Editor’s Note: Kate Andersen Brower (@katebrower) is the author of multiple books, including “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House” and “Exploring the White House: Inside America’s Most Famous Home.” The opinions expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
President Donald Trump has refused to say what he will be doing on Inauguration Day. But while the possibility of his shunning President-elect Joe Biden’s swearing-in ceremony – as well as no sign of an invitation for Biden and his wife, Jill, to the White House before Biden’s swearing-in – may earn Trump headlines, it will do nothing to stop one sacred tradition: The White House’s dedicated residence staff will be moving the Bidens into the White House and the Trumps out on January 20, whether Trump likes it or not.
The President is making the job of the dedicated residence staff harder than necessary. We know that at least four residence staffers tested positive for the coronavirus as the President and many of his aides refused to follow Covid-19 protocols, including mask-wearing. I grew to know many people who worked on the residence when I was researching my book, “The Residence,” and it was difficult to watch them be made so vulnerable to one President’s irresponsible whims. There are nearly one hundred people who make the White House run every day, including butlers, florists, housekeepers, cooks, ushers and engineers. They deserve a president who will help them – or at least not stand in their way – when they do what they do best and help facilitate the peaceful transfer of power happening in a few weeks.
Every piece of what happens on Inauguration Day is the result of months of careful advance planning and is part of a long-held tradition that has either been willfully discarded or seemingly forgotten during the Trump years. For residence workers, who stay in their jobs for decades and are not loyal to any one president but to the presidency itself, the transition to the next administration typically begins about eighteen months before inauguration. This is when the chief usher prepares books for the incoming president and first lady (with the added challenge of not knowing who they will be) that include a detailed White House layout, a list of staff, and an overview of allowable changes to the Oval Office.
Gary Walters, who served as chief usher from 1986 until 2007, started gathering information on the candidates during the primaries, well before a general election candidate was selected. It was particularly difficult when President Ford, President Carter, and President George H.W. Bush lost their bids for a second term. “The ownership is of the family that’s there, but you have to be watching out for what’s going to occur,” Walters told me. Trump is the first one-term president since Bush. That in itself presents a similar challenge that Trump is only making more difficult.
The current chief usher, Timothy Harleth, worked at the Trump International Hotel in Washington before he got the job. He is in an unenviable position: If he is doing his job and planning the Bidens move in – and the Trumps move out – of the White House, he is contradicting his boss who has, so far, refused to concede. In a normal world, the chief usher coordinates the complex move with the Operations Department, usually handles receptions, dinners, rearranging furniture for the tapings of TV interviews, and outdoor events. But former Operations Supervisor Tony Savoy told me that Inauguration Day was always the most important day of his career: They are the team that “moves ‘em in and moves ‘em out,” Savoy said.
Laura Bush says the “transfer of families” is a “choreographic masterpiece, done with exceptional speed,” and its successful execution depends on the institutional knowledge and the flexibility of the residence staff.
It is up to residence staffers to make the intricate move happen because it is considered too dangerous to clear professional movers into the White House. It is an all hands on deck situation. One usher told me he threw his back out moving a sofa when he moved the Bushes out and the Clintons in. Some residence staffers even sleep at the White House the night before so they can get an early start.
In the six hours between the departure of the first family and the arrival of the newly elected president and his family, the staff has to put in fresh rugs and brand-new mattresses and headboards, remove paintings, and redecorate to match the incoming family’s preferred style. They unpack the boxes, fold clothes perfectly, and place them in their drawers. They even put toothpaste and toothbrushes on bathroom counters. No detail is overlooked.
Usually at around 9:30 a.m., the new president and first lady arrive at the White House for a coffee in the Blue Room with the departing president and first lady. Once they leave the White House for the Capitol, the residence staff moves into high gear and begins to move items in from the moving trucks parked at the entrance of the Diplomatic Reception Room outside the South Portico. One family’s things are put in one truck and another’s are moved in. Walters, who oversaw many moves in his 21 years at the White House, calls the process “organized chaos.”
But before the first family departs, a little-known scene occurs when the staff crams into the opulent State Dining Room, where they have served so many state dinners, to say goodbye to the family they served. They are often overcome by the range of emotions – trading one boss, and in some cases a friend, for another in the span of just six hours. In many cases they have had eight years to grow close to the departing family. There is rarely a dry eye in the room – even though many may be excited about the future.
“When the Clintons came down and Chelsea came with them, they didn’t say a word,” Head Housekeeper Christine Limerick recalled when we talked about Inauguration Day 2001. “I’ll get emotional about this now – (President Clinton) looked at every person dead on in the face and said, ‘Thank you.’ The whole room just broke up.”
During the farewell, residence workers present the family with a gift – sometimes the flag that flew over the White House on the day that the president was inaugurated – placed in a beautiful hand-carved box designed by White House carpenters. In 2001, Limerick, Chief Florist Nancy Clarke, and Chief Curator Betty Monkman gave Hillary Clinton a large pillow made from swatches of fabrics that she had selected to decorate different rooms in the house.
We don’t even know where Trump will be on Inauguration Day or whether he will say goodbye to the staff as his predecessors have done.
With the devastating spread of the coronavirus this winter, the inauguration ceremony and parade will already be scaled back. Even if Trump does attend Biden’s inauguration, no one would expect them to ride in the same limousine, for instance, on the way to the Capitol. The General Services Administration will be doing a deep cleaning of every surface in the 55,000 square foot mansion.
During a normal transition – and this has obviously been far from normal – in December, after the election and before the inauguration, Walters would arrange for the incoming family to get a guided tour of the White House from the current first lady. It’s then that the incoming first lady would be presented with a book containing the names and photographs of the people who work in the residence. The book helps the first family learn the names of everyone who works in the house. It is partly a security measure, so that if they see anyone unfamiliar, they can alert the Secret Service.
The smoothest transitions take cooperation between the sitting president and his successor. The Obama family’s advisers started meeting with residence staff soon after the election, and by the week before the inauguration, much of the Obamas’ furniture had already been shipped to the White House, where it was stored in the China Room on the Ground Floor so that it could be moved quickly upstairs. The Bushes had told Chief Usher Stephen Rochon that they wanted to make the move as easy as possible for everyone, but Rochon told me, “We want to keep it out of the sight of the existing family.” He added, “Not that they didn’t know it was there, but we didn’t want them to feel that we were trying to move them out.”
No detail is overlooked. Weeks before the inauguration, the Obamas’ social secretary Desiree Rogers met with the florists and discussed what kind of flowers would sit on the cabaret tables, and which kind of candelabras and candlelight they would use for those few moments the first family has to enjoy their new, heady surroundings before they change for the balls.
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The Bidens know the house well, having served as vice president and second lady for eight years. But so far, it is unclear how their move into their new home will be handled under such unprecedented circumstances with a deadly virus raging.
Walters told me his favorite moment of a new administration comes when the president calls him by his first name. For other residence staffers it’s when they walk into a room when the president is in mid-conversation and the conversation doesn’t stop.
“There’s a collective sigh,” he said. “We know we have proven that we can be trusted.
With Joe Biden, who will already recognize a lot of these faces, that will probably happen sooner than later.