As of this weekend, President Donald Trump has now waited longer than any president in nearly a century to sit down with his successor at the White House — a tradition aimed at highlighting the peaceful transfer of power that is at the core of American democracy.
And advisers to Trump say he and President-elect Joe Biden may never come face to face, even on Inauguration Day, blowing up another American political ritual.
But while Biden said in a CNN interview earlier this month that Trump’s presence at his inauguration would be symbolically important, neither side sees much value in the two men conversing … ever.
“In normal circumstances, it is one more indication of the peaceful transfer of power and the depth of our respect for democracy,” said John Podesta, who as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff welcomed President-elect George W. Bush and his top aides to the White House on Dec. 19, 2000, a meeting that was delayed by the Florida recount and court challenges to the election results.
But Biden, Podesta said, would have little to gain from meeting with Trump, who still hasn’t conceded. “My view would be, why bother?” he said.
Those in Trump’s orbit aren’t any more enthusiastic than Podesta. “Talk to him about what?” said one person close to the president, when asked whether Trump might speak to Biden.
Those close to Trump believe inviting Biden to the White House or even talking to him would risk being perceived as conceding the race, which Trump has been loath to do as he mulls another run in 2024. The same factors could keep him away from Biden’s inauguration next month.
Trump probably won’t meet with Biden or go to his swearing-in “because Joe Biden is an illegitimate president and should never be treated in such a way,” another Trump adviser said. “That’s what the president thinks and that’s what a lot of people agree with.”
Judd Deere, a White House spokesperson, declined to comment on Trump’s plans.
“Anonymous sources who claim to know what the President is or is not considering have no idea,” he said in a statement. “When President Trump has an announcement about his plans for Jan. 20 he will let you know.”
Biden and Trump have already gone longer without sitting down together than any president and president-elect since Herbert Hoover’s election in 1928, according to research by the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition and POLITICO. Hoover left California by ship after Election Day on a diplomatic tour of Central and South America and didn’t meet with President Calvin Coolidge until Jan. 7, 1929.
Most recent presidents have met with their successors much sooner. President Barack Obama hosted Trump at the White House two days after the 2016 election. George W. Bush showed Obama the Oval Office less than a week after Election Day in 2008.
Such meetings haven’t always gone smoothly.
“President Carter was kind of taken aback by the meeting with Reagan,” during their post-election meeting in 1980, Jody Powell, President Jimmy Carter’s former press secretary, told The New York Times in 2008. “There was a point where he sort of wandered off and asked questions that seemed to be only tangentially related to what they were talking about.”
Still, those sit-downs have given outgoing presidents the opportunity to warn their successors about potential threats they’ll confront once they take office — whether foreign policy or personnel. “I think you will find that by far your biggest threat is Bin Laden and the al Qaeda,” Clinton told the 9/11 Commission he told Bush when they met in 2000.
“One of the great regrets of my presidency is that I didn’t get him [bin Laden] for you, because I tried to,” Clinton added. (Bush told the commission he was sure Clinton had mentioned terrorism, but did not remember talking about al Qaeda.)
Obama, meanwhile, warned Trump when they met in 2016 not to hire Michael Flynn, whom Obama had fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Trump ignored the advice, only to oust Flynn himself weeks into his presidency. Obama also told Trump that North Korea would be the top national security issue that he would face in his presidency.
But more than delving deep into particular policy issues, the traditional White House meeting is likely to set the tone for the transition between the two administrations. When Clinton came to the White House to meet with Bush after the 1992 election, their top aides huddled at the same time in the Roosevelt Room.
“If ever you hear of anyone in our administration throwing sand in the gear, call me,” Transportation Secretary Andy Card, the head of Bush’s transition efforts, told Clinton’s aides, according to notes kept by Chase Untermeyer, another senior Bush aide.
Card later returned to the White House with George W. Bush after the 2000 election. In an interview, Card said he thought it would be good for the world to see Trump and Biden sit down together.
“I don’t know what kind of information would be transferred, but the symbolism of the meeting is important,” he said.
Trump’s administration has hardly gone out of its way to be cooperative — a Trump appointee at the General Services Administration refused to recognize Biden’s victory until three weeks after the election, and Yohannes Abraham, the Biden transition’s executive director, told reporters on Friday that Biden’s team had encountered “pockets of intransigence” during their work.
But top Trump and Biden aides are talking to one another, even if their bosses aren’t. Mark Meadows, Trump’s White House chief of staff, has had multiple conversations with Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, in recent weeks.
If Trump skips Biden’s inauguration, he’ll be the first president to do so since 1869, when President Andrew Johnson blew off Ulysses S. Grant’s swearing-in.
In an interview with CNN earlier this month, Biden said that Trump’s presence at his inauguration would be “important in the sense that we are able to demonstrate, at the end of this chaos that he’s created, that there is peaceful transfer of power, with the competing parties standing there, shaking hands, and moving on.”
“But it is totally his decision, and it’s — it’s of no personal consequence to me,” he added.
But one of the Trump advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity suggested Trump’s presence at Biden’s swearing-in would ring false after the bitter campaign.
“The Obamas and the Clintons attend the inauguration and then they spend the next years insulting Donald Trump,” the adviser said. “What does attending the inauguration mean? Maybe Donald Trump’s more honest than other people in not going.”