetings, offering coffee and meals.
Biden is now receiving classified information and expects to start in-person security briefings next week, his aides said. The process of background checks for political appointees has begun, and some members of the transition team have started to receive government-issued laptops.
Next week, Biden plans to announce more members of his economic team. He has already picked economist Janet Yellen to be treasury secretary. When asked when Biden would name a health secretary, given the pandemic, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said “it is front and center on the top of the mind” for Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and other officials but declined to provide a time frame. More appointments are expected in the weeks to come, although the spokeswomen would not say in which areas.
“Buckle up for December,” Psaki said.
Despite Trump’s efforts, Bedingfield and Psaki said, they were confident that, so far, Biden has access to the information and resources needed for a smooth transition.
Biden still has not spoken with Trump, which Bedingfield said is not necessary. If Trump eventually wants to meet with Biden, she said, “that’s something we would work out in the future.” A conversation between the two is not something “mission critical,” she said.
Later, the public comments of the two men displayed the jolting transformation the country can expect on Jan. 20.
Trump’s call to Pennsylvania lasted roughly 10 minutes and offered the country the president’s unfiltered and breathless thoughts, as he rattled off his suspicions and lashed out at judges who ruled against his attempts to overturn the election. He repeatedly praised and thanked his attorneys and allies for fighting for him and against Democrats.
“I really appreciate it, and the country appreciates it,” the outgoing president said. “We have to turn the election over.”
Biden’s speech, which lasted about 17 1/2 minutes, was careful and scripted, with a clear message and tone.
He spoke of the American tradition of having “full and fair and free elections, and then we honor the results.” He spoke of suffering and division, but also of hope and unity.
“Out of pain comes possibility. Out of frustration comes progress. And out of division, unity,” Biden said. “In our finest hours, that’s who we’ve always been, and that’s who we shall be again, for I believe that this grim season of division, demonization, will give way to a year of light and unity.”