Republican President Donald Trump left the White House on Wednesday after a tumultuous four years in office, hours before Democrat Joe Biden assumes the helm of a country beset by deep political divides and battered by a raging coronavirus pandemic.
Biden, 78, will become the oldest US President in history at a scaled-back inauguration ceremony in Washington that has been largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus as well as security concerns following the January 6 assault on the US Capitol by Trump supporters.
Trump left the White House with his wife Melania just after 8am (local time) and went by helicopter to a sendoff event at Joint Air Force Base Andrews, where he promised supporters "we'll be back in some form" and extolled his administration's successes before flying off to Florida.
Top Republicans, including vice President Mike Pence, were not there to see him go. Biden arrived at the Capitol just before 10:30am for his inauguration after a visit to church, where he was joined in a show of unity by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and House of Representatives Republican leader Kevin McCarthy.
With only a small number of attendees present, Biden will take the oath of office before US Chief Justice John Roberts just after noon, placing his hand on an heirloom Bible that has been in the Biden family for more than a century.
Trump flouted one last convention on his way out. His refusal to attend his successor's swearing-in breaks with more than a century and a half of political tradition, seen as a way of affirming the peaceful transfer of power.
The President did, however, leave a customary note for Biden in the Oval Office, according to a White House official, though it was not yet known what it said.
Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, will become the first Black person, first woman and first Asian American to serve as vice President after she is sworn in by US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's first Latina member.
The ceremony will unfold in front of a heavily fortified US Capitol, where a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building two weeks ago, fired up by his false claims that the November 3 election was stolen with millions of fraudulent votes.
The violence, which left five dead, prompted the Democratic-controlled US House to impeach Trump last week for an unprecedented second time.
Thousands of National Guard troops were stationed on Wednesday around the Capitol, where barbed wire topped high fences and both guests and members of the press passed through multiple checkpoints. Access was strictly limited and required a government-conducted COVID-19 test within 48 hours of arrival.
Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, arrived around 10am Former Presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton were expected to attend, as well as vice President Mike Pence and other top Republican leaders.
Instead of a throng of supporters, the National Mall was covered by nearly 200,000 flags and 56 pillars of light meant to represent people from US states and territories.
'Soul of America'
Biden, who has vowed to "restore the soul of America," will call in his inaugural address for American unity at a time of crisis, according to advisers.
He will also waste little time trying to turn the page on the Trump era, advisers said, signing a raft of 15 executive actions on his first day in office on issues ranging from the pandemic to the economy to climate change.
The orders will include mandating masks on federal property, rejoining the Paris climate accord and ending Trump's travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.
Trump, who grew increasingly isolated in the waning days of his tenure, has still not explicitly conceded the election.
In his final remarks as president on Wednesday, Trump listed his successes, including the "medical miracle" that yielded a coronavirus vaccine in less than a year, and said serving as president was his "greatest honor." He did not mention Biden by name.
"Have a good life - we will see you soon," Trump said before boarding Air Force One to head to his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
He issued more than 140 pardons and commutations in his final hours in office, including a pardon for his former political adviser, Steve Bannon, who has pleaded not guilty to fraud charges.
But Trump did not issue preemptive pardons for himself or members of his family, after speculation that he might do so.
Biden's inauguration caps a five-decade career in public service that included more than three decades in the US Senate and two terms as vice President under former President Barack Obama.
But he faces overlapping crises that will challenge even someone of his political experience.
The pandemic in the United States reached a pair of grim milestones on Trump's final full day in office on Tuesday, reaching 400,000 US deaths and 24 million infections - the highest of any country. Millions of Americans are out of work because of pandemic-related shutdowns and restrictions.
Biden has vowed to bring the full weight of the federal government to bear on the crisis.
His top priority is a $1.9 trillion plan that would enhance jobless benefits and provide direct cash payments to households. It will require approval from a deeply divided Congress, where Democrats will hold slim advantages in both the House and Senate.
Wednesday's executive actions, by contrast, are intended to advance Biden's priorities without the need for legislation.