On Day One, Biden targets Trump policies on climate, virus with executive orders

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is moving swiftly to dismantle Donald Trump’s legacy on his first day in office, signing a series of executive actions that reverse course on immigration, climate change, racial equity and the handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The new president signed the orders just hours after taking the oath of office at the Capitol, pivoting quickly from his pared-down inauguration ceremony to enacting his agenda. With the stroke of a pen, Biden ordered a halt to the construction of Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall, ended the ban on travel from some Muslim-majority countries, declared his intent to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization and revoked the approval of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, aides said.

The 15 executive actions amount to an attempt to rewind the last four years of federal policies with striking speed. Only two recent presidents signed executive actions on their first day in office — and each signed just one. But Biden, facing the debilitating coronavirus pandemic, a damaged economy and a riven electorate, is intent on demonstrating a sense of urgency and competence that he argues has been missing under his Republican predecessor.

“There’s no time to start like today,” Biden said in his first comments to reporters as president.

Biden wore a mask as he signed the orders in the Oval Office — a marked departure from Trump, who rarely wore a face covering in public and never during events in the Oval Office. But mask wearing is now required in the building. Among the executive actions signed Wednesday was one putting in place a mask mandate on federal property. Biden’s order also extended the federal eviction freeze to aid those struggling from the pandemic economic fallout, created a new federal office to coordinate a national response to the virus and restored the White House’s National Security Council directorate for global health security and defense, an office his predecessor had closed.

The actions reflected the new president’s top policy priority — getting a handle on a debilitating pandemic. In his inaugural address, Biden paused for what he called his first act as president — a moment of a silent prayer for the victims of the nation’s worst public health crisis in more than a century.

He declared that he would “press forward with speed and urgency” in coming weeks. “For we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities — much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain,” he said in the speech.

But Biden’s blitz of executive actions went beyond the pandemic. He targeted Trump’s environmental record, calling for a review of all regulations and executive actions that are deemed damaging to the environment or public health, aides said Tuesday as they previewed the moves. Another order instructs federal agencies to prioritize racial equity and review policies that reinforce systemic racism. Biden also revoked a Trump order that sought to exclude noncitizens from the census and ordered federal employees to take an ethics pledge that commits them to upholding the independence of the Justice Department.

Aides said he also revoked the just-issued report of Trump’s “1776 Commission” that promotes “patriotic education.”

Those moves and others will be followed by dozens more in the next 10 days, the president’s aides said, as Biden looks to redirect the country without having to go through a Senate that Democrats control by the narrowest margin and will soon turn to Trump’s impeachment trial.

Republicans signaled that Biden will face fierce opposition on some parts of his agenda.

One of his orders seeks to fortify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, a signature effort of the Obama administration that provided hundreds of thousands of young immigrants protection from deportation and a pathway to citizenship. That’s part of a broader immigration plan that would provide an eight-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. without legal status.

The plan would lead to “a permanent cycle of illegal immigration and amnesty that would hurt hard-working Americans and the millions of legal immigrants working their way through the legal immigration process,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Even that familiar criticism seemed a return to the normalcy Biden has promised after years of disruptive and overheated politics. Biden’s first day in the White House was a celebration of Washington traditions. He attended church with both Democratic and Republican leaders of Congress.

In another effort to signal a return to pre-Trump times, Jen Psaki, the new White House press secretary, said she would hold a news briefing late Wednesday in a symbol of the administration’s commitment to transparency. Trump’s White House had all but abandoned the practice of briefing reporters daily.

Biden’s action notably did not include immediate steps to rejoin the Iran nuclear accord, which Trump abandoned and Biden has pledged to reimplement. Psaki noted that more actions were coming, including plans to revoke the Pentagon’s ban on military service by transgender Americans as well as the so-called Mexico City policy, which bans U.S. funding for international organizations that perform or refer women for abortion services.

Highlights of actions Biden is taking Wednesday:

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

MASK REQUIREMENT: Biden is requiring the use of masks and social distancing in all federal buildings, on federal lands and by federal employees and contractors. Consistently masking up is a practice that science has shown to be effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus, particularly when social distancing is difficult to maintain.

He is challenging all Americans to wear a mask for the first 100 days of his administration. That’s a critical period, since communities will still be vulnerable to the virus even as the pace of vaccination increases in pursuit of Biden’s goal of 100 million shots in 100 days.

WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION: Biden also is directing the government to rejoin the World Health Organization, which Donald Trump withdrew from earlier this year after accusing it of incompetence and bowing to Chinese pressure over the coronavirus.

Symbolizing Biden’s commitment to a more prominent global role, White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients announced that Dr. Anthony Fauci will deliver a speech Thursday to the WHO as head of a U.S. delegation. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, will lay out how the administration intends to work with the WHO on reforms, supporting the coronavirus response and promoting global health and health security

CLIMATE

PARIS CLIMATE ACCORD: Biden will sign an executive orders to rejoin the Paris climate accord, fulfilling a campaign pledge to get back into the global climate pact on Day One. Trump, a supporter of oil, gas and coal, had made a first priority of pulling out of global efforts to cut climate-damaging fossil fuel emissions.

It will take 30 days for the U.S. to officially be back in.

REVIEWING TRUMP ROLLBACKS: Biden’s Day One plans also include a temporary moratorium on new Trump administration oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, moving to revoke a presidential permit for the Keystone XL oil and gas pipeline and reviewing a Trump administration freeze on vehicle mileage and emissions standards. Biden also is setting in motion an evaluation of another Trump move that cut boundaries and protections for some national monuments.

Agencies will be directed to consider impact of climate change on disadvantaged communities and on future generations from any regulatory action that affected fossil fuel emissions, a new requirement.

IMMIGRATION

ENDING BAN ON MUSLIM TRAVELERS: Biden is ending what is variously known as the “travel ban” or the “Muslim ban,” one of the first acts of the Trump administration. Trump in January 2017 banned foreign nationals from seven mostly Muslim countries from entry into the country. After a lengthy court fight, a watered-down version of the rule was upheld by the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision in 2018.

The new administration says it will improve the screening of visitors by strengthening information sharing with foreign governments and other measures.

BORDER WALL: Biden is immediately ending the national emergency that Trump declared on the border in February 2018 to divert billions of dollars from the Defense Department to wall construction. He also is halting construction to review contracts and how wall money might be redirected.

Despite Trump’s repeated promises that Mexico would pay for the wall, U.S. Customs and Border Protection says Americans have committed $15 billion for more than 700 miles (1,120 kilometers). It is unclear how many miles are under contract and what penalties the government would have to pay for canceling them.

The Supreme Court has scheduled arguments Feb. 22 on the legality of Trump’s diverting Defense Department funds for counter-narcotics efforts and military construction projects to wall construction.

DACA: Biden will order his Cabinet to work to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which has shielded hundreds of thousands of people who came to the country as young children from deportation since it was introduced in 2012.

Trump ordered an end to DACA in 2017, triggering a legal challenge that ended in June when the Supreme Court ruled that it should be kept in place because the Trump administration failed to follow federal rule-making guidelines in undoing it. But DACA is still facing legal challenges.

In his presidential proclamation, Biden is calling on Congress to adopt legislation that gives DACA recipients permanent legal status and a path to citizenship. There are currently about 700,000 people enrolled.

DEPORTATIONS: Biden is revoking one of Trump’s first executive orders, which declared that all of the roughly 11 million people in the country illegally are considered priorities for deportation. The Department of Homeland Security will conduct a review of enforcement priorities. Biden’s campaign site says deportations will focus on national security and public safety threats.

The order says nothing about a 100-day moratorium on deportations that Biden promised during the campaign. Susan Rice, who is tapped to run the White House Domestic Policy Council, says any decision on moratoriums would come from Homeland Security.

CENSUS: Biden is reversing a Trump plan to exclude people in the country illegally from being counted in the 2020 Census. The once-a-decade census is used to determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets, as well as the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year.

Biden’s team says the new administration will ensure the Census Bureau has time to complete an accurate count for each state and that the apportionment is “fair and accurate.”

LEGISLATION: Biden is also proposing legislation that would grant green cards and a path to citizenship to anyone in the United States before Jan. 1, 2021, an estimated 11 million people. Most would have to wait eight years for citizenship but people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program for young immigrants and with Temporary Protective Status for fleeing strife-torn countries would only wait three years. Other provisions lessen the time that many people have to wait outside the United States for green cards, provide development aid to Central America and reduce the 1.2-million-case backlog in immigration courts.

STUDENT DEBT

Biden is asking the Education Department to extend a pause on federal student loan payments through at least Sept. 30, continuing a moratorium that began early in the pandemic but was set to expire at the end of January.

Borrowers, who owe a collective $1.5 trillion, would not be required to make payments on their federal student loans, their loans would not accrue any interest, and all debt collection activity would halt through September.

Congress paused student debt payments last March as part of a virus relief package, and the Trump administration extended it twice.

Biden’s order does not include the type of mass debt cancellation that some Democrats asked him to orchestrate through executive action. He has said that action should come from Congress.

HOUSING FORECLOSURES

Housing foreclosures and evictions would be delayed until at least March 31, 2021. Almost 12% of homeowners with mortgages are late on their payments, while 19% of renters are behind, according to a Census Bureau survey of households.

The federal moratoriums would ensure that people could stay in their homes even if they cannot afford their monthly bills. Biden is also calling on Congress to extend assistance to renters. While the moratoriums have aided several million Americans during the pandemic and helped to contain the disease, they have also meant that billions of dollars in housing costs have gone unpaid.

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