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As Trump gives way to Biden, the 'transfer of families' at the White House shatters norms

·Senior Producer/Reporter
·5 min read
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While Wednesday’s transfer of power from one presidential administration to another represents one of the enduring traditions of American democracy, President Trump’s refusal to concede defeat to President-elect Joe Biden has set the stage for several norms to be broken. At the White House, Trump and first lady Melania Trump will not greet Biden and incoming first lady Jill Biden, nor will the couples attend a ceremonial tea.

Yahoo News talked to Kate Andersen Brower — bestselling author of "The Residence" — about what former chief usher Gary Walters, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 and served under four U.S. presidents until 2007, called the “controlled chaos” of the handoff from one president to the next. The tradition of moving one first family in while another first family departs dates back to 1953 when Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower moved into the White House after the White House Reconstruction, also known as the Truman reconstruction. President Harry S. Truman oversaw the renovation of the White House’s dilapidated interior from 1948-1952.

According to the late ABC News correspondent Cokie Roberts, “The Trumans were living at Blair House because the White House was under reconstruction, and from there on out, pretty much it’s been out with the old, in with the new.”

This year, with the coronavirus pandemic still raging, a riot at the Capitol by Trump’s supporters raising security concerns and Trump’s refusal to attend Biden’s inauguration have all set the stage for a very different move-in day.

The White House living quarters on January 20, 2009 in Washington, DC.(Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
The White House move-in on Jan. 20, 2009 in Washington. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)

“We are in the middle of a deadly pandemic and we’re in a bitterly divided country. Anything we can do to keep ceremony and tradition alive is important,” Brower said.

Starting at about 10:30 a.m. ET on Jan. 20, the process of transforming the White House for its new residents will be carried out with what Brower calls “military-like precision” by the White House chief usher’s office, led by Timothy Harleth, who was appointed by Melania Trump in 2017. He oversees between 90 and 100 butlers, ushers, housekeepers, cooks, florists, etc., who are first tasked with moving out the Trumps. Next, the team will help make the residence — which is located on the second and third floors of the White House — resemble the Bidens’ preferred decorative style before they arrive later in the afternoon.

“The job is so difficult, and so physically demanding, that everyone is called in to help: Pot washers in the kitchen help arrange furniture, and carpenters can be found placing framed photographs on side tables,” Brower explained.

As soon as the Trumps depart the White House, the resident staff will start deep-cleaning the second and third floors. Many of the carpets will also be replaced.

Congress approves a yearly executive residence budget, which covers move-in costs such as packing equipment, overtime for staff members and funds to cover the new household decor.

Some of the Biden family’s belongings have been held in a storage facility in Maryland since the weekend, but unloading won’t begin until around 10:30 a.m. The trucks will be waiting outside one set of gates. After Biden is sworn in, Brower says, “dozens of residence workers from the operations, engineering, carpentry and electrician shops race to remove furniture from the trucks and place them precisely where the first family’s interior decorator wants them.”

Workers move boxes onto a truck on West Executive Avenue between the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. Photographer: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg
Workers move boxes onto a truck on West Executive Avenue between the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington on Jan. 14. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg)

Brower said that the entire move-in process should take just six hours. The residence staff will have a little extra time, however, because, before going to their new home, the Bidens will head to Arlington, Va., for a wreath-laying ceremony with three former presidents and first ladies that will not include Trump.

“I think having the visual of the former presidents [with the exception of the Carters] at the swearing-in and then at Arlington for the wreath-laying ceremony will accomplish that feeling of projecting unity,” Brower says, emphasizing the relationships between the presidents as “important symbols of the peaceful transfer of power.”

While first families have lots of leeway when picking the decorations and interiors of their new residence, there are limits. According to Brower, there’s a warehouse outside D.C. where first ladies and presidents can go with their interior decorator and decide what pieces they want to bring back into the White House.

“We know that Trump brought the bust of Winston Churchill back into the White House, along with new gold curtains.” If the Bidens want to make any changes to historic rooms like the Lincoln Bedroom and Queens’ Bedroom, it must first be approved by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

Traditionally, the outgoing first family usually is presented with a gift in the State Dining Room from the White House staff.

“They have usually grown close to the family over four to eight years and most of their eyes are filled with tears,” Brower says. She adds that the parting gift could sometimes be 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.”

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