US presidential inaugurations have been very similar affairs since 1789 when George Washington was sworn in. There have been peaceful transitions of power between politicians and between political parties: Barack Obama attended Donald Trump’s inauguration, George W Bush attended Obama’s, Bill Clinton attended George W Bush’s and his father George Bush attended Clinton’s. There have been a couple of legal battles along the way, notably after the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W Bush.
Once resolved, however, the transition was civil, barring a few pranks played by Clinton’s staffers on the incoming Bush team. But this year, departing President Trump said he will refuse to attend the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris.
The last living president not to attend his successor’s inauguration was Richard Nixon, who resigned and vacated the White House prior to Gerald Ford’s low-key swearing-in ceremony in the East Room of the White House in 1974. Before that, Woodrow Wilson remained inside the Capital building because of poor health, rather than appearing alongside Warren G Harding on the inauguration platform, as is customary, in 1921.
In normal times, boycotting an inauguration is extremely rare. Only three presidents have done so, and all in the 1800s. So, what usually happens on the day?
The departing president wakes up in the White House on January 20, where the chefs cook a family breakfast and the first family says their goodbyes to staff before the president-elect arrives. The two families leave the White House together around 10:30 am to head to the Capitol building for the inauguration. The presidency expires at noon, at which time the new administration is sworn in. Shortly afterward, the old president bids farewell and leaves the capital.
During this time, the world of transforming the 136-room mansion into a home for a new family begins. A team of almost 100 staff, tradesmen, and movers amend the furniture and décor, supervised by the White House’s Chief Usher. The format for the residential quarters will have been decided with the new first lady. Ahead of the move, while kitchen staff will stock their cupboards with the incoming family’s preferences and last-minute details will be catered for, such as their choice of soap in the bathrooms.
Even the Oval office undergoes some changes, such as seating and layout, although almost every president chooses to sit at the Resolute Desk, which has sat in the White House almost every day since 1880. The team has just five hours from the departing president leaving and the new president arriving at the residence from the inaugural parade to prepare all of this. By 3.30 pm, the White House needs to be a comfortable home to a new family.
Under the shadow of violence at the US Capitol, Trump’s refusal to attend the ceremony and the Covid-19 pandemic forcing usual festivities like the inaugural parade and ball to be scaled back. Inauguration Day 2021 is unlikely to pan out in the usual way. Trump could leave Washington before Inauguration Day to avoid the event, though it appears Vice President Mike Pence will be in attendance.
There were reports Trump wanted to spend the day playing golf on one of his courses in Scotland, leading the country’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to announce he was not welcome under Covid-19 restrictions. It now looks likely he will go to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, which he and First Lady Melania Trump declared as their primary residence in 2019. Whatever happens, it seems sure that Biden’s inauguration will write an unconventional footnote to Trump’s unconventional presidency.
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