On the eve before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, New Europe’s Federico Grandesso spoke with Washington-based correspondent Ksenija Pavlovic-McAteer about the atmosphere in the American capital at a tense time in the country’s history.
Pavlovic-Mcateer is the chief White House correspondent and the author of Good Morning DC, a morning daily brief about the centers of power Washington, DC. She has covered the outgoing president, Donald Trump, since his first day in office, for one her news media outlet, The Pavlovic Today.
New Europe (NE): Have Capitol Police or the Secret Service given any indication that they expect the traditional ceremony and walk to the White House following President-elect Biden’s swearing in to be altered in any way? What’s the general public’s opinion about Trump refusing to attend the swearing-in and official handing over of power to the Biden administration?
Ksenija Pavlovic-McAteer (KBM): Instead of the traditional inaugural parade, Joe Biden will receive a presidential escort from every branch of the military as he travels from 15th Street to the White House after being sworn in. Trump is set to leave the White House early on Wednesday morning. My sources who know Trump well have told me that he is not someone who can rise above his pride to attend the inauguration of the man he lost to. Trump never accepted the election results, and that, in itself, has deepened the divide and pushed the U.S. to the brink of civil war. At its most heated moment, you even had people calling for the death of (staunch Trump loyalist) Vice President Mike Pence. Even those willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, initially, tell me that they are not willing to do so anymore. The tipping point was when he put Senate and Congress members in harm’s way. Trump’s encouragement was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People who voted for Biden tell me that Trump’s presence at the inauguration, particularly after what happened on January 6, would be a slap in the face to American democracy. His staunch supporters, on the other hand, did not want him to be there in the first place. For Americans at large, and for the yet-to-be-written history books, this will be the first time that the outgoing First Family has broken tradition, foregoing the more than two-century meet and greet of the incoming President and First Lady. Trump’s philosophy is Après moi, le déluge.
NE: What is the general sense about the 25,000 national guard troops in the city? Is there a tangible worry that a substantial number of them might be aligned with the pro-Trump insurrectionists that attacked the Capitol? Are you getting any signals from law enforcement that they have substantial evidence that this threat is, indeed, real?
KPM: Trump has put in motion something which even he cannot control anymore. Senators on the intelligence committee are particularly worried. They do not know what to expect at the inauguration. These ranking members are not alarmists. They are on guard in response to intel that has been received. The Department of Defense does not have intelligence indicating an insider threat, but they are actively vetting National Guardsmen to be sure. As for the intel across the country, the FBI has confirmed 50 possible hotspots. The threat of a violent attack is real, especially in places across the country with sizable militia presences. The FBI’s assessment is that QAnon members might try to impersonate and infiltrate the National Guard to disrupt Biden’s inauguration. The FBI is also concerned about lone wolves. They are taking all leads and threats seriously.
NE: How are foreign correspondents and non-American nationals in the city reacting to the security situation, which has come to resemble a DC version of “the Green Zone” in Baghdad in the years after Saddam Hussein was overthrown?
KPM: It’s excruciating to watch DC come under full military lockdown. The White House press corps is on high alert. WHCA issued a letter advising us to plan to work off-site. Journalists will have to wear protective gear on the National Mall. The inauguration was supposed to be a celebratory ceremony, but it does not feel that way at all. I am familiar with the banality of evil; I’ve lived in places of civil strife. I remember when (former Yugoslav, and later Serbian, leader) Slobodan Milosevic ordered tanks onto Belgrade’s streets in the 1990s. I remember the traumatic event when the first Democratic Prime Minister of Serbia, Zoran Djinjic, was assassinated. This is different, though, because no one expected to have Biden’s inauguration under rings of steel and army barricades. No one expected to have to report under the risk of physical harm in the land of the free.
NE: Is there an opinion from within society in DC that the police have done too little to protect the city from pro-Trump mobs?
KPM: There has been a giant security failure at the US Capitol. Backup came late, and people want answers. What transpired on January 6th portrayed a weak image of America and showed other potential bad actors, both foreign and domestic, how easily the US Capitol could be penetrated. The whole scenario begs the question: Who benefits from this broken image of the US circling the news cycle across the world? Democracy is fragile, but the United States must win. No president can be bigger than the American ideal. That’s the line we must draw in the sand against tyranny.
NE: What are some of the theories going around about how the incoming Biden administration will handle dangerous conspiracy theory groups like QAnon?
KPM: No one knows how to deal with QAnon, given that there are QAnon believers among leading Republicans. The last time I checked the surveys, 56% of GOP voters believed in QAnon’s conspiracy theories. Radical action would be to suspend high profile politicians from Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks. That’s not effective, as they can take their QAnon beliefs underground and to encrypted apps. Decentralized internet and encrypted channels are a new silk road for extremists to exploit. Look what is happening with this massive move to Telegram, led by some Republican politicians, asking Americans to join them on the app-of-choice for terrorists. Biden wants to govern from the center and prefers that the Republicans address QAnon believes among their ranks, themselves. In August, (Democratic House Representiative) Tom Malinowski and (now-former Republican House Representative) Denver Riggleman introduced a bipartisan resolution in the U.S. House, condemning QAnon and rejecting the conspiracy theories promoted by it, explicitly and implicitly. If anyone had a magic formula for addressing QAnon types, we would not have extremist violence and radicalization around the world. Trump’s presidency, in the end, gave voices to many bad actors. He did some good things, the Serbia-Kosovo Agreement being one, but, unfortunately, the end-result is to the United States’ detriment.