America is preparing to herald Joe Biden as its 46th president on Wednesday, turning the page on Donald Trump in a city that vividly bears the scars of his tumultuous presidency.
Instead of the joyous parades and cheering crowds that typically celebrate an inauguration, Washington is eerily quiet, a militarised zone on high alert. The ceremony will take place behind a ring of steel and barbed wire, watched over by thousands of national guard troops.
Biden will take the oath of office at the US Capitol, two weeks after it was stormed by a violent pro-Trump mob, leaving five dead, and one week after Trump was impeached there for a second time.
A tearful Biden gave a farewell speech to supporters in his home city of Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday, before travelling to the capital.
“I know these are dark times but there’s always light,” he said. “I’m truly honoured to be your next president and commander-in-chief and I’ll always be a proud son of the state of Delaware.”
He paraphrased James Joyce and nearly broke down with emotion as he said: “When I die, Delaware will be written on my heart.”
His one regret, he said, was the absence of his son Beau Biden, who died from brain cancer in 2015. “We should be introducing him as president,” he said.
At 78 Biden will be the oldest president ever sworn in, and his inaugural address is expected to echo his campaign message, calling for healing, unity and redeeming the soul of America.
The Democratic former senator and vice-president is also sure to address what his incoming administration has described as “four crises” facing the US: the economic downturn, racial injustice, the climate and the coronavirus pandemic, which has now infected more than 24 million Americans and killed about 400,000.
Historians have suggested that no president has faced such an uphill start since Franklin Roosevelt assured a nation embroiled in the Great Depression that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”.
Biden has pledged a $1.9tn stimulus proposal to rescue the economy and a goal of delivering 100m doses of Covid-19 vaccines in his first 100 days.
He is also lining up a slew of executive orders to begin undoing his predecessor’s legacy, including a dramatic overhaul of immigration laws, easing the pathway to citizenship for migrants without legal status and expanding refugee admissions.
Trump’s presidency looked set to end with a whimper. He has been banned from Twitter, depriving him of a megaphone that could move markets, rattle the political class and dominate news cycles. He also broke from tradition by failing to hold a farewell press conference.
Instead he was running down the clock in a near-deserted White House, where the official daily guidance for his last full day in office said only: “President Trump will work from early in the morning until late in the evening. He will make many calls and have many meetings.”
Media reports suggested Trump was working on a plan to issue more than 100 pardons, some highly controversial. It was not known if he would try to pre-emptively pardon himself.
The 45th president was set to leave the White House early on Wednesday, hold a formal sendoff at the Joint Base Andrews airfield and then take up residence at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. He faces an uncertain future.
Impeached by the House of Representatives for inciting violence against the US government on 6 January, he must endure a trial in the Senate, which could vote to bar him from holding public office again, destroying his hopes of running for president in 2024.
Ominously for Trump on Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate who could determine his fate, directly accused the president of sparking the 6 January attack, the worst on the US Capitol in more than two centuries.
“The last time the Senate convened, we had just reclaimed the Capitol from violent criminals who tried to stop Congress from doing our duty,” McConnell said. “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
Trump will be the first president to skip his successor’s inauguration in more than 150 years but his administration will be represented by Mike Pence, the vice-president, who reportedly offered an olive branch by calling his successor, Kamala Harris, to offer congratulations.
Harris will be sworn in by Sonia Sotomayor, meaning the first woman and first woman of colour to become vice-president will take her oath from the first woman of colour to sit on the supreme court. Biden’s administration is among the most diverse in US history, interpreted by many as a forceful rebuke to the white male dominance of the Trump era.
Trump’s election represented a leap into the political unknown but Wednesday is likely to symbolise a restoration of the old order. Guests will include former presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama – all of whom are younger than Biden – and former first ladies Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and Michelle Obama.
Jimmy Carter, at 96 the oldest living former president, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter will not be present but have sent their “best wishes”. It is the first inauguration they have not attended since Carter’s own in 1977.
The ceremony has been scaled down because of the pandemic and threats from white supremacists and domestic terrorists but it will not be without some glamour. Lady Gaga will sing the national anthem. Jennifer Lopez, Bruce Springsteen and Garth Brooks will also perform.
The proceedings will begin with an invocation by the Rev Leo O’Donovan, a Jesuit priest and close friend of the Biden family. Andrea Hall, the first African American woman to become captain of the fire rescue department in South Fulton, Georgia, will recite the pledge of allegiance.
About 200 dignitaries will sit – masked and physically distanced – on a main stage typically packed for inaugurations. Around 2,000 are expected to attend overall. Trump memorably and falsely claimed his inauguration crowd was bigger than Obama’s, which exceeded a million people.
In a striking image, the national mall has become a “field of flags” with about 191,500 flags of varying sizes, including flags representing every state and territory, and 56 pillars of light representing people unable to travel to Washington.
But many city streets remain locked down and mostly empty amid jitters over fresh protests by far-right groups and Trump supporters claiming the election was stolen. The Pentagon and FBI are vetting all 25,000 members of the national guard amid concerns over an insider threat.
On Tuesday it emerged that two guard members were removed from the operation because they were found to have ties to rightwing militias. No plot against Biden was found.
Senator Roy Blunt, chairman of the joint congressional committee on inaugural ceremonies, told reporters: “I feel good about where we are on security but, you know, as I said four years ago when I chaired this – somebody asked me, ‘What was your best moment of the inauguration?’ I said, ‘When everybody got back inside.’
“I mean it’s clearly always a moment … where our government is at its most vulnerable, but also an important moment where we project our strength as a democracy. So I’m feeling good about it, but I’m staying totally focused on that as much as I can.”