In the days before Joe Biden became president, construction crews worked quickly to finish Donald Trump’s wall at an iconic cross-border park overlooking the Pacific Ocean, which then-first lady Pat Nixon inaugurated in 1971 as a symbol of international friendship.
Biden on Wednesday ordered a “pause” on all wall construction within a week, one of 17 executive orders issued on his first day in office, including six dealing with immigration.
The order leaves billions of dollars of work unfinished — but still under contract — after Trump worked feverishly last year to build more than 450 miles (720 kilometers), a goal he said he achieved eight days before leaving office.
As of Jan. 15, the government spent $6.1 billion of the $10.8 billion in work it signed contracts to have done, according to a Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of the contracts who spoke on condition of anonymity because details have not been made public. The full amount under contract would have extended Trump’s wall to 664 miles (1,069 kilometers).
Biden, seeking to fulfill a pledge not to build “another foot,” gave his administration two months to determine how much it would cost to cancel contracts and whether money could be spent elsewhere. The Senate aide said fees would be negotiated with contractors and the administration would seek to spend whatever’s left on related uses on the border, such as roads, lights, sensors and other technology.
Publicly, the Trump administration said it secured $15 billion for the wall. The Senate aide said it was actually $16.45 billion as of Wednesday, $5.8 billion of which was appropriated by Congress and the rest diverted from the Defense and Treasury departments.
The Trump administration notified the Senate aide on Jan. 14 that it was moving ahead with a contract for $863 million, but it was not awarded.
The Army Corps of Engineers, which has awarded wall contracts with Defense Department money, said Thursday that it told crews not to install any additional barriers and to limit activity over the next few days to what is “necessary to safely prepare each site for a suspension of work.”
John Kurc, an activist who posts videos of dynamite blasts by wall construction crews, said he saw one dynamite charge being set Wednesday afternoon in Guadalupe Canyon in easternmost Arizona, even as the inauguration was playing out in Washington.
Heavy machines have been crawling over roadways gouged into rocky mountainsides, tapping open holes for posts on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property.
Advocates in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest area for illegal crossings, and near Nogales, Arizona, saw idle construction equipment Thursday.
But in San Diego, crews were out replacing a steel fence with imposing, tightly spaced poles topped with flat steel plates rising 30 feet (9 meters), said Dan Watman of Friends of Friendship Park, a group that promotes public access to the cross-border park overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
Contractors began last week, said Watman, who was informed of the project in a December conference call with Border Patrol agents but got no explanation for it. The agency referred questions to the White House, which had no immediate comment.
Trump said the border wall would be “virtually impenetrable” and paid for by Mexico, which never happened. While the wall is much more formidable than the barriers it replaced, it isn’t uncommon for smugglers to guide people over or through it. Portions can be sawed with power tools sold at home improvement stores.
Despite Trump’s bravado, Border Patrol officials have said the wall was never meant to stop everyone but rather to slow their advance.
Jose Edgar Zuleta, whose business selling religious jewelry in the Mexican city of Puebla dried up during the coronavirus pandemic, cleared two walls in Friendship Park in October with a special ladder. He moved through brush in a heavily patrolled area for about half an hour before getting caught. His 21-year-old son, who went ahead of him, got picked up hours later.
The cross-border park has hosted yoga classes, concerts and countless news conferences, including one in 2018 with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to announce a “zero tolerance” policy that caused thousands of children to be separated from their parents at the border.
An old bullfighting ring and ocean-view restaurants surround the Mexican side; wetland scrub stretches into the United States.
Years ago, people passed baked goods, kissed and shook hands through a chain-link fence. Watman remembers passing tools back and forth in 2007 to plant a cross-border garden that still stands.
Since 2012, after construction of a double wall at the park, the Border Patrol has opened a gate many weekends for up to 10 people at a time to exchange words with those in Mexico.
SLSCO Ltd. of Galveston, Texas, won contracts to build double walls blanketing 14 miles (22 kilometers) in San Diego. Company spokeswoman Liz Rogers said work at Friendship Park is separate and done by another company.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next month on whether the government’ illegally diverted billions of dollars from the Defense Department to build the wall after Congress denied money that Trump sought, triggering a 35-day government shutdown in 2017.
It is unclear if Biden will adopt Trump’s position before the Supreme Court. The government’s brief is due Feb. 11.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador welcomed Biden’s decision to stop wall construction but, in defense of Trump, noted that U.S. presidents going back to 1990s built border barriers. He displayed a chart to prove his point.
It’s taken only days for Democrats gauging how far President Joe Biden’s bold immigration proposal can go in Congress to acknowledge that if anything emerges, it will likely be significantly more modest.
As they brace to tackle a politically flammable issue that’s resisted major congressional action since the 1980s, Democrats are using words like “aspirational” to describe Biden’s plan and “herculean” to express the effort they’ll need to prevail.
A similar message came from the White House Friday when press secretary Jen Psaki said the new administration hopes Biden’s plan will be “the base” of immigration discussions in Congress. Democrats’ cautious tones underscored the fragile road they face on a paramount issue for their minority voters, progressives and activists.
Even long-time immigration proponents advocating an all-out fight concede they may have to settle for less than total victory. Paving a path to citizenship for all 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally — the centerpiece of Biden’s plan — is “the stake at the summit of the mountain,” Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigration group America’s Voice, said in an interview. “If there are ways to advance toward that summit by building victories and momentum, we’re going to look at them.”
The citizenship process in Biden’s plan would take as little as three years for some people, eight years for others. The proposal would make it easier for certain workers to stay in the U.S. temporarily or permanently, provide development aid to Central American nations in hopes of reducing immigration and move toward bolstering border screening technology.
No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois said in an interview this week that the likeliest package to emerge would create a path to citizenship for so-called Dreamers. They are immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. most of their lives after being brought here illegally as children.
Over 600,000 of them have temporary permission to live in the U.S. under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Former President Barack Obama created that program administratively and Durbin and others would like to see it enacted into law.
Durbin, who called Biden’s plan “aspirational,” said he hoped for other elements as well, such as more visas for agricultural and other workers.
“We understand the political reality of a 50-50 Senate, that any changes in immigration will require cooperation between the parties,” said Durbin, who is on track to become Senate Judiciary Committee chairman. He said legislation produced by the Senate likely “will not reach the same levels” as Biden’s proposal.
The Senate is split evenly between the two parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris tipping the chamber in Democrats’ favor with her tie-breaking vote. Even so, major legislation requires 60 votes to overcome filibusters, or endless procedural delays, in order to pass. That means 10 Republicans would have to join all 50 Democrats to enact an immigration measure, a tall order.
“Passing immigration reform through the Senate, particularly, is a herculean task,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who will also play a lead role in the battle.
Many Republicans agree with Durbin’s assessment.
“I think the space in a 50-50 Senate will be some kind of DACA deal,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who’s worked with Democrats on past immigration efforts. “I just think comprehensive immigration is going to be a tough sale given this environment.”
Illustrating the detailed bargaining ahead, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate who’s sought earlier immigration compromises, praised parts of the bill but said she wants more visas for foreign workers her state’s tourism industry uses heavily.
Democrats’ hurdles are formidable.
They have razor-thin majorities in a House and Senate where Republican support for easing immigration restrictions is usually scant. Acrid partisan relationships were intensified further by former President Donald Trump’s clamorous tenure. Biden will have to spend plenty of political capital and time on earlier, higher priority bills battling the pandemic and bolstering the economy, leaving his future clout uncertain.
In addition, Democrats will have to resolve important tactical differences.
Sharry said immigration groups prefer Democrats to push for as strong a bill as possible without making any concessions to Republicans on issues like boosting border security spending. He said hopes for a bipartisan breakthrough are “a fool’s errand” because the GOP has largely opposed expending citizenship opportunities for so long.
But prevailing without GOP votes would mean virtual unanimity among congressional Democrats, a huge challenge. It would also mean Democrats would have to either eliminate the Senate filibuster, which they may not have the votes to do, or figure out other procedural routes around the 60-vote hurdle.
“I’m going to start negotiating” with Republicans, said Durbin. He said a bipartisan bill would be far better “if we can do it” because it would improve the chances for passage.
Democrats already face attacks from Republicans, eyeing next year’s elections, on an issue that helped helped power Trump’s 2016 victory by fortifying his support from many white voters.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said Biden’s bill would “prioritize help for illegal immigrants and not our fellow citizens.” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate GOP campaign arm, said the measure would hurt “hard-working Americans and the millions of immigrants working their way through the legal immigration process.”
Democrats say such allegations are false but say it’s difficult to compose clear, sound-bite responses on what is a complex issue. Instead, it requires having “an adult conversation” with voters, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., said in an interview.
“Yeah, this is about people but it’s about the economy” as well, said Spanberger, a moderate from a district where farms and technology firms hire many immigrants. “In central Virginia, we rely on immigration. And you may not like that, but we do.”
Opening arguments in the Senate impeachment trial for Donald Trump over the Capitol riot will begin the week of Feb 8, the first time a former president will face such charges after leaving office.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the schedule Friday evening after reaching an agreement with Republicans, who had pushed for a delay to give Trump a chance to organise his legal team and prepare a defence on the sole charge of incitement of insurrection.
The February start date also allows the Senate more time to confirm President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominations and consider his proposed $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package — top priorities of the new White House agenda that could become stalled during trial proceedings.
“We all want to put this awful chapter in our nation’s history behind us,” Schumer said about the deadly Jan 6 Capitol siege by a mob of pro-Trump supporters.
“But healing and unity will only come if there is truth and accountability. And that is what this trial will provide.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will send the article of impeachment late Monday, with senators sworn in as jurors Tuesday. But opening arguments will move to February.
Trump’s impeachment trial would be the first of a US president no longer in office, an undertaking that his Senate Republican allies argue is pointless, and potentially even unconstitutional.
Democrats say they have to hold Trump to account, even as they pursue Biden’s legislative priorities, because of the gravity of what took place — a violent attack on the US Congress aimed at overturning an election.
If Trump is convicted, the Senate could vote to bar him from holding office ever again, potentially upending his chances for a political comeback.
The urgency for Democrats to hold Trump responsible was complicated by the need to put Biden’s government in place and start quick work on his coronavirus aid package.
“The more time we have to get up and running ... the better,” Biden said Friday in brief comments to reporters.
Republicans were eager to delay the trial, putting distance between the shocking events of the siege and the votes that will test their loyalty to the former president who still commands voters’ attention.
Negotiations between Schumer and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell were complicated, as the two are also in talks over a power-sharing agreement for the Senate, which is split 50-50 but in Democratic control because Vice-President Kamala Harris serves as a tie-breaking vote.
McConnell had proposed delaying the start and welcomed the agreement.
“Republicans set out to ensure the Senate’s next steps will respect former President Trump’s rights and due process, the institution of the Senate, and the office of the presidency,” said McConnell spokesman Doug Andres. “That goal has been achieved.”
Pelosi said Friday the nine House impeachment managers, or prosecutors, are “ready to begin to make their case” against Trump. Trump’s team will have had the same amount of time since the House impeachment vote to prepare, Pelosi said.
Democrats say they can move quickly through the trial, potentially with no witnesses, because lawmakers experienced the insurrection first-hand.
One of the managers, California Rep. Ted Lieu, said Friday that Democrats would rather be working on policy right now, but “we can’t just ignore” what happened on Jan 6.
“This was an attack on our Capitol by a violent mob,” Lieu said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It was an attack on our nation instigated by our commander in chief. We have to address that and make sure it never happens again.”
Trump, who told his supporters to “fight like hell” just before they invaded the Capitol two weeks ago and interrupted the electoral vote count, is still assembling his legal team.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Friday deferred to Congress on timing for the trial and would not say whether Biden thinks Trump should be convicted. But she said lawmakers can simultaneously discuss and have hearings on Biden’s coronavirus relief package.
“We don’t think it can be delayed or it can wait, so they’re going to have to find a path forward,” Psaki said of the virus aid. “He’s confident they can do that.”
Democrats would need the support of at least 17 Republicans to convict Trump, a high bar. While most Republican senators condemned Trump’s actions that day, far fewer appear to be ready to convict.
A handful of Senate Republicans have indicated they are open — but not committed — to conviction. But most have come to Trump’s defence as it relates to impeachment, saying they believe a trial will be divisive and questioning the legality of trying a president after he has left office.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally who has been helping him find lawyers, said Friday there is “a very compelling constitutional case” on whether Trump can be impeached after his term — an assertion Democrats reject, saying there is ample legal precedent. Graham also suggested Republicans will argue Trump’s words on Jan 6 were not legally “incitement.”
“On the facts, they’ll be able to mount a defence, so the main thing is to give him a chance to prepare and run the trial orderly, and hopefully the Senate will reject the idea of pursuing presidents after they leave office,” Graham said.
Other Republicans had stronger words, suggesting there should be no trial at all. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso said Pelosi is sending a message to Biden that “my hatred and vitriol of Donald Trump is so strong that I will stop even you and your Cabinet from getting anything done.” Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson suggested Democrats are choosing “vindictiveness” over national security as Biden attempts to set up his government.
McConnell, who said this week that Trump “provoked” his supporters before the riot, has not said how he will vote. He said Senate Republicans “strongly believe we need a full and fair process where the former president can mount a defence and the Senate can properly consider the factual, legal and constitutional questions.”
Trump, the first president to be impeached twice, is at a disadvantage compared with his first impeachment trial, in which he had the full resources of the White House counsel’s office to defend him. Graham helped Trump hire South Carolina attorney Butch Bowers after members of his past legal teams indicated they did not plan to join the new effort.
Lloyd J. Austin, a West Point graduate who rose to the Army’s elite ranks and marched through racial barriers in a 41-year career, won Senate confirmation Friday to become the nation’s first Black secretary of defense.
The 93-2 vote gave President Joe Biden his second Cabinet member; Avril Haines was confirmed on Wednesday as the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. Biden is expected to win approval for others on his national security team in coming days, including Antony Blinken as secretary of state.
Biden is looking for Austin to restore stability atop the Pentagon, which went through two Senate-confirmed secretaries of defense and four who held the post on an interim basis during the Trump administration. The only senators who voted against Austin were Republicans Mike Lee of Utah and Josh Hawley of Missouri.
Before heading to the Pentagon, Austin wrote on Twitter that he is especially proud to be the first Black secretary of defense.
“Let’s get to work,” he wrote.
Austin’s confirmation was complicated by his status as a recently retired general. He required a waiver of a legal prohibition on a military officer serving as secretary of defense within seven years of retirement. Austin retired in 2016 after serving as the first Black general to head U.S. Central Command. He was the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army in 2012 and also served as director of the Joint Staff, a behind-the-scenes job that gave him an intimate view of the Pentagon’s inner workings.
The House and the Senate approved the waiver Thursday, clearing the way for the Senate confirmation vote.
Austin, a large man with a booming voice and a tendency to shy from publicity, describes himself as the son of a postal worker and a homemaker from Thomasville, Georgia. He has promised to speak his mind to Congress and to Biden.
At his confirmation hearing Tuesday, Austin said he had not sought the nomination but was ready to lead the Pentagon without clinging to his military status and with full awareness that being a political appointee and Cabinet member requires “a different perspective and unique duties from a career in uniform.”
As vice president, Biden worked closely with Austin in 2010-11 to wind down U.S. military involvement in Iraq while Austin was the top U.S. commander in Baghdad. American forces withdrew entirely, only to return in 2014 after the Islamic State extremist group captured large swaths of Iraqi territory. At Central Command, Austin was a key architect of the strategy to defeat IS in Iraq and Syria.
Biden said in December when he announced Austin as his nominee that he considered him “the person we need at this moment,” and that he trusts Austin to ensure civilian control of the military. Critics of the nomination have questioned the wisdom of making an exception to the law against a recently retired military officer serving as defense secretary, noting that the prohibition was put in place to guard against undue military influence in national security matters.
Only twice before has Congress waived the prohibition — in 1950 for George C. Marshall during the Korean War and in 2017 for Jim Mattis, the retired Marine general who served as President Donald Trump’s first Pentagon chief.
Austin has promised to surround himself with qualified civilians. And he made clear at his confirmation hearing that he embraces Biden’s early focus on combatting the coronavirus pandemic.
“I will quickly review the department’s contributions to coronavirus relief efforts, ensuring we are doing everything we can — and then some — to help distribute vaccines across the country and to vaccinate our troops and preserve readiness,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
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Under questioning by senators, Austin pledged to address white supremacy and violent extremism in the ranks of the military — problems that received relatively little public attention from his immediate predecessor, Mark Esper. Austin promised to “rid our ranks of racists,” and said he takes the problem personally.
“The Defense Department’s job is to keep America safe from our enemies,” he said. “But we can’t do that if some of those enemies lie within our own ranks.”
Austin said he will insist that the leaders of every military service know that extremist behavior in their ranks is unacceptable.
“This is not something we can be passive on,” he said. “This is something I think we have to be active on, and we have to lean into it and make sure that we’re doing the right things to create the right climate.”
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He offered glimpses of other policy priorities, indicating that he embraces the view among many in Congress that China is the “pacing challenge,” or the leading national security problem for the U.S.
The Middle East was the main focus for Austin during much of his Army career, particularly when he reached senior officer ranks.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi plans to send the article of impeachment against Donald Trump to the Senate on Monday, launching the start of the former president’s trial on a charge of incitement of insurrection over the deadly Capitol riot.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the schedule Friday.
“There will be a trial,” Schumer said. “It will be a full trial, it will be a fair trial”
Trump is the first president to be twice impeached and the first to face a trial after leaving office.
While the transmission of the article launches the trial, the schedule ahead remains uncertain.
On Thursday, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell proposed pushing back the start Trump’s impeachment trial to February to give the former president time to prepare and review his case.
House Democrats who voted to impeach Trump last week for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot say a full reckoning is necessary before the country — and the Congress — can move on.
But McConnell in a statement Thursday evening suggested a more expansive timeline that would see the House transmit the article of impeachment next week, on Jan. 28, launching the trial’s first phase. After that, the Senate would give the president’s defense team and House prosecutors two weeks to file briefs. Arguments in the trial would likely begin in mid-February.
“Senate Republicans are strongly united behind the principle that the institution of the Senate, the office of the presidency, and former President Trump himself all deserve a full and fair process that respects his rights and the serious factual, legal, and constitutional questions at stake,” especially given the unprecedented speed of the House process, McConnell said.
Schumer, D-N.Y., is reviewing the plan and will discuss it with McConnell, a spokesperson said. The two leaders are also negotiating how the new 50-50 Senate will work and how they will balance other priorities.
A trial delay could appeal to some Democrats, as it would give the Senate more time to confirm President Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominees and debate a new round of coronavirus relief. Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a key ally of the president’s, told CNN that Democrats would consider a delay “if we are making progress on confirming the very talented, seasoned and diverse team that President Joe Biden has nominated..
Pelosi said Trump doesn’t deserve a “get-out-of-jail card” just because he has left office and Biden and others are calling for national unity.
Facing his second impeachment trial in two years, Trump began to assemble his defense team by hiring attorney Butch Bowers to represent him, according to an adviser. Bowers previously served as counsel to former South Carolina Govs. Nikki Haley and Mark Sanford.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina helped Trump find Bowers after members of his past legal teams indicated they did not plan to join the new effort. Trump is at a disadvantage compared to his first trial, in which he had the full resources of the White House counsel’s office to defend him.
Pelosi’s nine impeachment managers, who will be prosecuting the House case, have been regularly meeting to discuss strategy. Pelosi said she would talk to them “in the next few days” about when the Senate might be ready for a trial.
Shortly before the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump told thousands of his supporters at a rally near the White House to “fight like hell” against the election results that Congress was certifying. A mob marched down to the Capitol and rushed in, interrupting the count. Five people, including a Capitol Police officer, died in the mayhem, and the House impeached Trump a week later, with 10 Republicans joining all Democrats in support.
Pelosi said it would be “harmful to unity” to forget that “people died here on Jan. 6, the attempt to undermine our election, to undermine our democracy, to dishonor our Constitution.”
Trump was acquitted by the Republican-led Senate at his first impeachment trial. The White House legal team, aided by Trump’s personal lawyers, aggressively fought the House charges that he had encouraged the president of Ukraine to investigate Biden in exchange for military aid. This time around, Pelosi noted, the House is not seeking to convict the president over private conversations but for a very public insurrection that they themselves experienced and that played out on live television.
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“This year, the whole world bore witness to the president’s incitement,” Pelosi said.
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said it was still too early to know how long a trial would take or if Democrats would want to call witnesses. But he said, “You don’t need to tell us what was going on with the mob scene we were rushing down the staircase to escape.”
McConnell, who said this week that Trump “provoked” his supporters before the riot, has not said how he will vote. He told his GOP colleagues that it will be a vote of conscience.
Democrats would need the support of at least 17 Republicans to convict Trump, a high bar. While a handful of Senate Republicans have indicated they are open to conviction, most have said they believe a trial will be divisive and questioned the legality of trying a president after he has left office.
Graham said that if he were Trump’s lawyer, he would focus on that argument and on the merits of the case — and whether it was “incitement” under the law.
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“I guess the public record is your television screen,” Graham said. “So, I don’t see why this would take a long time.”