President-elect Joe Biden marked the eve of his inauguration by leading a national memorial for the 400,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19.
The twilight commemoration came just hours before President Donald Trump was due to leave the White House and hand over a country in crisis to Mr Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.
Mr Trump will break with decades of tradition and skip Mr Biden’s Washington DC inauguration ceremony. Latest reports indicate an increasing number of the President’s former friends and colleagues are skipping Mr Trump’s farewell celebrations.
Vice President Mike Pence is among those who will not be attending Mr Trump’s departure ceremony on Thursday (Australian time), according to his public schedule.
Sources close to Mr Pence have been quoted by CNN as blaming the logistical challenge of attending both the departure ceremony, while participating in Mr Biden’s inauguration.
But aides to the Vice President have reportedly made clear their frustrations with Mr Trump, since the President failed to ensure Mr Pence’s safety after he was forced to flee pro-Trump rioters during this month’s Capitol siege.
Some former administration officials invited to Mr Trump’s departure ceremony are also making their excuses, with CNN reporting some expressed their disgust with the President.
“Is there a disappointment factor? Yes,” one former senior White House official was quoted as saying.
“Sending the mob was a red line,” a senior White House adviser said.
Another senior White House adviser was quoted as saying Mr Trump “has eviscerated his legacy”.
Yet another former senior White House official told CNN that invitees may bring five guests, which he described that as a sign of desperation.
At Washington’s Lincoln Memorial, the memorial headed by Mr Biden and Ms Harris was the US government’s first official nod to the staggering death toll from the pandemic.
“We must remember. It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation,” Mr Biden said in brief remarks to kick off a tribute that was to include observances in cities across the country.
As darkness fell over Washington, 400 electric lamps lining the sides of the Reflecting Pool were illuminated to honour the 400,000 lives lost, followed by gospel singer Yolanda Adams’ performance of the song Hallelujah, then a moment of silence in memory of the dead.
“Though we may be physically separated, we the American people are united in spirit,” Harris said separately.
Some seven kilometres from where Mr Biden appeared, the bells of the National Cathedral were tolled 400 times after he spoke.
The US on Tuesday surpassed 24 million COVID-19 infections and 400,000 lives lost from the virus, according to a Reuters tally.
Earlier, Mr Trump recorded a farewell speech in which he urged prayers for the Biden administration, but declined to acknowledge his Democratic successor by name.
“This week, we inaugurate a new administration and pray for its success in keeping America safe and prosperous,” the Republican president said in the video remarks.
“We extend our best wishes, and we also want them to have luck – a very important word.”
Mr Trump. who former advisers predict has lost much of a political future after the riots, also suggested his movement would go on.
“Now, as I prepare to hand power over to a new administration at noon on Wednesday, I want you to know that the movement we started is only just beginning,” he said.
Mr Trump has refused to offer a full concession to Mr Biden, who won the November 3 election with 306 Electoral College votes to Trump’s 232.
The outgoing president is not meeting Mr Biden before the Democrat’s inauguration on Thursday (4am AEDT) and instead plans to fly to Florida, where he is expected to reside after his White House term.
Mr Trump has been holed up at the White House for the final weeks of his term, reeling after the riot by his supporters at the Capitol that left five people dead, including a Capitol Police officer.