PBS NewsHour


Peaceful transfer of power ensues amid massive show of force

In years past, the National Mall is normally filled with tens of thousands of people attending a presidential inauguration. But those crowds were missing for the swearing in of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, amid the pandemic and a massive security apparatus in place after violent insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol. Amna Nawaz and Nick Schifrin join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

AIRED: January 20, 2021 | 0:07:03

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to Amna Nawaz, who has been on the National Mall all this day

from early morning into tonight.

So, Amna, you started out this day looking at the security picture there on the Mall,

at a place that -- where, normally, there would be crowds. But, as you reported early

in the day, that's not what happened.

AMNA NAWAZ: Not at all, Judy. That's right.

You and I both know, anyone who's covered inaugurations in the past knows this Mall

is typically chock-a-block full of hundreds of thousands of people who gather here specifically

because of the view you get of that West Front at the Capitol steps there to watch the swearing-in.

That swearing-in is usually met with thunderous applause and cheers. Today, it was met with

a deafening silence, because, of course, the Mall, like much of Washington, D.C., is closed

down, shuttered, among health and security concerns and the pandemic and security concerns,

after that Capitol attack just two weeks ago.

We're inside what is known as the Red Zone. It's a robust and heavily fortified security

perimeter that was set up a few days ago. It's maintained by miles and miles of metal

fencing, by several layers of security barriers, and also, as John Yang reported earlier, the

presence of 25,000 National Guard troops who have descended from every corner of the country

to help secure the inaugural ceremonies.

Today, one group from Texas told us, in fact, they have been working very long hours, sleeping

only a few hours every night. And, for many of them, it was their first trip to Washington,

D.C., ever, so quite a first trip for them.

But they were here, of course, to try to prevent some of the same forces that we saw storm

the Capitol steps two weeks ago from acting again, those white supremacist and conspiracy

and anti-government forces who did violently storm the Capitol.

Sources tell us, intelligence and national security sources tell us the online chatter

suggests that many of those groups decided against taking any kind of action today, largely

because of the security presence, and many of them felt it wasn't worth the risk.

But those sources say those same groups are holding their fire potentially for another

day. That threat has not gone away.

Judy, one other thing I will mention. Sources tell us they were watching today online followers

of this QAnon conspiracy theory, a pro-Trump group that we have been reporting on several

times over. Many people of this group told us even on days I spoke to them outside the

Capitol attack that they believed President Trump had some kind of secret plan, some kind

of big action he was going to take today, on his final day in office, that would allow

him to stay in power.

That, of course, did not happen. And, online, many of them are expressing anger and disbelief.

More worryingly, some of them are spinning new conspiracy theories about why that didn't

happen and what could happen next.

Judy, this is evidence of the dangerous disinformation campaigns that we saw emanating from the White

House over the last four years. And these are just some of the challenges that the Biden

administration will inherit as they're coming into office. But at least today, security

officials say they are grateful the transfer of power was peaceful -- Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Listening to you, Amna, and just shaking our head at what you're saying.

But, very quickly, I hear you saying, even though the threat was minimal today, we didn't

see its presence, authorities are very much on guard in the days and weeks to come?

AMNA NAWAZ: Absolutely, Judy.

They stressed to us those threats, the same forces that stormed the Capitol two weeks

ago, they are robust, they persist, and they will be planning future attacks as well. Just

because they didn't act today does not mean they won't act in the future. This will be

an enormous problem we heard President Biden address in his inaugural address as well,

that these are some of the forces they will have to contend with in the years ahead -- Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Amna Nawaz, it's enough to keep us all on edge. Thank you very much.

Meantime, Nick Schifrin has been reporting on the enormous security operation in the

capital, across this city, and across the country. And he joins us now from the streets

of Washington.

So, Nick, tell us what you're following today.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Yes, Judy, we have talked so much about those 25,000 National Guard troops

and the closures, not only where Amna is, about a mile from me or so on the Mall, but

the bridges coming in and out of D.C. and the streets.

You can see behind me still National Guard and still a checkpoint. They are still checking

I.D.s at this late hour. And that also meant that almost no protesters were able or allowed

to get into D.C. today. In fact, the Park Police only approved a single park permit

for a single protest group, and that was supposed to take place in something called a free speech


I believe we have got some video of that free speech zone. It's basically a pen that was

in downtown D.C. And when we went, it was absolutely empty. Protesters clearly just

couldn't get there or didn't want to get there.

When I talked to military officials, they reiterate what Amna just said, that the unprecedented

show of force by the military, the unprecedented closures was a deterrence factor, keeping

away those protesters that they did believe could have come not only today, but over the

weekend, and launched armed protests. At least, that's what they were worried about.

Now, there were some questions by some lawyers about the extent of the free speech restrictions.

But, bottom line, the military officials I talk to and the national security officials

and the transition officials say that today was about guaranteeing that peaceful transfer

of power.

And it works not only here, but also across the country. We have collected some video

and photos from all 50 state capitols. And, basically, what we saw across the country,

whether Madison, Wisconsin, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Lansing, Michigan, Olympia, Washington, Saint

Paul, Atlanta, was not only very few protesters, but a large show of force outside those capitols,

following really a national campaign by the FBI to try and arrest all those insurrectionists

from January 6.

Finally, Judy, the military reiterated again and again leading up to today that there would

be no stop in continuity, there would be no loss of the chain of command.

But a few hours ago, the Biden transition team had to send out an e-mail about the acting

secretaries. Biden starts his presidency without any national security officials already in


And it occurred to me that what Senator Blunt said, the Republican chairman of the Inaugural

Committee, holds true. He said that, look, in this time of transition, when it comes

to national security, in some ways, America is at its most vulnerable, but, also, America

is at its most powerful, proving the perseverance of democracy on a day like today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: No question. And that echoes what we did hear from President Biden in his

inaugural remarks, that democracy endures, perseveres.

Thank you very much, Nick Schifrin, for your work all this day. Thank you.