Coronavirus: US Senate passes major $1.9tn relief plan

The US Senate has voted to approve America’s third major spending package to deal with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

The $1.9tn (£1.4tn) plan passed by 50 votes to 49 on Saturday, and will now head to the House of Representatives where it is expected to be endorsed.

The relief plan has been championed by President Joe Biden, but Republicans have criticised it as too costly.

Mr Biden’s Democratic Party compromised on a key issue ahead of the vote.

There were long discussions over federal unemployment benefit, which Democrats agreed to lower from $400 to $300 a week. The benefit would be extended until 6 September under the plan.

The package also envisages one-off payments worth $1,400 to be sent to most Americans.

America’s worst public health crisis in a century has left nearly 523,000 people dead and 29 million infected, with a current unemployment rate of 6.2%. 

What’s in the package?

The so-called American Rescue Plan allocates $350bn to state and local governments, and some $130bn to schools.

It would also provide $49bn for expanded Covid-19 testing and research, as well as $14bn for vaccine distribution.

The $1,400 stimulus cheques will be quickly phased out for those with higher incomes – at $75,000 for a single person and for couples making more than $150,000.media caption”I’m not sure how we’re going to survive”

The extension of jobless benefits until September, meanwhile, would mark a key reprieve for millions of long-term unemployed Americans whose eligibility for benefits is currently due to expire in mid-March.

The bill also includes grants for small businesses as well as more targeted funds: $25bn for restaurants and bars; $15bn for airlines and another $8bn for airports; $30bn for transit; $1.5bn for Amtrak rail and $3bn for aerospace manufacturing.

What were the sticking points?

While Republicans broadly backed two previous stimulus plans, passed when they controlled both the White House and the Senate under Donald Trump, they have criticised the cost of Mr Biden’s bill.

There was a marathon 27-hour session before the final vote on Saturday, and the 50-49 tally along party lines was indicative of the widespread Republican opposition.

The even split between the parties in the Senate meant that every Democratic senator needed to support the party’s plans.

But on Friday a moderate Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin, objected on the grounds that the huge bill might overheat the economy. It took 11 hours of negotiation throughout the night to come up with a deal.

The compromise on lowering unemployment benefit meant the package could move forward to a final vote.

“It’s been a long day, a long night, a long year, but a new day has come and we tell the American people help is on the way,” Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said ahead of the vote.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, however, criticised the aid package. “The Senate has never spent $2tn in a more haphazard way or through a less rigorous process,” he said.

Mr Schumer has predicted that the House will endorse the bill and President Biden will sign it before boosted unemployment benefits expire on 14 March.

How the number of deaths has been falling in the US
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Biden orders 100-day review amid supply chain strains

US President Joe Biden has ordered officials to find ways to bolster supply chains as a shortage of computer chips hits carmakers around the world.

Joe Biden

It comes after the pandemic has strained many producers and forced the US to scramble for medical gear.

The initial review is focused on computer chips, pharmaceuticals, rare earth minerals and large batteries, such as those used in electric cars.

China is a key supplier for many of those items.

US officials said the review was not targeted at China, which like the US imports most of its computer chips and has been trying to boost domestic production.

They said the administration was interested in increasing some production in the US and expected to work with other countries for items that could not be made domestically.

Reliance on “strategic competitor nations” is expected to be part of the analysis, they added. 

Computer chip

“While we cannot predict what crisis will hit us, we should have the capacity to respond quickly in the face of challenges,” the White House said in a statement announcing the study, which will start with a 100-day focused review, before widening its scope.

“The United States must ensure that production shortages, trade disruptions, natural disasters and potential actions by foreign competitors and adversaries never leave the United States vulnerable again.”

Under pressure

The president, who will formally sign the executive order on Wednesday, has come under pressure as firms such as General Motors and Ford have cut production and announced lay-offs due to the shortage of chips – key components for many electronic products, which have been in high demand due to the pandemic.

Republicans have also pushed Mr Biden to do more to address reliance on China, while business and technology lobby groups have also called on the administration to introduce investment tax credits to encourage the building of more US semiconductor manufacturing plants, where the chips are produced.

“While the governments of our global competitors have invested heavily to attract new semiconductor manufacturing and research facilities, the absence of US incentives has made our country uncompetitive and America’s share of global semiconductor manufacturing has steadily declined,” the groups wrote in a recent letter, signed by the US Chamber of Commerce, the Semiconductor Industry Association and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, among others.

“To be competitive and strengthen the resilience of critical supply chains, we believe the US needs to incentivize the construction of new and modernized semiconductor manufacturing facilities and invest in research capabilities.”

US semiconductor firms currently account for 47% of global chip sales, according to the Semiconductor Industry Association. However, just 12% of chips are made in the US, down from 37% in 1990.

Under former President Donald Trump, the US adopted a protectionist approach, increasing border taxes and in some cases forbidding US firms from doing business with Chinese competitors in an effort to boost US producers.

Amid the changes, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, last May announced plans to build a $12bn (£8.5bn) factory in the US.

Biden: ‘Erratic’ Trump should not get intelligence briefings

President Joe Biden has said his predecessor Donald Trump should not be given access to intelligence briefings because of his “erratic behaviour”.

The US has a tradition of allowing former presidents to be briefed on the nation’s security issues – as a courtesy extended by the incumbent.

But when asked by CBS News if Mr Trump would receive the same courtesy, President Biden said “I think not”.

He cited Mr Trump’s “erratic behaviour” as his reason for refusing access.

“I don’t think there’s any need for him to have an intelligence briefing,” Mr Biden said in his first sit-down interview since becoming president.

He declined to speculate on what his worst fears would be if Mr Trump were allowed to see classified reports, but he suggested the former president could not be trusted to keep confidential information to himself.

“What value is giving him an intelligence briefing? What value is there at all, other than that he might slip and say something?” Mr Biden said.

The move is the first time a former president has been excluded from the tradition of being granted continued access to the briefings, according to the New York Times.

Mr Trump feuded with the intelligence community throughout his four-year presidency and went through six national intelligence directors.

He questioned reports by US agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and assailed intelligence chiefs for being “extremely passive and naive” over Iran.

In 2017, he disclosed highly-classified information to Russia’s foreign minister about an Islamic State operation in what was seen as a breach of trust by many in the US intelligence community.

During his CBS interview, President Biden was asked about the impeachment trial Mr Trump is facing in the US Senate for his role in the riot at the Capitol on 6 January.

Mr Biden said he “ran like hell to defeat” Mr Trump in the election “because I thought he was unfit to be president”, but he would leave the Senate to decide whether the Republican should be barred from ever holding public office again.

U.S. oil industry seeks unusual alliance with Farm Belt to fight Biden electric vehicle agenda

The U.S. oil industry is seeking to forge an alliance with the nation’s corn growers and biofuel producers to lobby against the Biden administration’s push for electric vehicles, but is so far meeting a cool reception, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions.

The effort marks an unusual attempt by the petroleum industry to cozy up to its long-time rivals, reflecting the scale of its concern over President Joe Biden’s sweeping measures to combat climate change and tamp down fossil fuels.

While the oil industry and biofuels producers are natural competitors for space in America’s gas tanks, they share a desire to ensure a future for internal combustion engines.

The effort also reflects the rapidly shifting political landscape in Washington: the oil industry’s once-mighty influence has waned since Biden replaced Donald Trump as president, but the farm belt remains a vital and powerful political constituency.

The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers oil refining trade group confirmed it has been contacting state and national representatives of the corn and biofuel industries in recent weeks to seek support for a policy that would reduce the carbon-intensity of transport fuels and block efforts to provide federal subsidies for electric vehicles.ADVERTISEMENTnull

That proposal would be an alternativ to Biden’s stated goal of electrifying the nation’s vehicle fleet and would ensure a continuing market for liquid fuels like gasoline and corn-based ethanol.

AFPM met in mid-January with some corn and biofuel industry lobbyists and some member refiners are hoping to host another meeting in February to discuss the future of liquid fuels.

“This whole idea was going to have to take a whole lot of time to gel, but we have made some progress,” said Derrick Morgan, senior vice president at AFPM.

The industry’s push to change the course of electric vehicle policy faces big headwinds: California has announced a ban on internal combustion engines by 2035, other states are considering similar measures, and auto-maker General Motors on Thursday announced it will produce only electric vehicles by then.Slideshow ( 2 images )

Geoff Cooper, head of the Renewable Fuels Association, a leading biofuel industry trade group, confirmed RFA representatives were invited to participate in the February meeting, but said his organization had not yet decided whether to attend.

“We weren’t born yesterday and we’re not going to let the oil industry play us like a fiddle,” he said. “They have a long history of pushing surrogates and proxies to the microphone to do their dirty work and we’re not interested in that.”

The National Corn Growers Association is also considering whether to send staff the February discussion, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

NCGA CEO Jon Doggett told Reuters no such meeting had been scheduled, and distanced his group from the idea of an oil-corn alliance. “I have nothing to do with any refining groups. We haven’t talked,” he said.

Asked if any of its state-level member organizations were considering attending, Doggett replied, “We have dozens of groups. I can’t know what all of them are planning.”

Sources said the biofuel and corn industry is reluctant to join with the oil industry on this issue not just because of its longstanding rivalry with refiners, but also because it does not want to publicly oppose the energy policies of the new president.

WHIPLASH IN WASHINGTON

The refining sector enjoyed a seat at the table under former President Donald Trump, who was keen to bolster the oil and gas industry.

Biden marks a complete reversal. He entered the White House promising measures to restrain the oil industry, from pausing new drilling leases on public lands to contemplating tougher limits on emissions.

Biden this week pledged to buy 645,000 electric cars for the government vehicle fleet as part of a broader plan to advance EVs through vehicle procurement, infrastructure development and subsidies, threatening the multi-billion dollar gasoline market.

AFPM’s Morgan said refiners are not scared of electric vehicles but dislike rigid government mandates. “What we have a problem with are heavy-handed mandates that take away consumer choice, either altogether or in large part. We don’t think that’s the right way forward,” Morgan said.

The oil industry believes carbon emissions from fuel can be reduced by requiring increased octane content, which makes gasoline burn cleaner. Ethanol is a popular octane booster.

The U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard currently requires refiners to blend biofuels like ethanol into fuels. As a result, most gasoline sold in the United States has about 10 percent ethanol in it. The biofuel industry has been pushing hard to ensure those mandates continue.

“It’s no surprise the oil industry all of a sudden wants to give us a bear hug. We produce lower carbon fuels. They don’t,” said Emily Skor, head of the biofuel group Growth Energy.

Do Americans support President Biden on immigration?

President Joe Biden has made reforming US immigration policy one of his top priorities. On Friday he will flesh out his plan.

It comes after four years in which his predecessor Donald Trump pushed hard to curb the flow of illegal immigration into the country.

Mr Biden is already reversing and rolling back several Trump-era policies, including freezing construction of the border wall and revoking the policy to separate migrant families crossing the border.

He also plans to offer an eight-year pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country.

We asked members of our BBC voter panel to weigh in on these actions. Here’s what they said:

Amira Landeros, 19, Texas

Amira lives in the border town of El Paso. Like many of her friends, she has felt the direct impact of recent US immigration policy: in 2016, her father was deported back to Mexico. 

Do you approve of President Biden halting construction of the border wall?

Finally! When Trump disclosed his plans for the border wall, I thought it was pointless. It stood for a system of white supremacy. It was a statue for Trump. I’m glad that Biden is stopping construction. I know what it’s like to grow up in a border city, with Juarez, Mexico, a few feet away. We are a proud Mexican city and we try to exemplify that in our culture and customs. The rhetoric divided people. There’s a fence, but there was no need for a wall. A lot of my friends – Mexicans and Mexican Americans – said they’d just get a ladder and climb over it. A wall wasn’t going to stop people looking for better opportunities.

Do you approve of the Biden administration retracting the ‘zero tolerance’ separation policy?

I’m glad that’s finally halted and it was much needed. Here in El Paso, a lot of us protested against the separation of families. Travelling to a different country and being forcibly separated has to be the worst experience. I can’t even imagine what these migrants are dealing with. I have a couple of friends who were born in the United States but whose families were deported, so I’ve seen firsthand their struggle of waking up every morning and crossing the border to go to school.

Do you approve of the Biden proposal that creates a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented?

I did not know he was going to do that, but I think it’s great. I have friends who aren’t able to go to school because of their citizenship and it takes years to get a green card or student visa. It took my grandmother 11 or 12 years to get her green card. So it is fantastic that the process is now going to be sped up. 

Gabriel Montalvo, 21, New York, Republican

Gabriel is a second-generation Ecuadorian American and a ‘Latino for Trump’. He is not a fan of President Biden’s proposals on immigration and fears there is an ulterior motive behind them.

Do you approve of President Biden halting construction of the border wall?

I’m not a fan of that. We were working towards having stronger border security and ensuring sovereignty for the US and our neighbours. When you deter people from coming, they’ll find better approaches rather than paying out to coyotes [smugglers]. When I was a Democrat, I was a strong believer in open borders, but looking at the legality of things, it isn’t fair. People have been waiting for years to get in legally, so they can prosper without fear of deportation or being sent away. It’s put in place so that you don’t have to rely on people that can potentially ruin your life, like the traffickers and the cartels. People are still coming here because they see opportunity. I find it very important that we not only recognise that but ensure that, when we send people back, they understand what they did wrong. They can’t fix their country of origin by coming here and sending money back because it will just encourage more people to do the same.

Do you approve of the Biden administration retracting the ‘zero tolerance’ separation policy?

From an altruistic and strictly human perspective, I can understand and feel for people who are nervous, worried or scared. From a legal perspective, people know they run that risk every day when they don’t take the necessary steps. Those rules are our rules. It’s a very sad thing to know you can leave your family to make a new life and – in the blink of an eye – you can be caught and separated from those people, in a completely strange place, potentially not speaking the language and not knowing what’ll happen to you. Do I think that it is necessarily the right thing? No, I would like to see the families at least have each other. I’m not a fan of the separation, but I can also understand why it was a deterrent.

Do you approve of the Biden proposal that creates a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented?

There certainly needs to be a thorough vetting process. As much as I can be upset about it, I think it’ll pass through the House and potentially the Senate, but I cannot emphasise enough how much people need to be vetted for what ties they might have and to whom. It’s not wrong to want to know who you have in your country and in your neighbourhood. The people who live around somebody I know are MS-13 gang members and they were going to kill a person in her front yard, and they were not illegal. This is not indicative of all immigrants by any means, but I’ve seen what people do when they do not have their papers. There needs to be measures taken against people who are trying to make a decent life here versus people who are actively breaking the law and taking advantage of our system. 

Bessy Clarke, 28, Louisiana, Democrat

Bessy was born in Honduras but migrated to the US legally as a child. She feels fortunate to be here but sympathises with the plight of the millions denied entry at the border.

Do you approve of President Biden halting construction of the border wall?

I’m happy to hear it. I always thought the border project was one of those promises Trump made just to appease his base. I never thought there was any real purpose considering that most people in the US illegally overstayed visas. With so many other issues, it was stupid for them to be funnelling so much money into a racist vanity project. I always said, if I wasn’t in the US now, I could see myself being young and willing to cross the border. I was just lucky.

Do you approve of the Biden administration retracting the ‘zero tolerance’ separation policy?

I’m happy Biden did that. I thought it was one of the cruellest and darkest chapters of the Trump administration. For people that prided themselves on being so pro-life to rejoice over literally separating children from their parents was so barbaric. Those detention centres were borderline concentration camps. I had a cousin in one of them and he said it was awful. He was sick for weeks and got no medical attention. He was crammed in a room with 20 men. It took ages for us to even track him down and we only found him by sheer luck. If we spent weeks trying to find him – a man in his 20s – I can’t imagine what it must be like to be alone as a child. 

Do you approve of the Biden proposal that creates a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented?

I think it’s great. A lot of these undocumented immigrants are already paying taxes, so I really don’t see a problem with giving them papers and allowing them to to work and contribute to the economy. A lot of people have been here for years, they haven’t done anything wrong and they’ve been honest, hard-working people. Undocumented immigrants are doing jobs like harvesting food and cleaning houses, jobs that no one wants to do. My mother came to this country – although legally – and did not speak any English, but 25 years later, she owns a massive housekeeping company. That’s the American Dream. Immigrants make this country great. And I would imagine there’s some kind of due process. If someone’s committed a crime or some kind of felony, they shouldn’t be allowed, but if someone has no criminal record other than illegally crossing the border, I think they deserve to stay.

Rom Solene, 59, Arizona, Republican

An Iranian migrant, Rom was a strong supporter of the Trump administration’s immigration policies. He says the policy changes under Biden will only encourage more illegal immigration.

Do you approve of President Biden halting construction of the border wall?

I’m against President Biden doing that. I think a wall is effective and I was all for President Trump building it. I forget what the budget estimate was for the wall, but it was a spit in the ocean when you look at the trillions in federal budget outlays. I was disappointed in the lack of progress but that’s only because Democrats were trying to hobble that effort every step of the way. There’s talk of high-tech alarms and drones, but at the end of the day, a physical wall stops people or slows them down. The classic example is politicians like Nancy Pelosi, who’s got this wall around her compound in the middle of San Francisco. If walls didn’t work, why do they have walls built around their homes?

Do you approve of the Biden administration retracting the ‘zero tolerance’ separation policy?

I viewed family separation as being unfortunate, but my personal perspective is that parents who bring their kids across the border put them at risk. Because they are dependent on coyotes [smugglers]. When the US government separates them for whatever reason, somehow the US is the bad guy. Where’s the parents’ responsibility in all of this? I understand the need to provide a better life for their children. I get it, but I don’t have a lot of empathy or sympathy for that situation. At least they should be thankful they’re being well fed and cared for, it’s not like the kids are being tossed out into the wild. To be honest, I wasn’t even aware of it under President Obama; I don’t remember hearing about it and he got a free pass. 

Do you approve of the Biden proposal that creates a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented?

If I knew this was going to be the last bite at the apple, I would support it, to lay this issue to rest once and for all. However, I know from past history that this will not be the last bite. A similar amnesty-type program was issued around 1986 when President Reagan was in office and I remember all the politicians who signed on said let’s clear the air and be done with it. And then it just built up again over the next 30-35 years, and here we are again. Where’s the end of the line? If President Biden would say this is absolutely the last time we’re doing it and we’re going to make sure this can’t be done again, I’d be all for it. But it’s not going to happen and my fear is we are going to end up in a situation where we have open borders.

Biden raises election meddling with Putin in first phone call

US President Joe Biden has warned Russian leader Vladimir Putin about election meddling in their first call as counterparts, the White House says.

The conversation included a discussion about the ongoing opposition protests in Russia and an extension of the last remaining US-Russia nuclear arms pact.

Mr Putin congratulated the new US president on winning the election, according to a Russian statement.

Both parties said they agreed to maintain contact moving forward.

Former US President Donald Trump sometimes undercut his own administration’s tough posture on Russia and was accused by some of being too deferential to Mr Putin. 

But former President Barack Obama – under whom Mr Biden served as vice-president – was also criticised for failing to check the Kremlin as it annexed Crimea, invaded eastern Ukraine and muscled in on Syria.

What did the White House and Kremlin say about the call?

“President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defence of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies,” the White House said in a short statement, referencing the main talking points of Tuesday afternoon’s call but listing no further details.

The US said that the two presidents also discussed the massive SolarWinds cyber-attack, which has been blamed on Moscow; reports that the Kremlin placed bounties on US soldiers in Afghanistan; and the poisoning of Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny.

The Kremlin statement about the call did not refer to any points of friction the White House said had been raised by Mr Biden, who has in the past referred to Mr Putin as “a KGB thug”.

Russian officials said their president had “noted that the normalisation of relations between Russia and the United States would meet the interests of both countries and – taking into account their special responsibility for maintaining security and stability in the world – of the entire international community”.

“On the whole, the conversation between the leaders of Russia and the United States was of a business-like and frank nature,” the Kremlin statement added.

The two leaders appeared to seal an agreement to renew New Start, an Obama-era accord that limits the amounts of warheads, missiles and launchers in the US-Russian nuclear arsenals.

It was due to expire next month, and Mr Trump had refused to sign on.

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Biden doesn’t want a confrontation

Analysis box by Barbara Plett-Usher, State Department correspondent

Joe Biden had indicated he would be tougher on Vladimir Putin than Donald Trump, who refused to take on the Kremlin and frequently cast doubt on Russian interference in the 2016 elections.

On that matter Mr Biden made his sharpest break with Mr Trump, reportedly telling Mr Putin that he knew Russia had tried to meddle in both the 2016 and 2020 elections. He also warned the Russian president that the US was ready to defend itself against cyber-espionage, and any other attacks.

Despite Mr Trump’s conciliatory approach, the Kremlin did not benefit from his presidency, because his administration heavily sanctioned Russians for issues ranging from Ukraine to attacks on dissidents. Joe Biden and his foreign policy team will take a robust position on human rights and Mr Putin’s intentions in Europe.

But they are not looking for a confrontation.

Rather, they hope to manage relations and co-operate where possible. In that vein, the two presidents did agree to work at completing the extension of the new Start arms control treaty before it expires next month.

What else did Biden do today?

The call with the Kremlin comes as Mr Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 78-22.

Mr Biden later appeared at the White House to sign four executive orders aimed at addressing what he called US systemic racism.

“This is the time to act and it’s to act because it’s what the core values of this nation call us to do. I believe the vast majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents share these values and want us to act as well,” said Mr Biden.

The president directed the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prison operators, though activists noted the order does not cover privately run immigration detention centres.

Mr Biden also directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take steps to eradicate racism from housing policy.

According to the Washington Post, the department will reinstate a 2013 rule on “disparate impact” that aims to block the real estate sector from requiring tenants to undergo criminal background checks, or using artificial intelligence to forecast creditworthiness.

The new orders also recommit the US government to respect tribal sovereignty. This is not seen as a significant change from existing federal policy, but some Native American officials have said their objections to public land decisions were ignored under the Trump administration.

Mr Biden also signed a directive rejecting coronavirus-related discrimination against the Asian-American and Pacific Islander communities.

Mr Biden also announced on Tuesday that his administration planned to buy 100 million more doses each of Pfizer and Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine so as to inoculate nearly every American by this summer’s end.

Zuckerberg’s Biden problem

Before the Cambridge Analytica story had broken. Before Facebook’s acknowledgement that its platform had been used to help incite ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. Before the WhatsApp lynchings in India. Before QAnon and the Proud Boys – Mark Zuckerberg had the world at his feet.

So much so in fact, that at the start of 2017 he decided to tour America. 

In a Facebook post, he said he wished to “talk to more people about how they’re living, working and thinking about the future”. 

His goal was to speak to people in all 50 states – to get out and engage with real Americans. 

It was seen by some as the start of a possible 2020 presidential bid – something he always denied. 

His potential candidacy was seriously debated in the press – he had money, drive, and power. 

Vanity Fair website
image captionThere had been speculation that Mr Zuckerberg would run for president

This week, Joe Biden took the job that many believe Mark Zuckerberg secretly craves, or at least craved. And in doing so, he completed a reverse metamorphosis for Zuckerberg. A butterfly no longer, he finds himself alienated politically. 

“He’s not a welcome figure at the cocktail party any more. And I don’t think he has been for a long time,” says Sarah Miller, director of the American Economic Liberties Project. She also happens to be on Joe Biden’s transition team.

“There is not a lot of love lost there,” she told me. “Facebook is broadly seen as the most prominent villain, among all the tech monopolists.”

Obama’s administration was considered to be close to Silicon Valley and to Facebook. If Biden was ever a friend, he’s not now. 

In fact, the president often uses Facebook as a byword for the ills of a free internet gone wrong. 

Talking to the New York Times a year ago he said:

“I’ve never been a fan of Facebook, as you probably know. I’ve never been a big Zuckerberg fan. I think he’s a real problem.”

It’s not just Biden. In the days after Biden’s election victory, his deputy head of communications, Bill Russo, tweeted:

“If you thought disinformation on Facebook was a problem during our election, just wait until you see how it is shredding the fabric of our democracy in the days after.”

Mark Zuckerberg at the US Senate in 2018

Democrats blame Facebook for what happened in 2016. The Republicans’ use of Cambridge Analytica to micro-target voters was seen as a crucial component in Trump’s victory. Some of the angst is about settling old scores.

But if that was the turning point, relations are even worse now. Since then, Democrats – Joe Biden included – have been appalled by what Facebook has allowed on its platform. 

Talking to a CNN anchor in late 2019 Joe Biden said:

“You can’t do what they can do on Facebook, and say anything at all, and not acknowledge when you know something is fundamentally not true. I just think it’s all out of hand.” 

Devastating for Facebook

When you’re a billionaire, perhaps it doesn’t matter that the president doesn’t like you much.

But what President Biden has a chance to do now is restructure Big Tech and reformulate the relationship that social media companies have with their users.

That could be devastating for Facebook. 

Its most obvious problem is the potential repealing of Section 230. 

This is a small but crucial piece of legislation that prevents companies like Facebook from being sued for the things people post. 

Joe Biden has said he wants it removed. In fact, in that same New York Times interview from a year ago he said he wanted it “revoked immediately”. 

That could spell disaster for Zuckerberg. Suddenly all the things people post, all of the defamatory and fraudulent things people say – would be the responsibility of Facebook. It’s hard to see how Facebook functions in its current form without Section 230. 

And that’s before we get into Facebook’s anti-trust problems. It’s currently being sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and 46 states for “illegally maintaining its monopoly position” by buying up the competition. 

The FTC has also said it’s looking at “unwinding Facebook’s prior acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp” – ie breaking the firm up. 

Facebook will, of course, fight that. But Biden seems a pretty willing ally to those who want to split up Big Tech. 

In 2019, he said that breaking up companies such as Facebook was “something we should take a really hard look at”. 

Jameel Jaffer, a media legal expert at Columbia University, told me: “I would expect the Biden administration to be pretty aggressive in enforcing the anti-trust laws. And to have the whole spectrum of harms in mind, not just the democratic harms, but harms relating to user privacy and consumer welfare.” 

President Biden is even reportedly thinking of creating an anti-trust tsar, designed specifically to restore competition in areas like Big Tech.

Donald Trump and other Republicans always claimed that Facebook was too liberal, that it was biased against conservatives. But Trump did very well out of the platform. Both Trump and his high profile supporters regularly featured in the top 10 most shared Facebook posts of the day.

Trump’s indefinite suspension from both Instagram and Facebook of course changes that dynamic again. But would he have been suspended if he’d had a year to go of his presidency rather than a week?

Trump’s suspension has to be seen through that lens. Facebook is now scrambling to show it can moderate itself – that it agrees with Joe Biden’s view that a free internet isn’t necessarily a great and glorious thing.

And what better way to show you’re serious than banning the president? 

Joe Biden though, doesn’t like Facebook. That die is cast. 

What he now decides to do to Big Tech may well be framed around his dislike of the social network, and its emperor, Mark Zuckerberg.

Biden cabinet: Does this new team better reflect America?

Joe Biden’s first cabinet as US president is being described as potentially the most diverse ever. How does it compare to his predecessors and why does representation matter?

When George Washington convened the first cabinet meeting two centuries ago – though he didn’t call it by that name – he enshrined the idea of promoting diverse perspectives at the heart of US government.

Of course, back in 1791, all the voices in the room were white and male. 

You won’t find the cabinet mentioned in the lines of the Constitution, but the first president saw the value of advisers who could guide him on major issues while bringing different viewpoints to the table.

In 2021, America could soon see its first Native American cabinet secretary; first female national intelligence director; first Latino homeland security chief; first openly gay cabinet member and more.

But the incoming president was under pressure from all sides to deliver on his promises of a cabinet that truly reflects the country rather than a line-up of familiar political faces.

So why do diverse cabinet picks matter so much? Let’s take a look.

Short presentational grey line

Since 1933, only 11 presidents have named women to cabinet-level positions. No cabinets have ever matched the gender or racial balance of the country. 

The cabinet size can vary depending on administration, but they’re roughly composed of around 15 executives. In the last 30 years, the trend has been towards greater representation – or at least it was, until the Trump administration. 

The 1993 Clinton Administration

Clinton cabinet

On the day of President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, the Washington Post wrote that the new Democratic leader “has assembled the most diverse Cabinet in history: five women, four blacks and two Latinos”.

Mr Clinton’s small business administrator Aida Alvarez was the first-ever Latina appointed to a cabinet-level position.

The 2001 Bush Administration

Bush cabinet

President George W Bush’s first cabinet was lauded by the New York Times as “a governing team every bit as ethnically and racially diverse as President Clinton’s”.

Mr Bush chose Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, to become the country’s first black secretary of state. He also tapped Norman Mineta – a Democrat who became the first Asian American to hold a cabinet-level spot under Mr Clinton – to head his transportation department.

Later on, the Bush administration made history again with the appointment of Condoleezza Rice: the first black woman to serve as secretary of state and then as national security sdviser. Mr Bush also placed the first Pacific Islander and Asian American woman, Elaine Chao, in a cabinet role as labour secretary.

The 2009 Obama Administration

Obama cabinet

President Barack Obama’s history-making first cabinet was dubbed a “majority-minority”. Mr Obama’s inner circle had seven women, nine minorities and just eight white men.

Under Mr Obama, Susan Rice became the first black woman to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations, and saw Eric Holder become the first black US attorney general.

The 2016 Trump Administration

Trump cabinet

In a throwback to the Reagan era, President Donald Trump’s inner circle was notably white, affluent and male – though he had more women in his White House than previous Republicans.

And Mr Trump did appoint women to other roles in the administration. He named the first Indian-American, Nikki Haley, as UN ambassador.

What’s the delay?

But why has it taken this long for women and minorities to make it into the room where decisions happen?

“When we think about how you get to these roles, one way is to come through elected office,” says Professor Kelly Dittmar of the Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics. 

“So if you have a dearth of women and women of colour in elective office, and that’s where presidents are looking, in part, to identify cabinet officials, then you already start with an uneven pool.” 

We saw the first woman in US Congress in 1916, she explains, but it took nearly two more decades before President Franklin Roosevelt appointed the first woman to a cabinet role (that was Labor Secretary Francis Perkins).

The story for black and other ethnic minority Americans has taken even longer. The first black man took a seat in Congress in 1870, but we didn’t see a black man in the cabinet until President Lyndon Johnson appointed Robert Weaver in 1966. It took until 1968 for the first black woman to be elected to Congress. The first black woman in the cabinet followed in 1977 (Patricia Roberts Harris, Housing Secretary). 

“I do think these things feed into each other,” Prof Dittmar says, adding: “It’s also that you would then have more women and people of colour in the process of advocating for cabinet members within their party.”

Part of it is also the fact that the US has no formal rules requiring equal representation for these groups in government.

Countries with quotas in government or at the political party level have made strides towards equality at leadership levels. For example, Rwanda in 2018 saw 61% women in its lower chamber.

The holdouts

In three key posts – Defence, Treasury, and Veteran’s Affairs departments – there has never been a woman in the job.

Prof Dittmar says there are persistent stereotypes about men versus women’s expertise when it comes to defence and national security matters, and public opinion polls have shown this divide. Women weren’t allowed in the military until 1948.

“Even though we have certainly seen greater diversification, these fields are among the most male dominant, especially at the highest levels,” says Prof Dittmar. “There’s all sorts of biases going on within those structures to prevent women’s advancement, I’m sure. That helps explain why those gaps have been there at least historically.”

Then there’s the Treasury, where it looks like Mr Biden’s pick Janet Yellen will break that particular glass ceiling.

Old time stereotypes have given way in this sector. Surveys show people nowadays are more likely to rate the genders equal when it comes to handling the economy.

Why does a (diverse) cabinet matter?

Ohio State University political science and gender studies Professor Wendy Smooth says these appointments are a way of signalling broader initiatives and values – inextricably tied to policy, but also indicators of identity.

“One of the early ways that a presidential administration expresses that willingness to be accountable is through cabinet picks,” Prof Smooth says.

“These are the first acts that demonstrate the will of the administration, the spirit of the administration, the values of the administration. It’s an identity moment. It’s going to be the who we are as the Biden administration and who we are interested in connecting with in the American public.”

It may be difficult to directly measure the importance of symbolism, but it’s there. Turning preconceived notions of leadership upside down can have very tangible implications.

“If you see a woman as secretary of defence for the first time, does that start to disrupt expectations that men are better and more expert in areas of defence? Yes, inevitably it does,” Prof Dittmar says.

She says the same is true for Vice-President Kamala Harris and her history-making appointment.

“I hope that after her tenure as vice-president, the next time we have women running for president that these questions about electability or qualifications or capability will be at least fewer than they were.”

And research from an increasingly diverse Congress has shown that women bring priorities and issues to the table that may otherwise have been ignored. “And that, ultimately, is better for making policy that better speaks to the experiences of the population that they serve,” Prof Dittmar explains. 

“Unless you can tell me that living your life as a woman or as a black woman or as a South Asian woman in the United States is the same as living your life as a white man, then I don’t at all understand why we wouldn’t expect that to make a difference in the lens through which they see policy.”

Biden faces new challenges

Biden cabinet picks

“This cabinet will be more representative of the American people than any other cabinet in history,” Mr Biden told reporters in December, highlighting his “precedent-busting nominations” to date. 

They include Congresswoman Deb Haaland as the first Native American cabinet secretary in US history and Miguel Cardona, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, as his education chief.

Mr Biden has delivered a more diverse first cabinet than Mr Obama, who came close to truly reflecting the country but fell short with seven women to 16 men and just one black secretary. 

But as different groups vie for the same few spots, even Mr Biden’s history-making selections have irked some.

When Mr Biden chose General Lloyd Austin to lead the Pentagon – the first black man to do so – other activists were upset that the position was yet again denied to a woman. Mr Biden picked two white men to head the state and agriculture agencies – Anthony Blinken and Tom Vilsack – when progressive groups would rather have seen him nominate black women to the roles. 

Progressive liberals are also criticising Mr Biden’s selections so far as too safe, too moderate, too establishment and too old.

In recent decades, the pledge of diversity has become increasingly more important to uphold. Democratic supporters in 2020 are no longer appeased by just any minority representation, and the groups that backed Mr Biden’s campaign will expect to hold him accountable. 

So is this first cabinet diverse enough? It’s progress – but for many of the supporters who delivered Mr Biden the presidency, he’s not there just yet.

Biden blasts Trump supporters’ ‘siege’ of Capitol

US President-elect Joe Biden has blasted the “insurrection” of pro-Trump rioters who stormed the US Capitol and demanded an end to their “siege”.

The Democrat called on outgoing President Donald Trump to “step up” and repudiate the violence.

In a tweeted video, Mr Trump repeated debunked claims the vote was “stolen”, but urged protesters to “go home”.

A joint session of Congress confirming electoral college votes has been suspended and forced into recess.

Mr Biden said: “I call on President Trump to go on national television now to fulfil his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege.

“To storm the Capitol, to smash windows, to occupy offices on the floor of the United States Senate, rummaging through desks, on the House of Representatives, threatening the safety of duly elected officials.

“It’s not protest; it’s insurrection.”