Laws and customs guide presidential transitions — but some go off the rails anyway

Updated Jan. 15 at 7:03 p.m.

President Trump’s attacks on the election of Joe Biden are unprecedented, but bitterness over losing is nearly as old as the presidency.

Since George Washington handed the keys to John Adams, the transfer of power between presidents has been complicated, sometimes spiteful and occasionally harrowing, but it has ultimately always been peaceful.

After weeks of falsely claiming that he had won the election and a day after he incited a mob of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol, Trump said in a Jan. 7 video that he would work to ensure that the 2021 transition would be peaceful as well.

Sure, the country is best served if incoming and outgoing teams play nicely together, experts say. But some of the most successful U.S. presidents overcame rocky transitions and lousy relationships with their predecessors.

Here’s how the process is supposed to go, according to law and tradition:

After his own too-short transition from Bill Clinton's administration in 2000, George W. Bush determined that his 2008 handoff to Barack Obama would be the smoothest in history.
After his own too-short transition from Bill Clinton's administration in 2000, George W. Bush determined that his 2008 handoff to Barack Obama would be the smoothest in history. (2010 photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Before the election

U.S. law requires that the current administration prepare to help potential newcomers before the election, starting by designating a federal transition coordinator to oversee the process. A White House council plans and guides the transition; another council of career officials from federal agencies prepares key information to share.

Meanwhile, most candidates form a transition team long before they receive their party’s formal nomination. These teams coordinate with their campaigns but work separately, setting priorities, drafting lists of job candidates and figuring out how to turn campaign promises into legislation. Biden’s team is co-managed by Ted Kaufman, who, as a U.S. senator, wrote some of the current transition law. (As the inauguration draws nearer, more of those duties are taken over by incoming White House staff.)

After the conventions, the transition teams of major-party nominees get government office space, secure computers and other support, although the Biden team’s space has gone largely unused because of the pandemic.

Finally, the administration and the nominee’s transition team sign a “memorandum of understanding” formalizing how they will work together.

All that happened as planned this year with relatively little drama.

Then came the election.

Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover wore traditional top hats for the drive to Hoover's inauguration on March 4, 1929. The custom of the outgoing and incoming presidents riding together began in 1837.
Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover wore traditional top hats for the drive to Hoover's inauguration on March 4, 1929. The custom of the outgoing and incoming presidents riding together began in 1837. (AP)

The formal transition

Since 1937, Election Day and Inauguration Day have been about 75 days apart — not much time to set up a new administration, but plenty of time for things to go wrong.

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The loser usually concedes

For well over a century, defeated candidates have swallowed raw feelings, publicly acknowledged their losses and congratulated the winners, a visible first step in the process of national healing. But a president-elect will take office regardless of whether his rival concedes.

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Biden’s status: Trump has not formally conceded.

Sen. John McCain's concession speech on Nov. 4, 2008, celebrated the historic nature of Barack Obama's victory and its particular significance to African Americans.
Sen. John McCain's concession speech on Nov. 4, 2008, celebrated the historic nature of Barack Obama's victory and its particular significance to African Americans. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Cleveland-to-McKinley: Courtesy becomes tradition

The first concession “speech” was in 1896, when defeated Nebraska lawyer William Jennings Bryan sent a conciliatory telegram to Ohio Gov. William McKinley, who won the election to succeed Grover Cleveland.

“I hasten to extend my congratulations,” Bryan wrote. “We have submitted the issue to the American people and their will is law.”

Bryan didn’t intend to set a precedent; he considered his message to be a common courtesy. But every losing candidate since has followed his lead until Trump. (Trump is the 10th incumbent to lose.)

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The GSA administrator “ascertains” a winner

Ascertainment” acts as a wonky-sounding starter pistol for the formal transition process.

When the head of the General Services Administration has “ascertained”— or declared — an apparent winner, the president-elect gets more office space, money for his transition, intelligence information and access to government agencies.

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Biden’s status: On Nov. 23, more than two weeks after it became apparent that Biden had won, Trump agreed to support transition activities “in the best interest of our country,” and GSA Administrator Emily Murphy ascertained Biden’s victory.

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Foreign leaders send congrats

Almost immediately after the election, heads of state begin contacting the president-elect. There’s even protocol for the order in which he returns calls, usually to NATO allies and close partners first.

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Biden’s status: Biden’s first conversations occurred Nov. 10 and 11, with the leaders of Ireland, the Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, South Korea. He has since spoken with dozens of world leaders and has returned to the pre-Trump norm of making readouts of those calls public.

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Obama-to-Trump: Breach of protocol

A discussion about returning phone calls was the first clue that something was amiss, recalled the first leader of Trump’s 2016 transition team, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in a podcast created by the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition.

“I handed over to Jared [Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser] the list of foreign leaders and what order they should be called,” Christie said. “And he said, ‘Well, we’re not going to pay much attention to this.’ And I said, ‘Well, the order that you call them back in is very important. It’s traditional.’ He goes, ‘Well, Donald was an unconventional candidate. He’s going to be an unconventional president.’”

Trump indeed ruffled allies’ feathers by returning calls in nontraditional order.

Three days after the election, Christie was fired, and the 20 briefing books his team compiled were discarded. As a result, the Trump administration began woefully behind on filling government roles and never caught up.

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Teams find out what makes agencies tick

The president-elect sends hundreds of people in “agency review teams” to coordinate with federal agencies after the election. Most are volunteers who have previously worked in those agencies, so they know the basics but need to find out about upcoming events, ongoing operations and critical issues they will face. Presidential nominees can request FBI background checks on these teams before the election so they’ll be ready to deploy immediately after ascertainment.

President-elect Barack Obama and incumbent George W. Bush coordinated during their transition on an effort to pull the country out of the Great Recession. Obama's transition economic advisory board, shown meeting in Chicago in 2008, included former elected officials, industry CEOs and financial experts.
President-elect Barack Obama and incumbent George W. Bush coordinated during their transition on an effort to pull the country out of the Great Recession. Obama's transition economic advisory board, shown meeting in Chicago in 2008, included former elected officials, industry CEOs and financial experts. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

“When a president and his team come in, they’re jumping on a moving train,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project. “The government operations don’t stop — they continue, and you want to know what’s ahead.”

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Biden’s status: Biden has deployed more team members (600+) to more agencies (100+) than any previous president. Most agencies have been cooperative. However, Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s coronavirus vaccine and distribution plan, was the Biden team’s top priority. On Jan. 14, the Post reported that the Trump administration barred the Biden team from key meetings and decisions and that cooperation was “uneven.” The team also met resistance from the Office of Management and Budget and the Department of Defense.

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The president-elect gets classified briefings

The law requires that the president-elect be briefed on major threats to national security, covert military operations and the like as soon as possible after the election. The outgoing president usually also shares his daily intelligence briefings with the president-elect as a courtesy, and he can do this without the GSA’s ascertainment.

Donald Trump, shown at a 2016 meeting at Mar-a-Lago during his own transition, agreed on Nov. 23 that President-elect Joe Biden should begin receiving intelligence briefings. On Nov. 7, it was apparent that Biden had won the election.
Donald Trump, shown at a 2016 meeting at Mar-a-Lago during his own transition, agreed on Nov. 23 that President-elect Joe Biden should begin receiving intelligence briefings. On Nov. 7, it was apparent that Biden had won the election. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As the disputed 2000 election dragged on, Bill Clinton approved providing classified intelligence briefings to George W. Bush two weeks before the GSA declared Bush the winner. (Al Gore was already getting the briefings as the sitting vice president.)

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Biden’s status: Biden and Harris began receiving the president’s daily briefings on Nov. 30.

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The first couple visits the White House

The outgoing president typically hosts a tour of the White House for the president-elect and his spouse shortly after the election, along with a private discussion in the Oval Office.

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Biden’s status: The Trumps have not hosted the Bidens.

George W. and Laura Bush welcomed Barack and Michelle Obama to the White House six days after Obama won the 2008 election. In 2016, the Obamas hosted Donald and Melania Trump just two days after Trump was declared the winner.
George W. and Laura Bush welcomed Barack and Michelle Obama to the White House six days after Obama won the 2008 election. In 2016, the Obamas hosted Donald and Melania Trump just two days after Trump was declared the winner. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Hoover-to-FDR: Two (anti)social calls

Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt had two of history’s chippiest White House visits.

Hoover thought the New Deal was too radical and had assumed he would glide to reelection, said historian Eric Rauchway, author of “Winter War: Hoover, Roosevelt and the First Clash Over the New Deal.” But Roosevelt won in a landslide.

At their first White House “discussion” afterward, Hoover, who habitually mistook Roosevelt’s physical disability for mental weakness, launched into a lecture about why Roosevelt should abandon the New Deal. Roosevelt listened politely but refused, surprising and infuriating Hoover.

“Roosevelt took the position that Hoover should do what he thinks is right for the country, and [he said], ‘I will do what I think is right for the country and what I’ve been elected to do,’” Rauchway said.

Their last meeting, the afternoon before Roosevelt’s inauguration, went even worse than the first. Hoover brought economic advisers to badger Roosevelt again, and what was supposed to be a social family tea devolved into arguing and rudeness.

Roosevelt later recalled that by the end, his son Jimmy wanted to — but didn’t — “punch [Hoover] in the eye.”

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Newcomers get crash course in disaster

The Bush-to-Obama transition in 2008-09 also occurred during a fraught time for the country, amid two wars and another financial crisis, but unlike Hoover-to-Roosevelt, it is considered the smoothest in history.

“One transition saved jobs and kept people in their homes; another transition delayed relief from the Great Depression,” said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition.

In organizing the outgoing side of that transition, Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, came up with several innovations that are now required by law. One is preparing and sharing a chilling series of tabletop disaster simulations designed to alert the next administration to potential threats and demonstrate the nation’s emergency response capabilities.

One of the scenarios the Obama team modeled for the Trump team was how to address a global pandemic.

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Biden’s status: The National Security Council had been preparing simulations but as of Jan. 8 had not presented them.

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The president-elect chooses a staff and Cabinet

Beginning shortly after the election, the president-elect announces the appointments of key White House staff and nominees for top Cabinet positions. Many Cabinet nominees get Senate hearings in January so they can be in place soon after the inauguration. (White House staffers don’t need Senate approval.)

President-elect Jimmy Carter, shown carrying a box of papers to a post-election family vacation in Georgia in 1976, helped create the modern transition process by allocating staff and money to policy preparation before he received the Democratic nomination.
President-elect Jimmy Carter, shown carrying a box of papers to a post-election family vacation in Georgia in 1976, helped create the modern transition process by allocating staff and money to policy preparation before he received the Democratic nomination. (John Duricka/Associated Press)

The 9/11 Commission found that George W. Bush’s short transition — just 37 days — meant he was delayed in filling key positions, leaving the national security apparatus in a long and vulnerable limbo at the time of the terrorist attacks.

[Who Joe Biden is picking to fill his White House and Cabinet]

Federal law requires that background checks on nominees for top administration jobs be completed as soon as possible so those officials have security clearances before the inauguration.

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Biden’s status: Biden immediately chose Democratic adviser Ron Klain as his chief of staff and has filled other senior staff positions. In late November, he began announcing Cabinet nominees. Many Biden nominees have been vetted for previous positions, so updating their clearances should be relatively quick.

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Ford-to-Carter: Why a chief of staff matters

The first position filled is usually chief of staff, a vital gatekeeper and organizer for the president. But not always.

Jimmy Carter wanted his administration to be seen as the opposite of Richard Nixon’s, so he didn’t want an all-powerful chief of staff as H.R. Haldeman had been.

He took office in 1977 acting as his own chief of staff, and he filled other White House positions with people who had worked with him when he was governor of Georgia. But without a strong organizer who knew how Washington worked, Carter soon got bogged down with details and managing the competing interests of Cabinet members. His White House functioned much better after he appointed longtime adviser Hamilton Jordan chief of staff in 1979.

Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan, another governor with no Washington experience, did not want to repeat Carter’s error. He chose James Baker III, a Washington insider who had run two campaigns against Reagan. Baker is now widely considered to be one of the most effective chiefs of staff in history.

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A flurry of talking and listening

Before he can act, a president-elect usually holds a few news conferences to let people know what his priorities are and sets up policy summits and meet-and-greets with members of Congress, state and local officials, industry representatives and various other movers and shakers.

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Biden’s status: Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris have held virtual meetings and roundtables with mayors, governors, congressional leaders, labor and business leaders, health-care workers and other groups.

Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al and Tipper Gore, who had made multiday bus tours a signature of their populist campaign, followed the same route from Charlottesville to Washington for their 1992 inauguration that Thomas Jefferson had taken for his in 1801.
Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al and Tipper Gore, who had made multiday bus tours a signature of their populist campaign, followed the same route from Charlottesville to Washington for their 1992 inauguration that Thomas Jefferson had taken for his in 1801. (James M. Thresher/The Washington Post)
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Buchanan-to-Lincoln: Saved by a train ride

Abraham Lincoln spent most of his transition wondering if the United States would even survive, said Ted Widmer, a professor at the City University of New York and author of the book “Lincoln on the Verge: 23 days to Washington.”

Seven states seceded between his election and inauguration. His inept predecessor, James Buchanan, was easily manipulated by pro-South members of his Cabinet, who were desperate to keep Lincoln from taking office. The president-elect would dodge at least two assassination attempts before his inauguration.

However, on the 13-day train trip from Springfield, Ill., to Washington in 1861, Lincoln turned a horrible transition into a springboard to one of the greatest presidencies in U.S. history.

At every stop, he introduced himself to crowds who met the train, giving more than 100 speeches to more than a million people — plus countless more who read the speeches in newspapers. He was alternately charming, profound, even sad, and he convinced many people that the Union shouldn’t split for a cause as terrible as slavery.

“He spoke about America so beautifully that he gave doubting citizens a reason to believe in him and in the country again,” Widmer said. “That was democracy in action, a thinking person addressing the ills of his country in a way that was dispassionate and coherent and ultimately optimistic. He promised the people he would have a good plan, and he did.”

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Appointees resign

The White House chief of staff will ask nearly all political appointees to submit their resignations to clear the decks for the new administration. Career officials inside the departments will be slotted temporarily into some critical jobs for continuity’s sake, until Biden appointees take their seats.

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Biden’s status: Chris Liddell, deputy chief of staff, finally sent an email on Jan. 7 asking political appointees to submit their resignations as of Jan. 20. Normally, this would’ve occurred in early December.

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Reagan-to-Bush: Some awkward goodbyes

A “friendly takeover,” the term for when the incoming and outgoing presidents are both from the same party, can be an easier transition — but not in every way.

After George H.W. Bush was elected, Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, Ken Duberstein, sent a letter asking Reagan’s appointees to submit their letters of resignation, recalled Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, in a Transition Lab podcast.

None of them did.

“People who [were] working for President Reagan presumed that they would, of course, just stay on the job and continue to do what they were doing,” Card said. Duberstein had some uncomfortable conversations persuading people to resign and leave.

Presidents have taken the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol 55 times, according to the Architect of the Capitol. Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981 was the first to be held on the West Terrace.
Presidents have taken the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol 55 times, according to the Architect of the Capitol. Ronald Reagan's inauguration in 1981 was the first to be held on the West Terrace. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Inauguration Day

The day the formal transition ends is layered with two-plus centuries’ worth of traditions and one essential constitutional requirement: the oath of office.

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A friendly lunch — sometimes

A pre-inauguration meal at the White House has been a hallmark of transitions, usually a tea or light lunch before the ride to the Capitol. It is supposed to be cordial and noncontroversial. It isn’t always.

Woodrow Wilson felt his inauguration too solemn an occasion for a dance and canceled the traditional ball, but he managed a chuckle with his predecessor, William Howard Taft, at the White House before the ceremony in 1913.
Woodrow Wilson felt his inauguration too solemn an occasion for a dance and canceled the traditional ball, but he managed a chuckle with his predecessor, William Howard Taft, at the White House before the ceremony in 1913. (Library of Congress)
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Truman-to-Ike: “A bunch of screwballs”

Although he was Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, Harry S. Truman had been kept in the dark about many government operations — even the planning of the atomic bomb — and he felt his learning curve after FDR’s death was needlessly steep. He wanted his successor to be better informed.

The summer before the 1952 election, Truman invited the two major candidates, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson, to be briefed by his Cabinet. Stevenson accepted; Eisenhower, who didn’t get along with Truman anyway, said it would be inappropriate and declined.

Truman fired back, in writing, “I am extremely sorry that you have allowed a bunch of screwballs to come between us. You have made a bad mistake and I’m hoping it won’t injure this great Republic.”

The spat continued right up to Inauguration Day, as the two sniped about things such as what they’d wear (Eisenhower was anti-top hat), and whether they would ride to the Capitol together.

But the biggest breach of etiquette, according to the book “The President’s Club,” by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, may have occurred at the customary lunch that Bess Truman had prepared.

The Eisenhowers simply didn’t show up.

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A show of unity in the ride to the Capitol — sometimes

Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren shared a carriage from the White House to the Capitol for Van Buren’s 1837 inauguration, beginning a tradition that most outgoing and incoming presidents would continue, even when they weren’t happy about it.

Unless he changes his mind, Trump, who tweeted on Jan. 8 that he won’t attend Biden’s inauguration, will be the first exception since 1869.

Perhaps Harry S. Truman, left, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were smiling at the thought of how they'd soon be rid of each other as they rode to Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration. Their relationship was so hostile that Eisenhower refused to get out of the car at the White House that morning until Truman came outside, a shocking breach of protocol. One witness, longtime White House usher J.B. West, wrote in his memoir, “I was glad I wasn’t in that car.”
Perhaps Harry S. Truman, left, and Dwight D. Eisenhower were smiling at the thought of how they'd soon be rid of each other as they rode to Eisenhower's 1953 inauguration. Their relationship was so hostile that Eisenhower refused to get out of the car at the White House that morning until Truman came outside, a shocking breach of protocol. One witness, longtime White House usher J.B. West, wrote in his memoir, “I was glad I wasn’t in that car.” (Bob Burchette/The Washington Post)

That year, President-elect Ulysses S. Grant wouldn’t share a carriage with Andrew Johnson, which prompted Johnson to skip Grant’s inauguration. He was the third and most recent president until now to refuse to see his elected successor sworn in.

Both John Adams (1801) and John Quincy Adams (1829) left Washington early to avoid the inauguration. (Two others missed the ceremonies, but not out of anger. Historians don’t think Martin Van Buren intentionally snubbed his friend, William Henry Harrison in 1841; Woodrow Wilson was in poor health and went indoors after riding to the Capitol with Warren G. Harding in 1921.)

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A note for the new guy

Each departing president since Ronald Reagan has left a handwritten note for his successor in the Oval Office.

Before Ronald Reagan walked out of the Oval Office for the final time in 1989, he left a note for George H.W. Bush that would begin a tradition.
Before Ronald Reagan walked out of the Oval Office for the final time in 1989, he left a note for George H.W. Bush that would begin a tradition. (Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)
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Bush-to-Clinton: “I am rooting hard for you”

Reagan’s six-sentence note for his former vice president, George H.W. Bush, was written on novelty stationery below the banner, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.”

All the notes have been personal, signed simply “Ron,” “George,” “Bill,” “GW” and “BO.” But it is the one the elder Bush left for Bill Clinton, who defeated him in 1992, that is a triumph of minimalist grace.

“When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago,” he began. He went on to wish Clinton “great happiness,” and ended with, “Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.”

In 2008, George W. Bush’s twins, Jenna and Barbara, also wrote a touching letter to Malia and Sasha Obama about how to navigate life as first daughters in the White House.

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The most important part

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inauguration on March 4, 1933. The 20th Amendment, ratified earlier that year, moved subsequent inaugurations to Jan. 20.
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt in his first inauguration on March 4, 1933. The 20th Amendment, ratified earlier that year, moved subsequent inaugurations to Jan. 20. (Hugh Miller/The Washington Post)

At noon on Jan. 20 after every election, the president-elect takes the oath of office, promising to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” At that moment, his predecessor — whether he likes it or not — becomes the former president.

George H.W. and Barbara Bush and Dan and Marilyn Quayle greet a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial after the 1989 inauguration. On Jan. 20, Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris will be sworn in as president and vice president.
George H.W. and Barbara Bush and Dan and Marilyn Quayle greet a crowd at the Lincoln Memorial after the 1989 inauguration. On Jan. 20, Joe Biden and Kamala D. Harris will be sworn in as president and vice president. (Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)

[Trump commits to stepping down if electoral college votes for Biden]

About this story

Much of the information about the steps in presidential transitions in this story came from two nonpartisan sources: the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition and the White House Transition Project.

Illustrations by Michael Hoeweler. Design and development by Madison Walls. Photo editing by Nick Kirkpatrick.

Topper photos: President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post, President George W. Bush and President-elect Barack Obama by Melina Mara/The Washington Post, President George H.W. Bush and President-elect Bill Clinton by Doug Mills/AP, President Ronald Reagan and President-elect George H.W. Bush by Bob Daugherty/AP, President Jimmy Carter and President-elect Ronald Reagan by AP, President Lyndon B. Johnson and President-elect Richard M. Nixon by Charles Tasnadi/AP, President Dwight Eisenhower and President-elect John F. Kennedy by AP, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and President-elect Harry S. Truman by AP, President Herbert Hoover and President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt by AP, President Theodore Roosevelt and President-elect William Taft by Library of Congress, President William McKinley and President Grover Cleveland by Universal History Archive/Getty images.

Bonnie Berkowitz is a reporter in the Graphics department at The Washington Post who often focuses on Health & Science topics.