Live Updates: Biden Works to Keep Focus on His Agenda

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During a CNN town hall on Tuesday night, President Biden made clear he had no desire to discuss his predecessor, former President Donald J. Trump.
Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Biden provided a clear and concise answer on Tuesday night to any Americans wondering just how much the new president wanted to discuss the previous one.

“I’m tired of talking about Donald Trump,” Mr. Biden said.

After saying little during his predecessor’s impeachment trial last week, Mr. Biden kept up that approach during a CNN town hall event in Milwaukee that offered him a chance to promote his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan.

At one point, Mr. Biden referred to Mr. Trump simply as “the former guy.” At another, he expanded on his aversion to discussing the former president, whom the Senate acquitted this past weekend of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

“For four years, all that’s been in the news is Trump,” Mr. Biden said. “The next four years, I want to make sure all the news is the American people.”

If Tuesday is any indication, Mr. Biden will not get his wish. Hours before the CNN event, Mr. Trump was back in the headlines after denouncing Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, in blistering terms.

The impeachment trial — which concluded with 43 of 50 Republican senators voting to find Mr. Trump not guilty — offered further confirmation of the loyalty that he still commands within the Republican Party. So did the swift blowback against the seven Republicans who defied him by voting to convict.

Mr. Trump will continue to make headlines as he carves out his place in Republican politics in the run-up to the midterm elections and, eventually, the next presidential race.

For now, however, Mr. Biden is pushing for the quick passage of another coronavirus relief package. With unemployment benefits set to expire in mid-March, Democratic lawmakers hope to advance legislation through the House by the end of February before sending it to the Senate.

The CNN town hall offered the president a prominent stage to make a case for his proposal. Mr. Biden will return to the subject again on Wednesday, in a planned meeting with labor leaders about the relief plan and one of his other priorities, infrastructure.

And unlike the last stimulus plan, which Congress approved in December, this one does not face a threat from Mr. Trump’s veto pen.

Michael van der Veen and Bruce Castor Jr., lawyers for former President Donald Trump, speak to members of the media after the Senate voted to acquit former President Trump during his impeachment trial in Washington, U.S. February 13, 2021.
Credit…Erin Scott/Reuters

Last Wednesday afternoon, when former President Donald J. Trump’s legal team gathered in a conference room in a special suite at the Trump hotel in Washington, a longtime adviser to Mr. Trump, Justin Clark, had an announcement to make.

Mr. Clark told one of the lawyers, Bruce L. Castor Jr., that after his widely panned performance a day earlier, Mr. Trump did not want him appearing on television any more during the impeachment trial.

Mr. Castor rose from his chair, and began angrily shouting at Mr. Clark, arguing that Mr. Trump was wrong to demote him. The back and forth became so heated that Mr. Castor left the conference room in a huff.

He later apologized to Mr. Clark. But the tense exchange was just one example of how Mr. Trump’s hastily assembled legal team — a mash-up of political hands, a personal-injury lawyer, a former prosecutor and a longtime defense lawyer, most of whom did not particularly like or trust one another — clashed, stumbled and regrouped throughout the impeachment proceeding under the watchful and sometimes wrathful eye of its client.

The result was an airplane held together with duct tape as it tried to land.

“You have to remember that we had literally one week and one day to prepare the defense and we were all people who never had met each other before,” one of the lawyers, David I. Schoen, said in a statement.

The lawyers that Mr. Trump assembled to represent him prevailed at the trial. But it wasn’t pretty, according to interviews with a half-dozen members of the legal team and others involved in the process.

 Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army  at Fort Sam Houston in 2019. She is expected to be promoted to head of the Southern Command, which oversees military activities in Latin America.
Credit…Bob Owen/The San Antonio Express-News, via Associated Press

Last fall, the Pentagon’s most senior leaders agreed that two top generals should be promoted to elite, four-star commands.

For then-Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the tricky part was that both of the accomplished officers were women.

In 2020 America under President Trump, the two Pentagon leaders feared that any candidates other than white men for jobs mostly held by white men might run into turmoil once their nominations got to the White House.

Mr. Esper and General Milley worried that if they even raised their names — Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force and Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army — the Trump White House would replace them with their own candidates before leaving office.

So the Pentagon officials agreed on an unusual strategy: They held back their recommendations until after the November elections, betting that if Joseph R. Biden Jr. won, he and his aides would be more supportive of the Pentagon picks than Mr. Trump, who had feuded with Mr. Esper and has a history of disparaging women. They stuck to the plan even after Mr. Trump fired Mr. Esper six days after the election.

“They were chosen because they were the best officers for the jobs, and I didn’t want their promotions derailed because someone in the Trump White House saw that I recommended them or thought D.O.D. was playing politics,” Mr. Esper said in an interview, referring to the Department of Defense. “This was not the case. They were the best qualified. We were doing the right thing.”

The strategy may soon pay off. In the next few weeks, Mr. Esper’s successor, Lloyd J. Austin III, and General Milley are expected to send the delayed recommendations to the White House, where officials are expected to endorse the nominations and formally submit them to the Senate for approval.

The story of the two officers’ unusual path to promotion — General Van Ovost to head the Transportation Command, which oversees the military’s sprawling global transportation network; and General Richardson to head of the Southern Command, which oversees military activities in Latin America — underscores the uncertainty clouding the final weeks of the Trump administration, and the unorthodox steps senior officials took to shield the Defense Department from actions they believed could jeopardize policy and personnel.

Soldiers returning to Fort Drum, N.Y., from Afghanistan in December. The Biden administration has a May 1 deadline to withdraw remaining troops from the country.
Credit…John Moore/Getty Images

The previous two presidents of the United States declared they wanted to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan, and they both decided in the end that they could not do it.

Now President Biden is facing the same issue, with a deadline less than three months away.

The Pentagon, uncertain what the new commander in chief will do, is preparing variations on a plan to stay, a plan to leave and a plan to withdraw very, very slowly — a reflection of the debate now swirling in the White House. The current deadline is May 1, in keeping with a much-violated peace agreement that calls for the complete withdrawal of the remaining 2,500 American forces.

The deadline is a critical decision point for Mr. Biden, and it will come months before the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that prompted the American-led invasion of Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda.

Two decades later, the strategic goals have shifted many times, from counterterrorism and democratization to nation-building, and far more limited goals that President Barack Obama’s administration called “Afghan good enough.” Mr. Biden — who argued as vice president throughout Mr. Obama’s term for a minimal presence — will have to decide whether following his instincts to get out would run too high a risk of a takeover of the country’s key cities by the Taliban.

By all accounts, Mr. Biden will be guided by his own experience, and he has yet to make a decision. Allies will be looking for some indications at a NATO summit meeting that starts Wednesday, though Mr. Biden’s aides say they are not rushing a critical decision.

One option under consideration, aides said, would be to extend the May 1 troop withdrawal deadline by six months to give all sides more time to decide how to proceed. But it is unclear that the Taliban would agree — or whether Mr. Biden would.

Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, a homeland security official during the Trump administration, in September in Washington.
Credit…Pool photo by Tom Williams

The Biden administration on Tuesday rejected a last-minute agreement reached by Trump loyalists that would have limited its ability to enact sweeping immigration policy changes.

The agreement would have handed policy controls to the pro-Trump union representing Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and prompted an anonymous whistle-blower to accuse the departing homeland security official who signed it, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II, of “gross mismanagement, gross waste of government funds and abuse of authority.”

The deal, which included a clause requiring homeland security leaders to obtain “prior affirmative consent” in writing from the union on changes to policies affecting immigration agencies, aimed to essentially to tie Mr. Biden’s hands, according to the whistle-blower complaint.

Under a federal law, the Department of Homeland Security has 30 days to cancel such an agreement once signed, after which it goes into effect.

“As part of routine process and provided for by statute, the department conducted a review of the terms of the agreement and determined that it was not negotiated in the interest of D.H.S. and has been disapproved because it is not in accordance with applicable law,” said Sarah Peck, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security.

Ms. Peck said in a statement that the department notified ICE and the union on Tuesday that the agreement had been rejected. Chris Crane, the ICE union president who signed the agreement with Mr. Cuccinelli, did not respond to a request for comment. The union, which represents more than 7,500 agents and employees, endorsed Donald J. Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.

ICE leadership had discussed in recent weeks whether the agreement would hinder Mr. Biden’s policy changes, including a recent directive to focus deportations on violent criminals, according to a senior homeland security official.

The agreement suggested that the union could appeal any such rejection to the Federal Labor Relations Authority.

Mr. Cuccinelli previously denied any abuse of authority and argued that the deal was signed in the best interest of the agency.

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