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UnTrump America: The fastest things Biden can do to rid the country of the former president

Alex Woodward,Richard Hall,Louise Boyle,Borzou Daragahi and Ben Chu
·24-min read
<p>Biden will have to work fast to exorcise the nation of Trump and his policies </p> (Dave Brown)

Biden will have to work fast to exorcise the nation of Trump and his policies

(Dave Brown)

When Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, the celebrations will be muted.

A small crowd of lawmakers and guests will look on, socially distanced and bitterly divided. By then, the number of Americans who have died from Covid will have reached 400,000, 18 million will be living on jobless benefits and the climate crisis will be looming in the background – an existential threat that 2020 somehow managed to relegate to second tier news.

To be sure, President Trump has not made all of America’s problems, but Biden promises that without his chaotic and divisive predecessor at the helm, the nation can fix them.

To push through his agenda Biden will have to work fast to reverse many of the actions Trump has championed. Here’s what he should do to undo Trump’s four years in his first 100 days.

Immigration

Donald Trump imposed a ban on travel to the US from seven majority-Muslim countries within his first month in office in 2017, beginning a legacy of the administration’s hardline anti-immigrant policy steeped in dog-whistle racism and allegations of human rights abuses.

Over four years, the administration’s draconian “America First” agenda – family separation and child detention at the US-Mexico border, construction of a symbolic border wall, efforts to remove pathways to citizenship put in place during the Obama administration – has “eroded what was left” of an already-“broken” immigration system, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus wrote in a letter to the incoming Biden administration.

Immigration reform has been central to the Biden campaign, and he has pledged to effectively undo Trump’s signature immigration policies. He made a clear promise for day one of his administration: toss out the Muslim ban.

Immigration attorney Greg Siskind told The Independent that “one of the easiest things he can do” is lift the ban, which effectively “reverts back to normal immigration law.”

Donald Trump inspecting part of the border wall during his final days in officeAFP/Getty
Donald Trump inspecting part of the border wall during his final days in officeAFP/Getty

Within his first 100 days, the Biden administration also intends to stop border wall construction, raise the annual cap for refugees entering the US, end Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers, and rely on temporary protected status policies more broadly in the event that other programmes remain tied up in court. The president-elect has pledged to “protect TPS and deferred enforced departure holders” from deportation to counties that are “unsafe” or who have been in the country for an “extended period of time and built lives in the US”.

He has also pledged to restore the deferred action for childhood arrivals (Daca) programme – created during the Obama administration – and could seek a permanent policy for granting legal status to people who entered the US without legal permission as children. The Trump administration has brought its fight to end the programme, which grants legal status to roughly 700,000 people, to the US Supreme Court.

But whether Biden creates a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people will be largely up to Congress.

Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services has urged the new Congress to “waste no time” implementing immigration reform.

Between 25 January and 1 February, the Biden administration has pledged to “fulfill his promises to restore dignity to our immigration system and our border policies and start the difficult but critical work of reuniting families separated at the border".

Trump’s remain in Mexico policy, or migrant protection protocols, requires asylum seekers from Latin American countries other than Mexico to wait in Mexico while their immigration court cases proceed in the US. Advocacy groups have also urged Biden to allow people who have been deported to reopen their cases and remain in the US as they secure legal counsel.

More than 500 children have not been reunited with their families. Al Otro Lado, a non-profit organisation representing parents who were separated from their children before and during the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy, has feared the fierce politicization of federal immigration agencies under the Trump administration could make reforms difficult to implement on the ground.

There remain some other roadblocks – the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention currently prohibits asylum seekers and refugees from entering the US; more than 250,000 people who were processed at the US-Mexico border between March and October of last year were expelled, according to Customs and Border Protection data.

Lawyers for Civil Rights has also urged the new administration to reject the Trump administration’s attempts to undermine the 2020 census data by “including counting all people regardless of immigration status as part of the congressional apportionment base”.

Steven Dillingham resigned from his post as director of the US Census Bureau on 18 January following allegations that he supported partisan efforts to send data to the White House before Trump left office.

Lawyers for Civil Rights has filed brief in a lawsuit challenging ensure undocumented people remain in the count and to end the “political gamemanship and discrimination” that excludes undocumented people from data used to determine congressional representation.

“The memorandum explicitly seeks to punish undocumented immigrants and the states in which they live," said staff attorney Lauren Sampson. "Our brief emphasizes that no one is illegal and that many immigrants who might be described as undocumented are in fact in the process of obtaining legal status, or, because of global events or delays on the part of the federal government, lack proof of their status. The Framers [of the constitution] were clear: ours is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Alex Woodward

Right-wing extremism

When Biden is sworn in on the steps of the Capitol, he will look out across a city under lockdown. There will be no big crowd to celebrate his inauguration, just a labyrinth of security barriers and National Guardsmen. He will take the oath of office on the very steps that were overrun by a mob just two weeks prior.

He comes to power at a time when the threat of extremist violence is at a level that is unprecedented in recent history. In the aftermath of the Capitol attack, federal law agencies issued a stark warning that it would serve as a rallying cry for extremist groups across the country.

A leaked bulletin released by the National Counterterrorism Centre and the Justice and Homeland Security departments warned that anti-government and racist extremists “very likely pose the greatest domestic terrorism threats in 2021”.

So how should he tackle it? Dr Heidi Beirich, an expert on American and European extremist movements and leader of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, argued that the Biden administration’s first task should be bolstering measures to remove extremists from the security services and law enforcement.

“The first thing that needs to happen is that we have to root extremists out of the military in the United States. It’s a serious problem,” she told The Independent. “The current regulations aren’t up to snuff and even worse the application of what they do have in terms of barring white supremacists and extremists is not happening correctly”.

“We also have a big problem with law enforcement. It’s time to call for some kind of mechanism to screen out racists and organised extremists from police forces. There are far too many connections between law enforcement and white supremacists.”

Racism and white supremacism have always been a driving force for extremist activity, but a new threat has emerged over the last four years. The QAnon conspiracy theory movement, which believes that Donald Trump is doing battle with a cabal of Satanist paedophiles that is secretly running the country, has emerged as a new and destabilising force.

The Biden administration will have to come up with a policy to tackle this and other extremist groups online, where they thrive.

“It’s time to take a hard look at the social media companies. They have allowed online hate to metacicise. We know that the storming of the Capitol was organised partly on Facebook,” Dr Beirich said.

“Congress needs to start looking at a regulatory framework. Either the companies have to start being accountable to their own policies or the government has to step in,” she added.

“One of the things I think about is that there was no QAnon four years ago. There are millions of these kooks now in the United States and that is very much an online phenomenon. The connection to domestic terrorism is very direct between the online space and a lot of major attacks,” she said.

Senior US correspondent Richard Hall

Diplomacy

The clock is ticking. Less than five months after Biden becomes president, Iran will hold an election that could see the ascent of a new hardline administration. That could seriously complicate efforts to return to the Tehran deal abandoned by Donald Trump and slow Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology.

The world is burning. The planet is in crisis, with temperatures rising faster than expected and fires engulfing huge swaths of the earth – from Australia to California to Siberia.

Democracy is dying. Authoritarian leaders across the planet continue to surge. Human rights and civil liberties are on the retreat. Nationalistic ideologies are undercutting multilateral cooperation. Faith in representative government and the liberal world order cherished by Biden is declining.

In the coming four years, the Biden administration will have to grapple with geopolitical challenges of Russia and China, But in his first 100 days, his foreign policy team will have limited bandwidth to focus on only a few issues and set a tone that could colour his entire term.

Returning the US to the Paris climate accord, from which the Trump administration withdrew is likely going to be priority one, and a simple matter of announcing that the US agrees to it.

“Climate change poses the greatest long-term threat to humanity’s future,” wrote Stephen Walt, a professor of International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. “The United States cannot be on the wrong side of this issue.”

A return to the Iran deal is crucial not just to get Tehran to roll back aspects of its nuclear programme and prevent the proliferation of atomic technology in the Middle East, but to reassure Washington’s closest allies as well as its rivals that America’s words are worth more than the paper they’re written on. Returning to the joint comprehensive plan of action (JCPOA) should be relatively easy, it was crafted by many of the same Democratic Party foreign policy stars now returning to the White House and State Department. Biden has called the agreement “historic” and vowed that “ if Tehran returns to compliance,” he would re-enter the agreement while “using hard-nosed diplomacy and support from our allies to strengthen and extend it”.

A return to the deal will also signal that the new administration would strive to uphold norms on international cooperation and liberal values that have been badly damaged during the rise of Trump and other would-be authoritarians. In a presentation this week, Human Rights Watch called on the Biden administration to place human rights as a priority.

 The Biden administration will have to grapple with the geopolitical challenges of Russia and ChinaGetty
The Biden administration will have to grapple with the geopolitical challenges of Russia and ChinaGetty

The Biden team will have many competing demands for its attention. But within days, it can easily rejoin the UN Human Rights Council which Trump’s first UN envoy Nikki Haley quit.

“Trump’s flouting of human rights at home and his embrace of friendly autocrats severely eroded US credibility abroad. US condemnations of Venezuela, Cuba, or Iran rang hollow when parallel praise was bestowed on Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Israel,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, in a report released this week.

Perhaps dismayingly, signing the US back up to the Paris Agreement, reviving the nuclear deal and rejoining the Human Rights Council, will only bring the US roughly back to where it was on 20 January 2017.

International correspondent Borzou Daragahi

Climate crisis

Biden will kick off his term with a flurry of executive orders to scrub parts of the Trump legacy. Among them is expected to be an order to rejoin the Paris climate accord – the international treaty aimed at keeping global temperature rise to 1.5C, a target which is moving increasingly out of reach.

As soon as the Biden administration notifies the United Nations by letter that the US wants back in, it should officially take effect in 30 days. It's then likely the US will be expected to submit updated carbon emission-reduction targets, along with details of how it plans to achieve them.

Biden is also reportedly planning to rescind Trump's permit for the $9bn Keystone XL oil pipeline as one of his first acts in office.

These are just two items on a long list of priorities for the new president. His administration will spend much of its early days unwinding the Trump era’s sweeping agenda that amounted to more than 100 rollbacks on rules and policies that protect the air, water, lands and wildlife, in favor of relaxing standards for those using toxic chemicals and spewing carbon emissions.

Dr Michael Mann, climate scientist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, said the Biden administration would open a new era of global cooperation, allowing America “to repair much of the damage that was done to our reputation on the world stage by Trump over the past four years”.

However Dr Mann, whose latest book The New Climate War was published earlier this month, told The Independent that there was a sobering reality to contend with in the climate crisis.

“Even if every country meets their commitments under Paris (and many, including the US and EU are currently falling at least a bit short), that gets us less than half-way to where we need to be, ie on a path to limiting warming below 2C (let alone the more stringent 1.5C many are now calling for),” Dr Mann said.

“Paris is a good starting point, but we need to go well beyond Paris now to achieve the reductions that are necessary."

He said that the 50-50 Senate split – following the Democrat victories in the Georgia run-off elections this month – provided a "real opportunity for meaningful climate legislation" but added that it would require a degree of compromise.

“Biden has put forward a bold climate plan with ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions and support for both regulatory and market-driven policy measures," he said.

“Given an even modestly favorable shift in political winds, one could envision [a bold climate bill] passing the House and moving on to the Senate with a half-dozen or more moderate conservatives crossing the aisle, joining with Senate Democrats to pass the bill within the next year or two.”

He added: “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see meaningful action here in the US and a reassertion of global leadership on climate.”

Jamie Henn, co-founder of grassroots climate movement, 350.org and director of Fossil Free Media, told The Independent that he would like to see the new Biden administration act swiftly to stop the fossil fuel industry damaging both democracy and the climate.

"Fossil fuel corporations have been some of the largest funders of the radical right for decades: the Koch brothers created the infrastructure, while companies like Chevron and Exxon have donated millions to sedition caucus members like Ted Cruz,” he said.“Passing democracy reform legislation like the For the People Act – that helps combat this industry influence needs to be a top priority."

He added: “At the same time, Biden needs to act aggressively to roll back Trump's handouts to fossil fuels and move us towards a clean energy future.

“Hundreds of groups have signed onto what we're calling the "Build Back Fossil Free" agenda, a set of executive actions that help advance climate justice, end the era of fossil fuel production, and create clean energy jobs and opportunity.

“The order I want to see coming out of the White House is, ‘Go as far as you can, as fast as you can.’ There isn't a moment to waste.”

Senior climate correspondent Louise Boyle

Democracy

Donald Trump’s presidency has been one long stress test of American democracy. And although the country will emerge from the last four years with its institutions largely intact, there’s no doubt they have been severely weakened.

Trump’s relentless attacks on the democratic process, his steady erosion of long held norms and his use of the bully pulpit to spread conspiracy theories about the November election have had a dramatic impact on people’s faith in the system.

One third of Americans believe Joe Biden’s victory is illegitimate, according to a recent ABC News/Ipsos poll, despite the Trump administration’s own department of justice declaring there was no widespread fraud and nearly every single piece of post-election litigation falling flat in court.

One of Mr Biden’s most urgent tasks over the next four years will be to restore trust in the electoral process and strengthen the weak points that his predecessor’s tenure exposed.

Then there are the long term, structural issues with the political system that have festered in the Trump years, or else worsened: voter suppression, the inequity of Senate representation and the lack of statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico.

The good news for Biden is that the legislation to fix some of these problems already exists. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act, named after the recently departed civil rights leader and already passed in the House, would restore federal oversight of voting changes in states with a history of racial discrimination and improve access to voting.

Standing in the way of any ambitious reform, however, is the Senate filibuster, which requires a 60-vote supermajority to overturn. Now with a majority in the Senate, Democrats could introduce changes to the filibuster which would allow them to pass that legislation.

With that done, statehood for Washington DC and Puerto Rico should be first on the agenda, according to Richard L Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California–Irvine School of Law and the author of Election Meltdown: Dirty Tricks, Distrust, and the Threat to American Democracy.

“There is no reason that residents in these two US areas should be denied full representation in the Senate. Adding additional states would help tilt the balance in the Senate, giving a better chance for the body not to reflect minoritarian Republican preferences,” he wrote in Slate.

Professor Hasen also argued for addressing some of the issues that were weaknesses in the system that were seized upon by the Trump administration such as raising the threshold for debating objections to electoral college votes to prevent attempts to subvert the will of the electorate.

He also advocated for the “both new laws and private actions to rebuild and bolster social institutions” to prevent “the asymmetric spread of electoral disinformation on cable television and in social media.”

Other democracy advocates are focused on efforts to take money out of the electoral process. Beth Rotman, director of money in politics and ethics at Common Cause, has argued for publicly funded political campaigns to level the playing field between ordinary citizens and wealthy interests.

“Citizen-funded election programs step in to create space for policies that favour large swaths of everyday Americans. Particularly when combined with restrictions on lobbyist and government contractor contributions, these reforms represent the best way to prevent government capture by the wealthy,” she told The Independent.

“In states and cities with these programs, ordinary citizens are more empowered to participate in democracy and better represented by those elected to office. Races are much more competitive, and the legislature is more representative of the state; local small donors matter.

“Citizen-funded elections are the best instrument we have to combat the problem of money in politics. The future of our democracy may depend on it,” she added.

Richard Hall

The economy

The unexpected Democrat victories in the Georgia Senate run-off elections have transformed the economic policymaking potential of the incoming Biden administration.

With those two results, which tipped control of the Senate from the Republicans to the Democrats, Biden went from being a president with firmly tied legislative hands to one with scope for deliver genuine fiscal support to the American economy – and soon.

First on the agenda, will be more fiscal support and stimulus for the still badly pandemic-wracked American public.

The Democrats’ $2.2 trillion Covid-relief Bill introduced in the House in September was gutted by Republicans, with only a relatively thin $900bn support package eventually passed by Congress in December.

Biden has confirmed he will now seek, in his first 100 days, to restore something close to the original plan, which will entail larger direct payments to households, an extension of emergency unemployment payments, additional help for small firms and more aid for state and local governments to tackle the health crisis and avoid layoffs of police, firefighters and teachers.

All this fiscal support and stimulus would not only boost 2021 US GDP growth but would also reduce the long-term economic scarring of the pandemic – and the sooner the money starts flowing the smaller the damage, especially with the American economy shedding jobs again in December for the first time since April 2020.

It’s not impossible that some Republicans in Congress would support more stimulus, given many argued publicly for larger household stimulus checks before the leadership rejected the Democrat plan in the run-up to the November elections, fearing it would help Democrat-controlled cities.

Donald Trump himself complained that the household checks were too small, and should have been $2,000 per person, rather than $600. Bipartisan support would, as ever, be preferable.

Yet even if it doesn’t materialise, the Democrat Senate majority means they can use the “reconciliation” process – which requires only a simple Senate majority to create law - to break the logjam, although this will take longer.

In terms of medium-term economic policy making, the Georgia results also opens up new possibilities. Biden proposed a multi-trillion dollar boost to federal infrastructure and clean energy spending in his election manifesto.

Since those spending areas are not covered by the reconciliation process there would need to be some Republican support to deliver that agenda. Yet Biden’s team will be calculating new ways to deliver all of that with a sense of potential that simply would simply not have existed before Georgia.

On climate change, rather than having to rely on regulatory fiat to reduce carbon emissions, the Biden team will now also, in theory, be able to reach for more powerful and direct legislative levers.

But, in terms of the first 100 days, perhaps one of the most significant benefits for Biden’s economic programme from the Georgia result, is that he can get his chosen policy team in place rapidly, without hold-ups from the Senate confirmation process.

That should help achieve rapid reversals of the destructive Trump-era regulatory policies on immigration and the environment.

Biden should also be able to undo some of the damage of Trump’s trade wars on day one, by simply ditching the tone of mindless aggression that has emanated from the White House for the past four years.

When it comes to shoring up the American economy, the Biden team can, mercifully, hit the ground running.

Economics editor Ben Chu

Education

Incoming first lady Jill Biden will continue teaching while her husband is in the White House, and education secretary nominee Miguel Cardona – a former public school teacher with two children in public school – marks an immediate departure from the more than three-year tenure of Betsy DeVos, a billionaire who sought to slash the federal education budget and divert billions of dollars in tax credits to pay for subsidised tuition to for-profit private schools.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten had two words for Secretary DeVos when she announced her resignation on 7 January: “Good riddance.”

The union has hailed the incoming administration’s $1.9trn “American rescue plan” coronavirus relief legislation, which includes $170bn for schools. Most of that money will help K-12 schools reopen, with funds targeting ventilation improvement, cleaning staff, personal protective equipment, and expanding transportation so children aren't clustered on buses. Congressional Democrats are eager to push it through, and fast.

On 21 January, his first full day in office, Biden intends to sign “a number of executive actions to move aggressively to change the course of the Covid-19 crisis and safely reopen schools and businesses'' within his first 100 days in office. But congressional support will be central to any plans to rapidly expand resources to states to safely re-open schools.

“Schools are the linchpin,” Dr Georges C Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told The Independent. “If we can get the schools safely opened up, then parents can get back to work. That’s one piece of it but it’s a major piece.”

Betsy DeVos sought to divert billions to for-profit private schoolsOlivier Douliery-Pool/Getty
Betsy DeVos sought to divert billions to for-profit private schoolsOlivier Douliery-Pool/Getty

Another $35bn from proposed legislation targets higher education, including financial assistance for students. Biden already has pledged to extend the existing pause on student loan payments and interest for federally backed student loans within his first day in office.

Senator Bernie Sanders dubbed DeVos "the worst education secretary in the history of America” following her comments at a financial aid conference in which she attacked student debt relief as “shrill calls to cancel, to forgive, to make it all free”.

Biden – who has adopted Senator Sanders’ proposal for tuition-free public colleges and universities for students from families who earn below $125,000 – plans to eliminate $10,000 in federally held student debt, through legislative action, not with an executive order. A Democratically controlled Congress is poised to wipe out that debt for millions of borrowers.

A growing number of progressive lawmakers in Congress have urged him to aim higher, by cancelling $50,000 in debt, along with any tax penalties, and pause future federal loan payments and interest through the duration of the pandemic. Other organisations like The Debt Collective have argued he could cancel all student debt immediately. He said he won’t do that.

More than 45 million Americans hold more than $1.6tn in student loan debt, a figure that has surged within the last decade, with growing private enrolment and steep cuts to higher education at the federal and state level. Graduates from the class of 2019 owe an average of nearly $30,000. Those debts soar among postgraduate degree holders, of which nearly a quarter owe $100,000 or more.

Alex Woodward

Coronavirus

Within 10 months, more than 400,000 Americans have died from Covid-19. The arrival and potential promise and success of a widely available vaccine marked a turning point in the public health crisis – led by a president that has ignored the overwhelming scale of deaths within his final year in office – but its distribution and administration of two fast-tracked drugs fell significantly short of the goals his administration set.

Biden inherits his failed effort to combat the disease, along with its impacts to millions of American workers in a struggling economy hailed by his predecessor as the best in history.

The incoming administration plans to roll out an immediate show of force within his first days in office: deploy Federal Emergency Management Agency resources and the US National Guard to set up vaccination clinics across the country, invoke the Defence Production Act to boost production of vaccine-related materials, and put millions of doses of vaccines into 100 million Americans within his first 100 days.

On day one, he will impose a mask mandate on federal properties and halt evictions and student loan payments and interest for millions of borrowers who have been stiffed with growing bills while out of work.

“There’s an urgency to doing this,” American Public Health Association executive director Dr Georges C Benjamin told The Independent. “A year after, we will be treating it with the urgency that’s been required.”

The Trump administration told state and local governments that a reserve of second-round vaccine doses was coming this month – but no such reserve exists, while health officials had expected to deliver second doses of vaccines that require two shots, 20 days apart, to be effective.

A reliable vaccine and the assurance that there is enough for distribution is “the centerpiece” of a working public health plan, Dr Benjamin said.

“Once you know what you’re getting, which has been very confusing from this administration, you can reliably plan vaccination programmes,” including ensuring the availability of second doses with the 21-day inoculation period, he said.

Central to the administration’s efforts to battle the disease and inject cash into the economy is his $1.9trn American rescue plan legislation, setting up a partisan battle in Congress following the grueling passage of a $900bn relief package in December after weeks of GOP deadlock.

But more fundamentally, the Biden administration has pledged a unified federal approach to combatting the disease and in its messaging in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s falsehoods and misinformation.

Alex Woodward

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