The inside story of the Bidens’ takeover of the White House
Post Desk : Anyone who has ever given their flat a final clean before handing back the keys knows what a gargantuan task it can be.
Funny how you don’t notice all that dust and dirt when your possessions are still in situ. So imagine the graft involved when one president vacates the White House and the next one moves in. Not to mention the cost — washing away the whiff of Donald Trump before the arrival of the Bidens apparently cost about £125,000, with £30,000 alone spent on deep-cleaning carpets upon which two super-spreader events were held.
De-Coviding the soft furnishings in the White House’s 132 rooms was perhaps one of the more straightforward elements of the transition mission. The breakneck operation to switch over administrations is, in normal times, akin to ‘organised chaos’, says former White House chief usher Gary Walters, who oversaw three presidential moving days. In Trumpian times, that chaos predictably became, well, more chaotic. As any removal man — or bailiff — will testify, it’s much harder when the residents are leaving kicking and screaming.
The Bidens began Inauguration Day with the traditional service, just a block from the White House, at St John’s Episcopal Church, where people protesting against the killing of George Floyd were tear-gassed last June. The custom is for the incoming first couple to then head to the White House for a cosy coffee in the Blue Room, hosted by the outgoing president and first lady. The Trumps, alas, didn’t break out the presidential Hobnobs. Coffee was cancelled.
The Trumps could deprive the Bidens of biscuits, but their intransigence — well, Donald’s at least — to vacate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue didn’t stop the transition machinery from swinging into motion. Two committees, including one featuring senior members from both parties, such as Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, and Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, hashed out the details of the swearing-in ceremony and inauguration-related events. From late November, the outgoing administration staff were belatedly given the nod to start bringing the incomers up to speed. But when it comes to choreographing the First Family’s departure from their home, that’s not something that politely could have been raised until the election was definitively lost.
‘You’re planning for somebody who might be moving out, but you don’t want to talk to them about moving out. Nor their staff. They don’t want to entertain the idea,’ says Walters, who served as chief usher for 21 years under Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton and George W Bush. In that role Walters was responsible for the White House residence and grounds: the move in/out was on him, with much of it having to take place at the 11th hour. ‘You can’t do anything until the family that’s there has gone. Families are not left with a partially bare room. It’s still their house, still their home. If they have to go up and use the restroom at the last minute, they can do that,’ he says.
he Trumps would have been expected to make their final departure from the White House around 10.30am, at which point removal lorries — parked overnight in the grounds under protection — would roll into place, the start of a frenetic six-hour window to make the switch. ‘I always remember a funny scene from the Clinton transition, with the Bush vans ready to move out and the Clinton vans waiting at the gate,’ recalls Ann Stock, the White House social secretary under Clinton.
The Bidens will have agreed how they want their personal living quarters, which comprise the second and third floors, configured. There are detailed discussions regarding preferred home comforts, right down to the specific types of sheets, pillows, mattresses and toiletries. Artwork can be selected from a collection of more than 500 paintings. Reagan popped in a home gym while Clinton had soundproofing installed so no one had to listen to him playing the sax. The Trumps and the Kennedys, notably, kept separate bedrooms.
‘We often forget it’s a home for a family,’ says Stock. ‘Bill and Hillary Clinton both say they loved living in the White House because it was like living above the store. They could have dinner with Chelsea almost every night. The president could walk three minutes from the Oval Office to the residence, take the elevator up and be home.’
Personal flourishes and tweaks are also made to the Oval Office. It’s more than likely Biden will decide whether the portrait Trump hung of Andrew Jackson — president, military hero and slave owner — stays or goes back into storage. ‘Trump kind of envisioned himself as this modern-day Andrew Jackson,’ says USA Today’s Michael Collins. ‘I would be really surprised if Joe Biden leaves that portrait in the Oval Office.’
Those doing the schlepping and heavy lifting are not, for security reasons, professional movers but rather the 95 or so members of the residency staff, none of whom lives at the White House. ‘It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation, with ushers and butlers helping the move,’ says Kate Andersen Brower, author of Exploring the White House. ‘What’s so remarkable is most of these staffers stay on through administrations. They are a small private universe of people who aren’t political in Washington, which is exceptionally rare these days. They see their jobs as serving the president and his family, no matter who is in office.’
Before the Trumps left there will have been a moment in the state dining room when these household staff, who have been tending to them for the past four years, assembled for a final farewell. In previous years, it’s been ‘very emotional’ with tears on both side, says Walters. ‘It’s a very close relationship with the resident staff.’ Of the four presidents he worked for as chief usher, he forged the closest bonds with George and Barbara Bush, who brought a certain informality to the house — challenging staff to horseshoe-tossing competitions and laying on barbecues. ‘George H W Bush and Barbara Bush enveloped us just like we were part of the family. There’ll never be anyone nicer than the Bushes.’
If they had followed protocol, after their coffee with the Bidens and farewell to staff, the Trumps would have departed the White House for the swearing-in ceremony. (We know that at least one Trump was eager to exit: Melania reportedly began packing her bags weeks ago.) The president traditionally is among the dignitaries on the West Lawn of the US Capitol to witness the transfer of power. But in the wake of the mob storming the Capitol, Trump announced that he wouldn’t — unlike all outgoing presidents since 1877— be attending the inauguration of his successor.
Trump wasn’t the only one missing from the ceremony. For pandemic reasons, the number of attendees was vastly reduced. Members of Congress between them usually get 200,000 tickets to distribute; this year each could bring one guest. Vice-President Mike Pence was present, along with a seriously beefed-up security presence after pro-Trump extremists threatened to return to Washington, DC, for the inauguration. Indeed, the ceremony took place precisely on one of the locations where the mob overwhelmed the police before invading the Capitol building. However peculiar the circumstances, at noon, Joe Biden became the 46th president of the United States.
President Biden will have deep-cleaning of his own to do in terms of his political inheritance. Expect him asking Americans to wear masks, upping the vaccine roll-out, rescinding the travel ban, halting border-wall construction, rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change and trying to muster broad support for his $1.9 trillion (£1.4trn) Covid-19 relief plan. ‘He’s probably going to spend a lot of time signing executive orders overturning a lot of Trump policies,’ says Collins.
As they retired to the president’s bedroom on inauguration night— pillows of choice plumped — the Bidens could finally relax. The big day was over, and didn’t have any unpredictable house guests to deal with, unlike some notable previous visitors. When heads of state still stayed at the White House, Winston Churchill came to visit, in 1941. ‘One night he walked out of the room and he wasn’t clothed,’ says Walters. ‘And first lady Mrs Roosevelt happened to be in the hall.’
‘Churchill also asked a doorman, Mr Bruce, to whom he became quite close, if he could bring a drink, and how many fingers of liquor he wanted. He then said to Mr Bruce, “Now you’re not going to tell anybody about this, are you?” To which he turned to Churchill and replied: “Mr Prime Minister, I will protect you to the last drop.”’ Turns out you can get the staff.