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Melania Trump to Jill Biden: No tea-and-tour at White House, breaking longstanding tradition

Maria Puente, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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Time's run out: Outgoing first lady Melania Trump won't be carrying out one last first-lady duty by inviting incoming first lady Jill Biden to tea and a tour of the White House family quarters.

Having failed to do so before she and President Donald Trump fly off to Florida early on Jan. 20, the day Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, making the snub the first deliberate break in the 100-year-old first ladies' transfer-of-power tradition in decades.

"In modern history, there has always been an invitation, this goes back to at least Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower (in 1952)," says Kate Andersen Brower, author of "First Women: The Grace and Power of America's Modern First Ladies.”

First lady Melania Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Magnolia Woods on Nov. 2, 2020, in Huntersville, N.C.
First lady Melania Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Magnolia Woods on Nov. 2, 2020, in Huntersville, N.C.

During her time as first lady, Trump, 50, made an effort to carry out some first-lady traditions she liked, but not this one.

Instead, she posted a seven-minute farewell video on her Twitter account, reflecting on her four "unforgettable" years in the White House, praising her own FLOTUS "Be Best" agenda, and urging Americans to "remember that violence is never the answer and will never be justified."

USA TODAY reached out to the East Wing but so far Trump has not commented on her failure to meet with Jill Biden. Trump's chief of staff and spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, resigned abruptly in the wake of the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a mob pro-Trump extremists.

"We have not heard from the First Lady’s office," said Michael LaRosa, spokesman for Jill Biden.

In an interview with former first daughter Jenna Bush Hager Tuesday on the "Today" show, Biden's daughter, Ashley Biden, confirmed there are no plans for the walkthrough, but shrugged at the impact.

"No, I don't think they're doing the traditional protocol, which is unfortunate," she said. "But I think we're all OK with it."

Earlier, the first lady posted an essay on the White House website last week denouncing both violence at the Capitol and "salacious gossip, unwarranted personal attacks and false misleading accusations" she claimed were aimed at her, although she didn't explain.

Meanwhile, the White House – not the president – invited the Bidens to spend the night before his swearing in at Blair House, the presidential guest residence on Lafayette Square across from the White House, and the Bidens accepted, according to a statement to USA TODAY from the State Department, which oversees the complex. Outgoing presidents have customarily extended the Blair House invitation to incoming first families since former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter in 1976.

Add these to the catalog of norms broken during the Trump administration, not just by the president but by his wife.

The former fashion model, who has been an unusually low-key FLOTUS, announced her unconventional approach early when she delayed moving into the White House by five months so her then-10-year-old son Barron could finish the school term in New York.

"Once again breaking with tradition," says Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff for former first lady Laura Bush, who's now a fellow at American University who directs the First Ladies Initiative exploring their influence on politics, policy and global diplomacy.

President George W. Bush and his wife Laura welcome President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to the White House NNov. 10, 2008 .
President George W. Bush and his wife Laura welcome President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle to the White House NNov. 10, 2008 .

The civic ritual of the first ladies' meet-and-greet just after the election may seem inconsequential but it's not, first lady historians say. It's at least as important as the usually simultaneous meeting of the outgoing and incoming presidents, which also did not happen.

President Trump will be among a handful of outgoing presidents who skipped their successor's inauguration, and the first in more than 150 years. No one can think of a first lady who deliberately snubbed her successor, at least not in modern times.

"It's one of the more visible customs that became a tradition, so that for the last 40-plus years or more, Americans have grown accustomed to seeing the new first family invited to the White House in tandem with the president inviting the president-elect," McBride says.

Almost organically over the decades, this tradition has come to symbolize a kind of "peaceful transfer of power," not to mention good manners and grace under pressure, McBride and Andersen Brower say.

"The point is conveying unity and continuity, and that is the most dramatic, visible display that the transfer has occurred – that the new first family has gone to the house," McBride says.

First lady Hillary Clinton waves as she greets incoming first lady Laura Bush Dec. 18, 2000 at the White House.
First lady Hillary Clinton waves as she greets incoming first lady Laura Bush Dec. 18, 2000 at the White House.

"Ceremony matters. Tradition matters," adds Andersen Brower. "Our expectations about what's normal and civil behavior in our society matters.

"I know a tea in the Residence between two powerful women married to presidents might seem quaint, but I believe in the power of these traditions to set the stage for civil relationships that lead to dialogues between people that can sometimes lead to action," she adds. "Michelle Obama and Laura Bush were able to work together because of the relationship they forged early on."

Obama in turn hosted Trump at the White House days after the bitter November 2016 election campaign. Both Trumps had indulged the racist "birther" movement that asserted President Barack Obama was not born in the U.S., a slur the former first lady later said she never forgot and never forgave. But the two of them managed to convey civility as they discussed how to raise children in the White House fishbowl.

The ostensible purpose of the meeting is to give the incoming family a walk-through of the White House’s private living quarters on the second and third floors and introduce them to the residence staff.

According to the White House Historical Association, 19th-century presidents-elect and their wives typically called on the sitting president and first lady once they arrived in Washington, and sometimes the outgoing presidents hosted dinners or receptions for them. By the 20th century, this had changed. Newspaper coverage suggests that the first well-documented "first ladies" meeting for tea and a tour of the White House took place in December 1920 when first lady Edith Wilson hosted her successor Florence Harding.

In fact, these meetings between first ladies have not always been sweetness and light even when the new administration is from the same party as the outgoing administration, as was the case with Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush in 1989. Their relationship was frosty at best, even though Bush had served eight years as second lady in the Reagan administration. Their meeting was brief, occurring just nine days before the Bushes were to move in, according to Andersen Brower.

President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan with President-elect George H.W. Bush and incoming first lady Barbara Bush, and Vice President-elect Dan Quayle and incoming second lady Marilyn Quayle at the White House, Nov. 9, 1988.
President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan with President-elect George H.W. Bush and incoming first lady Barbara Bush, and Vice President-elect Dan Quayle and incoming second lady Marilyn Quayle at the White House, Nov. 9, 1988.

In 1960, when Mamie Eisenhower welcomed ailing Jacqueline Kennedy (she had given birth to John Jr. via a Caesarian-section two weeks earlier) to the White House, that was awkward, too, according to Andersen Brower. Aside from politics, the older, frumpier Eisenhower resented younger, glamorous Kennedy, and was reluctant to move out of the White House.

"Jackie had been told by the White House that she would be getting an invitation in mid-November, but Mamie clearly had no interest in making a big announcement or a show of public affection to her young and beautiful successor. Mamie was in control and she intended to relish her position," Andersen Brower wrote in her book.

"The much-anticipated meeting was not revealed to reporters until five minutes after Jackie had arrived."

First lady Barbara Bush greets incoming first lady Hillary Clinton at the White House on Nov. 19, 1992 for the traditional tour of the family quarters.
First lady Barbara Bush greets incoming first lady Hillary Clinton at the White House on Nov. 19, 1992 for the traditional tour of the family quarters.

Other meetings between first ladies didn't happen because of tragedy or resignation: Lady Bird Johnson became first lady suddenly in 1963 after the assassination of President John Kennedy, but she welcomed her successor, Pat Nixon, in 1968.

Betty Ford became first lady in 1974 after President Richard Nixon resigned rather than be impeached, and her husband, then Vice President Gerald Ford, became president, then lost his re-election bid in 1976 in part because he pardoned Nixon. Devastated by the loss, Ford didn't really want to meet her successor Rosalynn Carter but she conducted a brief but cordial tour after President Ford reminded her to "be a good sport," Andersen Brower writes in her book.

The reason there's been no mingling of Trumps and Bidens at the White House is because the president never conceded he lost the election and has spent the last two months baselessly claiming he won by a landslide. He acknowledged the inevitable only in the wake of the riot at the Capitol by a mob of his supporters whipped into a rage by Trump at a rally down the street from Capitol Hill.

Last week, Melania Trump, who only occasionally said or did anything to contradict her husband, recognized the obvious as well, saying it was "the honor of my lifetime" to serve as first lady.

President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter greet President-elect Ronald Reagan  and incoming first lady Nancy Reagan at the White House on Nov. 20, 1980.
President Jimmy Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter greet President-elect Ronald Reagan and incoming first lady Nancy Reagan at the White House on Nov. 20, 1980.

She portrayed herself as a victim of "shameful" attacks "from people who are looking to be relevant and have an agenda." This may have been an allusion to another call-out by her ex-friend Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who's been promoting her critical book about Trump and charged in a Daily Beast essay that Trump was as morally responsible for the mob as her husband.

Once she was living in the White House, Trump carried out other traditional first lady engagements, particularly those involving children, whom she made the focus of her "Be Best" initiative. Except for the pandemic, she was always on hand for the annual Easter Egg Roll and Halloween party, and the annual visit to Children’s National Hospital in Washington.

She dutifully greeted the White House Christmas tree's arrival every year and organized the holiday decorations, although a secret recording by Wolkoff showed she really didn't care for that latter task. She hosted a record low of only two state dinners (a third was cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020), and enthusiastically revealed details of the table settings, menus and decor for both formal affairs.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Melania Trump to Jill Biden: No White House tour, breaking tradition