PHILADELPHIA: Two days from the inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris pitched in on Martin Luther King Jr Day service projects as a militarised and jittery Washington prepared for a swearing-in that will play out under extraordinary security.
Biden and his wife, Jill, joined an assembly line in the parking lot of Philabundance, an organisation that distributes food to people in need, and helped fill about 150 boxes with fresh fruit and non-perishables.
As Biden and Harris took breaks from their inaugural preparations to honour the civil rights hero Monday, outgoing President Donald Trump remained out of public view at the White House for the sixth straight day.
In past years, Trump has marked the holiday with unannounced visits to the King memorial in Washington but no such outing was expected this year.
Such a visit would have been complicated because Washington has become a fortress city of roadblocks and barricades before Wednesday’s inauguration as security officials work to avoid more violence following the Jan 6 riot by a pro-Trump mob at the US Capitol.
In a measure of how nervous the capital city has become, US Capitol Police on Monday briefly locked down the Capitol complex and paused inaugural rehearsals after fire broke out at a nearby homeless encampment.
Authorities urged staff working inside the complex to stay away from exterior windows and those outside the building to take cover as they briefly prohibited entry and exit from the grounds as a precaution.
Biden transition officials, including incoming Homeland Security adviser Liz Sherwood-Randall and the deputy attorney general nominee, Lisa Monaco, held a videoconference with acting heads and career staff from national security agencies to discuss the security situation surrounding Inauguration Day.
Harris played down any personal security concerns, saying she’s “very much looking forward to being sworn in".
“I will walk there, to that moment, proudly with my head up and my shoulders back,” Harris told reporters after volunteering at a food bank.
Still, Washington residents were on high alert and much of the city felt desolate, with large swaths of the area around the Capitol, White House and National Mall sealed off from all but authorised personnel.
Katie Henke, 40, a southwest DC resident, said the city felt on edge. She’s concerned enough that she packed a “go-bag” with clothes and other personal items in case she feels she must flee her neighbourhood.
“This is legitimately scary,” she said. “Between the pandemic and Trump, I feel like our country is at a weak and vulnerable point. And we know there are forces inside and outside the country that see that vulnerability as an opportunity to do something.”
About 25,000 National Guard troops were being dispatched across the city to bolster security. Monuments - including the King memorial - are closed to the public until after Wednesday’s inaugural events.
Harris was also set to resign her Senate seat on Monday. She offered thanks to her California constituents in a farewell video posted on social media “for the honour of representing the place of my birth, as a proud daughter of California".
Biden continued to build his administration. His transition team announced Monday he will nominate Rohit Chopra to direct the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tapping a liberal ally of Sen. Elizabeth Warren to lead the agency whose creation she championed.
Chopra, a commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission, helped launch the agency after the 2008 financial crisis and served as deputy director, where he sounded the alarm about skyrocketing student loan debt.
The pick comes as Democrats are eyeing ways to provide student loan relief to millions of Americans as part of a COVID-19 aid package.
Biden also announced his intent to nominate Gary Gensler, former chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, as the next chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Inaugural organisers on Monday finished installing some 200,000 small US, state and territorial flags on the National Mall, a sobering display intended to honour the nearly 400,000 Americans killed in the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden and Harris plan to take part in an event on Tuesday, soon after the president-elect arrives in Washington, at the reflecting pool near the Lincoln Memorial to honour American lives lost to COVID-19.
Even before the Jan 6 insurrection at the Capitol, inauguration festivities were expected to be muted due to the virus. Mayor Muriel Bowser urged residents to stay away from the city on Inauguration Day.
And instead of the typical inaugural balls, Biden's inaugural committee has recruited artists, including Bruce Springsteen, the Foo Fighters and John Legend to perform from remote locations around the country in a prime-time televised event.
Country music star Garth Brooks said Monday he would perform at Biden's inauguration. Brooks also performed at Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration.
Biden's inauguration committee previously said Lady Gaga would sing the national anthem and Jennifer Lopez would give a musical performance at the ceremony.
“This is not a political statement,” said Brooks, who was invited to perform at Trump's 2017 inaugural but declined, citing a scheduling conflict. "This is a statement of unity.”
Before the inauguration, the German Federation of Journalists warned foreign correspondents covering the event to take precautions and be “particularly careful and alert on Wednesday".
Association head Frank Ueberall cautioned Monday that “extremist Trump fans have already demonstrated their hatred and willingness to use violence against journalists at the Capitol".
“It is appalling that such an appeal is even necessary in the USA, once the model democracy,” he added.