Five frantic hours in the White House: How to move a new president in and the old one out
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in January 2017 and has been updated for the upcoming administration change.
The most frenzied American ritual you’ve never seen is called the “transfer of families,” a five-hour tsunami of activity that will transform President Trump’s home into President Biden’s.
“I call it organized chaos,” said Gary Walters, who choreographed several transfers of families in his 21 years as the White House chief usher.
“It’s energizing,” said Ann Stock, who saw the transfer up close as the Clintons’ social secretary, “but absolutely exhausting.”
The hectic process is organized around the traditional Inauguration Day schedule, but this year’s transfer will be extremely nontraditional.
First, the pandemic has caused many of the usual inaugural events to be scaled back or eliminated, and it makes cleaning and disinfecting more critical.
Recently, security protocols were tightened because of threats of violence at and around the Capitol, the scene of a deadly pro-Trump riot on Jan. 6.
And Trump, who never conceded that he lost the election, made none of the customary overtures to Biden, which upends the usual inaugural morning schedule. A Trump official said the president will leave Washington early on Wednesday, which will make Trump the first president to boycott his successor’s swearing-in since Andrew Johnson skipped Ulysses S. Grant’s in 1869.
[Laws and customs guide presidential transitions, but some go off the rails anyway]
Regardless of the circumstances, the White House staff still will have to do an enormous amount of work in a few short hours. Here’s how it has typically happened.
Ready: (Relative) calm before chaos
The 90-plus permanent White House staffers and a few trusted contractors show up around 4 a.m. — some sleep on cots at their workstations — ready to execute the day’s detailed plan devised by the chief usher.
Although this will be Chief Usher Timothy Harleth’s first transition, staff turnover at the residence is rare, so most other White House employees will have done this dance at least once before.
To be clear, we are talking about the White House residence staff, not the political and administrative staff. Residence staffers take care of the daily needs of the first family. They often stay for decades through administrations of both parties, and they are ferociously discreet. They do not discuss politics. They also don’t discuss the inner goings-on at the residence, so we may not know for years exactly how this very unusual transfer of families unfolds.
The political staffers change with the president, and their duties do not involve making his bed or arranging his sock drawer. They will have to schlep their own boxes to their new offices in the East and West wings.
The kitchen staffers usually are among the very few permanent employees who are not pulled into moving duty, because they are already scrambling to create breakfast, the traditional congressional coffee, afternoon snacks, dinner for who-knows-how-many and preparations for the next day’s social events. Those jobs may be a bit less demanding this year, with fewer events on the agenda.
In preparation for Inauguration Day, a few items for the new family are sometimes stored in out-of-the-way places on the ground floor such as the China Room. A bit of moving work may begin early and inconspicuously, but no one on the residence staff wants to appear to be shooing the first family out the door.
“We always remember that the house still belongs to the current president up until the time the new person raises their hand and takes the oath,” said former chief usher Stephen Rochon, a Coast Guard rear admiral who became chief usher after Walters in 2007.
Looking back at a free-for-all
Until President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, there was no formal process for moving a new president into the residence, said longtime White House historian William Seale, who died in 2019.
John Adams and John Quincy Adams simply left early. Thomas Jefferson stayed in the White House with the Madisons for a month after his term ended. So many well-wishers swarmed into the White House after Andrew Jackson’s inauguration that the new president sneaked out the back to avoid the crush of people.
Set: Getting close
Typically about 8:30 a.m., the staff gathers in the State Dining Room to say goodbye to the first family.
The moment is always bittersweet.
“President Bush was pretty much in tears when he addressed the staff,” Rochon said of the younger Bush. “As a retired military officer, I’m not supposed to be tearing up, but I did — and so did the staff.”
Angella Reid, chief usher during the Obama-to-Trump transfer, said in an email that she moved the goodbye gathering up a few days so the Obamas could spend more time with the staff than they would have during the time crunch on Inauguration Day.
“The First Family were amazing to serve and learn from, generous and caring to us all,” she said. “And on that day with the flurry of activity, there really is no opportunity to take it in before extending a warm welcome to the newly sworn-in president and family.”
Whenever the gathering occurs, the staff gives the outgoing president a special gift. During President Ronald Reagan’s departure in 1989, Walters, then the chief usher, presented the president with a memento that would become a tradition: a box made of historic White House wood that contained the flags that flew over the White House on his Inauguration Day and on his last morning in office. Chief ushers have replicated the gift for every president since then. (We don’t know whether Harleth will continue the tradition on Wednesday.)
About an hour later comes the last official event that the outgoing president typically attends in the White House, a coffee in the Blue Room that includes the incoming and outgoing presidents and vice presidents, their spouses and a congressional escort. (It won’t happen this year unless Trump changes his mind.)
At some point during the morning, the outgoing president will usually visit the Oval Office one last time and leave a note for his successor.
About 10:30 a.m. on a typical Inauguration Day, the outgoing and incoming presidents leave through the North Portico together, and limousines would carry them to the Capitol.
A difficult goodbye
During the staff’s farewell to George W. Bush in 2009, Anita McBride, Laura Bush’s chief of staff, glanced outside. “I saw Dale Haney, the groundskeeper, and he was there with Barney and Beazley, the dogs, giving them one last walk. He said he didn’t go to the goodbye because he really finds it hard every single time. So there he was with the dogs, this sort of peaceful moment on the South Lawn. It was a reminder that the staff there really gets close to every single family, and then they are able to flip the switch with the new first family. That’s how professional they are.”
Go! At 10:31 a.m., cue the crazy
“As soon as the presidential limo exits the North Portico around 10:30 a.m., all teams are at the ready," said Reid, who worked in hotel management before becoming chief usher in 2011.
That’s when the five-hour clock usually starts, and groups of staff fan out around the residence. This year the timing could be different, as Trump may leave Washington earlier, but the Bidens could also arrive at the White House earlier in the afternoon.
The most intense action occurs in the family living quarters on the second and third floors — and in one key room in the West Wing.
Most outgoing families do a lot of packing ahead of time, Walters said. Melania Trump has been packing for weeks and had shipped some items to Florida and some to storage. Some families, though, wait until the last minute. Regardless, the staff boxes up whatever is left.
The outgoing family’s moving trucks, escorted by the Secret Service and officers of the U.S. Park Police, typically pull into the west side of the South Portico driveway. The incoming president’s moving trucks pull into the east side.
Besides moving vans, other trucks ferry furniture and artwork to and from the White House warehouse in Maryland, and still others bring on-loan artwork from outside collections and any new purchases from furniture stores — all secured by the Secret Service.
Commercial movers may unload their trucks outside, but that is as far as they get. For security reasons, only residence staffers are allowed to move items into and out of the White House, which is why electricians, carpenters and most other staffers become temporary movers.
“You don’t want a personal item showing up on eBay,” Rochon said.
Missing beats in a house’s heart
“During the five-hour limbo between families, the residence has an ethereal — eerie, in fact — sort of feeling that the heart is gone. … The house has no meaning any more because the president is gone. I guess a clock is a better analogy: The pendulum just stops. When the president returns, it all comes alive again.” — Former White House historian William Seale
A thorough cleaning
After the outgoing family’s possessions have been removed, housekeepers go into overdrive, cleaning and replacing rugs and window treatments and thoroughly scrubbing the residence and the Oval Office. Everything from carpets and furniture to vents and ducts are washed or otherwise cleaned and sanitized to remove any lingering allergens or pathogens.
Walters said he had not spoken with current staff about virus precautions but he said the usual cleaning process is so advanced and rigorous that he thought little additional disinfecting in the residence would be necessary.
The White House, he said in an email, maintains “the necessary procedures to insure the highest level of cleanliness, air quality, and food and beverage. Most of those items are handled by state-of-the-art procedures, methods and machinery.”
That sentiment was largely echoed by White House spokesman Judd Deere, who said all family spaces “are cleaned and sanitized at all times, including on January 20th,” but declined to comment further, citing privacy and security concerns. The Biden transition team did not respond to questions about cleaning procedures.
While the staff is working in the residence and Oval Office, the General Services Administration will be cleaning and sanitizing the rest of the West Wing and the East Wing, a spokesperson said. “Cleaning will include, but is not limited to, all furniture, flooring, window treatments, handrails, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, elevator buttons, restroom fixtures and dispensers, door handles and push plates, and lighting fixtures.”
Repairs and a bit of sprucing up
In addition to the deep cleaning, minor repairs and adjustments are always necessary.
Room temperatures and humidity levels are set to the new family’s preferences, which would’ve been obtained weeks earlier by the chief usher as part of a detailed questionnaire filled out by the family.
Plumbers, carpenters and engineers make small repairs. Electricians may install new light fixtures and run any necessary new Internet or TV cables. Carpenters and the White House curator’s staff hang new artwork. Painters will make touch-ups.
Rooms may be repurposed to fit the new family’s needs. For instance, Reid said that during the 2017 transfer, a room that was traditionally used as a salon was converted into a study lounge for Trump’s son, Barron.
But no major construction, painting or wallpapering happens on Inauguration Day — there just isn’t enough time.
Setting up the bedrooms
The residence has as many as 16 bedrooms, and carpenters may convert suites to separate bedrooms or vice versa by opening or closing existing doors and wall panels. Walters said about half were reconfigured during the Reagan-to-Bush changeover to turn suites into separate rooms to accommodate the many Bush children and grandchildren.
The new president’s interior decorator and a few other members of his entourage help unpack and arrange furniture.
Most first families bring their own casual furniture, but they may also choose to use items from the vast White House collection, including historic pieces and artwork. President George W. Bush brought only two personal pieces to the White House: a chest and a painting to hang in the Oval Office.
All boxes are emptied, and clothes are placed in closets and drawers. Unlike pretty much everyone else who has ever relocated, the president will not have three unopened cardboard boxes left sitting in the back of his closet.
The family’s favorite bed and bath products, everything from mattresses and linens to shower heads and shaving cream, are purchased ahead of time and will be in place and ready for them to use.
The residence staff replenishes all supplies continuously. The first family never runs out of toilet paper.
Stealthily swapping photos
Years before she was first lady, Barbara Bush was impressed by the staff’s efficiency on the day Nixon left.
“After we waved goodbye to the Nixons, the pictures on the wall were all of Jerry Ford’s family,” she was quoted as saying in “The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House.” “We were standing at the helicopter waving goodbye while they changed the pictures.”
Stocking the rest of the residence
The family has a private kitchen and pantry on the second floor, plus a wet bar and another kitchen on the third floor. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who spent lots of time in the Solarium, added the third-floor kitchen so that he could make soup without having to carry it upstairs.
All the kitchen and pantry spaces are stocked with food, snacks, drinks and any other items the family has requested. (Fun fact: The president pays his own grocery bill.)
The florist puts fresh arrangements all over the house. The bowling alley gets new shoes in the first family’s sizes. Sometimes, the roof terrace is redecorated.
Respecting family traditions (even in PJs)
Former chief usher Walters said that President Ford’s long-standing tradition was to get up before Betty and bring her coffee and the morning papers so they could sit in bed and read. So the butlers had coffee and newspapers ready for him in the kitchen every morning.
“The Executive Residence changes to the desires of the family that’s coming in and how they want to live in the White House,” Walters said. “There are ‘White House ways,’ but the White House ways are the ways of the family who is living there.”
The Oval Office: Staging history
Most parts of the East and West wings are in a state of flux on Inauguration Day as the GSA preps for the new administration’s staff. But one room has to be in impeccable shape: the Oval Office.
“That’s the first thing the president wants to see,” Walters said. “That first impression sends a message to the American people about what’s important to this president.”
That means every choice may be scrutinized for hidden meaning.
A minor hubbub arose when President Obama replaced a bust of Winston Churchill in the Oval Office with a bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and a second hubbub arose later when a reporter incorrectly said that Trump had replaced King with Churchill. (Trump made room for both busts.)
While the GSA handles the rest of the West Wing, the residence staff does most of the Oval Office changeover in conjunction with the Secret Service, Reid said.
Some have required more work than others. During Richard Nixon’s inauguration, electricians had to remove a bank of televisions installed by media-obsessed Lyndon B. Johnson. When Gerald Ford took office, he had Nixon’s recording equipment and wires torn from within the walls.
All furniture, draperies and artwork will be changed if the new president chooses to change them. The rug with the presidential seal probably will remain, at least for a while, because new ones take so long to make.
Sometime before noon, a National Archives and Records Administration crew will sweep through all White House offices to collect any remaining documents from the old administration, including those on computer hard drives. They also pick up gifts from foreign leaders that may be displayed in the residence.
What about the Resolute desk?
A big question for history buffs is whether President Biden will use the Resolute Desk, which has been used by most presidents in one room or another since it was given to Rutherford B. Hayes by Queen Victoria in 1880. Its name comes from the British ship whose timbers it is made from, the HMS Resolute. Kennedy was the first to put the desk in the Oval Office; it’s the desk little John-John is peeking from in the iconic Life photo. Most presidents since have kept it there, including Obama and Trump.
By about 2:30 p.m. on a normal Inauguration Day, the inaugural parade has begun, and the chief usher is making sure the residence is nearly ready.
“The challenge level was for me a 10 on a scale of 1-10,” said Reid, who at one point during the 2017 transfer became a temporary elevator operator to help clear a backlog. “There is no discussion around ‘what if we are not ready?’ We had to be ready.”
Part of being ready is being prepared to deal with the unexpected.
During George H.W. Bush’s parade, his twin granddaughters Barbara and Jenna — who would later be White House residents themselves — became bored and wanted to enter the residence, Walters said. So the florist took them to her shop and gave them an impromptu class in flower arranging.
Stock said that during Clinton’s inaugural parade, the president felt bad for performers whose floats had broken down, so he invited them back to see his new house. They came the next day, along with thousands more people whom the gregarious president invited along the way, and the guest list swelled to 4,500 — triple the number the staff was originally expecting. Storeroom clerks had to scour the city for more hot chocolate to serve.
3:30 p.m.: Deadline
Any time between 3:30 and 5 p.m. on a normal Inauguration Day, the new first family will return to a transformed residence. This year, the inaugural parade will be virtual, but Biden will be joining former presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton for a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington Cemetery sometime after his swearing-in.
Whenever the Bidens arrive at the White House, they will enter, usually through the South Portico, and the chief usher will greet them and say for the first time, “Welcome to your new home, Mr. President.”
Correction: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misidentified the helicopter that the Fords and Nixon stood in front of in 1974 as Marine One. The helicopter was called Army One.
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