Before Trump’s snubs, how past first families welcomed each other to the White House

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Josh Marcus
·6 min read
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<p>The “field of flags” on the National Mall ahead of Joe Biden’s swearing-in inauguration ceremony as the 46th US president</p> (AFP via Getty Images)

The “field of flags” on the National Mall ahead of Joe Biden’s swearing-in inauguration ceremony as the 46th US president

(AFP via Getty Images)

Wednesday’s presidential inauguration would be unprecedented even if there wasn’t a raging pandemic, an eerie, crowd-less National Mall, and a massive security perimeter following the insurrection at the Capitol.

Like most everything else he did in office, president Trump and the first lady are once again breaking with tradition, skipping the inauguration and declining to meet with the president- and vice president-elect and their families ahead of the swearing-in ceremony. Previous White House occupants have offered tours, tea, and congratulations on 20 January, before riding together to the inauguration then attending a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.

Instead, White House chief usher Timothy Harleth, a former Trump International Hotel employee, will greet the Bidens, and Mr Trump will leave from Joint Base Andrews where he will reportedly see himself out with military honors and a red carpet and fly to Mar-a-Lago, his resort/home in Florida.

Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, who has reached out to congratulate vice-president elect Kamala Harris, will skip the Trump send-off to attend the inauguration instead, along with former presidents Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama, and their wives.

Here’s a look back at the long history of presidential handoffs, where contested elections, conspiracy theories, and wars haven’t stopped different administrations from coming together to kick things off.

Forget about all that birther stuff: Obama to Trump

The Obamas greeted the Trumps at the White House and rode together to the swearing-in ceremony. The Obama administration prepared copious briefing materials to ease the transition—which Mr Trump reportedly ignored.AFP via Getty Images
The Obamas greeted the Trumps at the White House and rode together to the swearing-in ceremony. The Obama administration prepared copious briefing materials to ease the transition—which Mr Trump reportedly ignored.AFP via Getty Images

It shouldn’t be a surprise that president Trump’s transition out of the White House is norm-breaking and chaotic: it was the same way four years ago on his way in, despite the best efforts of the Obamas.

Even though Donald Trump had spent years promoting the racist conspiracy theory that Mr Obama wasn’t born in the US, the Obamas greeted the Trump at the White House on Inauguration Day, shook hands, kissed cheeks, and offered their congratulations before posing for a photo, along with similar greetings between the incoming and outgoing vice presidents and their families.

Read more: Follow live updates and news on Inauguration Day 2021

First lady Melania Trump returned the favor, bringing first lady Michelle Obama a gift from Tiffany & Co, the high-end jeweler. Then they rode in a limo together from the White House to the Capitol to see Mr. Trump become president.

That’s where the niceties ended.

The incoming Trump administration reportedly ignored copious preparation materials prepared by the Obama administration and declined to meet with their outgoing counterparts.

Polar opposites but an easy transition: George W Bush to Obama

George and Laura Bush greeted the Obamas for a coffee reception at the White House before the inauguration ceremony.Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
George and Laura Bush greeted the Obamas for a coffee reception at the White House before the inauguration ceremony.Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Barack Obama and George W. Bush had their differences. The former ran in large part on a sweeping critique of the latter’s foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The critique was so intense that first lady Laura Bush once lamented that, “It got so that even the weather seemed to be George's fault.” But that didn’t stop the Bushes from welcoming the Obamas into the White House ahead of the inauguration.

Ms Bush gave not one but two tours to the Obama family, once alone with Michelle, and once along with their two daughters, Sasha and Malia. The Bush daughters, Jenna and Barbara, showed Sasha and Malia which banisters in the White House could be used as fun slides.

Read more: Inauguration Day schedule: Full list of timings by hour

The warmth radiated between the two presidents as well.

"I'm going to go in there with a spirit of bipartisanship and a sense that both the president and various leaders in Congress all recognize the severity of the situation right now and want to get stuff done,” Mr Obama said at the time.

"When I called President-elect Obama to congratulate him on his historic victory, I told him that he can count on my complete cooperation as he makes his transition to the White House. Ensuring that this transition is seamless is a top priority for the rest of my time in office," Mr Bush said in a radio address ahead of the ceremony.

Another contested election, but a relaxed transition: Clinton to George W. Bush

The Clintons and Bushes, the two main US political dynasties of the late 20th century, have welcomed each other multiple times into the White House.AFP via Getty Images
The Clintons and Bushes, the two main US political dynasties of the late 20th century, have welcomed each other multiple times into the White House.AFP via Getty Images

George W. Bush took office at a moment with some similarities to the present, having finally been declared the winner of the 2000 election after both sides claimed to be the victor in a series of bitter political and legal clashes.

"I recall both interactions that then first lady Hillary Clinton had with [first lady and wife of George H.W. Bush] Barbara Bush in 1992 when she first arrived at the White House, and in 2000 when she hosted Laura Bush," a former Clinton administration told CNN. "Both were after contentious campaigns and both visits could not have been more gracious and welcoming."

During a tour of the White House, Hillary Clinton reportedly pulled Laura Bush aside to show her a spot where there was a good view into the president’s working quarters.

“Your mother-in-law stood right here and told me that from this window you can see straight down into the Rose Garden and also over to the Oval Office,” she said.

The start of a presidential tradition: George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton kneels down to say hello to Millie Bush, George HW Bush’s dog. AFP via Getty Images
Bill Clinton kneels down to say hello to Millie Bush, George HW Bush’s dog. AFP via Getty Images

Like 2020, the 1992 election saw another Democratic challenger deny an incumbent Republican a second term in a hard-fought campaign, but the race produced an enduring transition tradition: the presidential letter.

George H.W. Bush and his family were there in person—along with the family dog Millie—to welcome the Clintons and ride to the swearing-in together, and the president left his successor a letter on his desk to be opened on Inauguration Day.

“Your success now is our country’s success,” he wrote, kicking off what’s now a regular ritual, which Trump is also reportedly considering ignoring. “I am rooting hard for you.”

Mr Clinton was touched by the gesture, and called Mr Bush an “honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future,” and the two went on to work together on disaster relief and other bipartisan diplomatic efforts.

Old friends and another national security scandal: Reagan to George HW Bush

George HW Bush didn’t need much showing around in 1989 when he took office. He’d previously served as Ronald Reagan’s vice president, so he knew his way around the White House. While there was the potential for a bit of tension in the transition—the Iran-Contra scandal had tarred both men, with Mr Bush denying deep involvement and seeking distance, while first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush reportedly had a “frosty” relationship—but the Bushes were given a tour ahead of the inauguration anyway.

President Reagan also left Mr Bush a humorous letter on stationery that read “don’t let the turkeys get your down.”