Citizen Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial is over. Much of the US enthralled and horrified by how close America came to an insurrection on January 6, but President Joe Biden is forging ahead.
Nearly a month into his job, he has set about mending fences with an enthusiasm that belies his years. He had a torrid two-hour phone call with China’s president Xi-Jinping, chiding him over his treatment of Muslim Uighurs and upholding Trump’s designation of the situation as “genocide”.
He has promised Beijing tough commercial competition once the US economy revives – due later this year, according to the forecasters.
Likewise, he was hard-nosed with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, raising the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny.
In what so far has been a symbolic gesture, he has returned the US to the UN Human Rights Council, a group of 47 countries whose own record on the subject is debatable. He has ordered a review of arms sales and pulled US support for the civil war in Yemen.
He says he will soften Trump’s harsh approach to refugees and take in 125,000, up from 15,000.
The US is back on the Paris climate accords and John Kerry, his special representative on the subject, had a long and productive call with NZ’s climate change minister James Shaw. Likewise he appointed veteran diplomat Kurt Campbell as special adviser on the Indo-Pacific.
Early on, he lifted the US block on the appointment of Nigeria’s former finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as the new head of the World Trade Organization. An economist, she was also managing director of the World Bank. The Biden administration has also signalled its intention to ease the road block in the WTO appellate process.
Last week he called a meeting of gun control experts at the White House. He followed this issue when he was vice president but apparently has been appalled at the appearance of armed militias in the US, notably in Michigan when a group carrying assault weapons held up the state’s parliament house and threatened the governor.
Militia groups were also prominent in the attempt to take the Capitol on January 6. The FBI and other agencies are now probing deeply into their role, how much forward planning was involved and the degree of coordinated attacks. So far, more than 200 people have been charged with Federal offences and there’s more to come.
Ominously, the senior Republican senator Mitch McConnell at the end of Trump’s second trial, directly blamed Trump for fomenting last month’s riot but voted on Saturday to acquit him anyway of inciting an insurrection. He sharply criticised his former ally in a speech on the Senate floor shortly after Trump was cleared in a 57-43 vote, saying the rioters had been
” … fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on Earth.
“Because he was angry he’d lost an election.”
“Former President Trump’s actions that preceded the riot were a disgraceful, disgraceful dereliction of duty. Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.”
Trump was constitutionally ineligible for conviction since the punishment is removal, and he was already out of office. However, McConnell went on to observe:
“We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former Presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.”
By his actions so far, Biden has indicated the US is rejoining a liberal global fraternity that Trump had crudely rejected. The plans to host a democracy summit this year to reaffirm this decision although observers believe the January Capitol riots may force postponement, although bipartisan momentum is building in Washington for an impartial inquiry into the affray and this may help assuage western concerns about the strength of the US democratic system.
Congress is rapidly approving Biden’s Cabinet nominations, who have lived up to his promise of a broad-church administration with an African American general Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense and the first native American Indian, Deb Haaland, as Secretary of the Interior. Xavier Becerra is the first Latino to hold Cabinet rank as Secretary of Health and Human Services while Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation, is the first LGBTQ member with cabinet ranking.
All this looks like a promising start and far from the chaotic beginnings of the Trump administration. The challenges lie ahead, most importantly managing the Covid-19 pandemic and reviving the economy.
There is a group of wise older hands at work in this area but they – and Biden – will have their work cut out managing a Democratic party in Congress spread far across the political spectrum. The progressives reckon they carried the cities for Biden and they expect their due.