In between those moments, the country went through its own peaceful transition — of emotion, of memory, of pain and hope. On the final day, anchors on cable news talked about the quiet. Trump was quiet. Washington itself was 9/11-quiet, its avenues void of humanity except for an army of law enforcement. The president had entered office four years earlier with a huge clamor, and he seemed to be leaving it with a stifled scream.
In the early afternoon Tuesday, in Hodgenville, Ky., a pastor named Jonathan Carl was at his Baptist church, calling congregants who were in the hospital with covid-19. He could hear their dry, ragged breath, the beeping of machines, the intercession of nurses, the fear. He prayed with them so they were not alone. And Carl thought of how Trump, in 2019, had dragged him into a social-media frenzy by mistyping the Twitter handle of journalist Jonathan Karl.
The pastor thought that Trump could heal the country now, on his way out, by simply apologizing to everyone. Carl thought of Abraham Lincoln, whose birthplace he passes every day on his commute, and how a leader is remembered by how he finishes.
“If I could summarize it to President Trump, I would say that you don’t remember the in-between so much as the finish,” Carl said. “My encouragement is: ‘Finish it well. Please apologize.’ ”
There would be no apology; only one more spin of the Village People.
Around 2:43 p.m. Tuesday, as Biden was on his way from Delaware to Washington, the media reported that the total number of U.S. covid deaths had passed 400,000.
At 4:25 p.m., on Twitter, Pence’s spokeswoman Katie Rose Miller posted a photo of herself holding her young child in the colonnade outside the West Wing. Her husband, Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s ruthless immigration policies, was by her side. They were cooing over their baby.
“Forever thankful for the Trump-Pence administration,” Miller tweeted, “because of the last four years, we became a family of three.”
Around that time, in New England, a Brazilian immigrant was praying in church for her son, from whom she was separated in 2017 while seeking asylum. Under the name “Ms. C,” she has been fighting U.S. immigration agencies in court for years, and seeing a therapist because of the trauma of being separated from her child (with whom she was reunited after several months).
“Tomorrow I know that I’m going to pray for the new president,” said the woman, whose lawyer asked that her identity not be revealed, through an interpreter. “I’m going to pray that life goes back to normal for so many people, especially people like me who were detained, and who have been treated in such a way. I’m going to pray for a new beginning.”
By 4:30 p.m. Fox News was running Trump’s taped farewell address. “I am especially proud to be the first president in decades who has started no new wars,” Trump said, as 25,000 members of the National Guard monitored Washington following an attack on the Capitol by militant Trump supporters.
At dusk, as the mauve sky behind the Capitol turned navy, Biden and Kamala Harris faced the fading light around the Lincoln Memorial to memorialize those who had died in the pandemic. The Potomac River, absent any boats except law enforcement, was white with reflected sunset.
“To heal we must remember,” Biden said. “And it’s hard, sometimes, to remember.”
Minutes later, at home in Grand Blanc, Mich., Sandy Brown dialed into her daily prayer call. It was Call No. 302 since her Pentecostal church in Flint closed last March, around the time her husband and son died of covid-19. You may remember Brown from photos of the double funeral: She wore a brilliant chartreuse coat and purple hat, and waved at drive-by mourners from distance, a living symbol of the difficulty of mourning these days. Last year she wondered why God didn’t take her, too. Why leave me here to suffer such a great loss? she asked, and the answer has come in small ways. People are drawing strength from her, she knows, even if she doesn’t understand it.
Brown sang “Shake the Devil Off” into her phone, into the ears of people who needed to hear it.
On the morning of Inauguration Day, with four hours left in Trump’s presidency, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer helpfully confirmed that “The sun is rising.” President Trump and Melania Trump emerged from the White House for the final time at 8:13 a.m. On their helicopter flight to meet Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, they passed the Old Post Office Museum, refurbished into a Trump hotel (and a cesspool of influence-peddling) that may soon be placed on the auction block.
“We know he’s angry, we know he’s sad,” a voice on Fox News was saying, as if talking about a 6-year-old in a parent-teacher conference. Marine One landed at the base as Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” played. Trump emerged just after Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
“So, have a good life,” Trump told his teary-eyed children and supporters. After a last round of “YMCA,” Air Force One ferried him into the sky. The event’s loudspeakers blared “My Way.”
“I ate it up,” Frank Sinatra belted as the plane soared away, “and spit it out.”
By then Joe and Jill Biden were in the front pew of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, listening to the Book of Isaiah: If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk . . . .
At 9:16 a.m. a woman named Misty picked up her phone in Siloam Springs, Ark., and called C-SPAN. “Well I don’t think there’ll be any unity,” she said to her fellow countrymen. “I don’t think there’s anything [Biden] can say that will make me think this election wasn’t stolen.”
Within the hour, elected officials began to file through the Capitol crypt, which two weeks earlier had been the site of a vicious melee of rioters, including white supremacists.
Susan Bro had seen the riot on the news and thought “We told you so.” Her daughter, Heather Heyer, was killed during the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville in 2017, and Bro and others have tried to tell authorities about the coming dangers. Her work had become about education on diversity and inclusion; Trump had signed an executive order forbidding federal funds for such initiatives.
On Wednesday, Bro sat in her singlewide trailer in Greene County, Va., to watch the inauguration, hoping for a signal from a better future. Nearby was her purple reflective yarn for knitting and a pencil drawing of Heather.
Biden entered the Capitol at 10:31 a.m.
“Hey man, how are you, good to see ya,” he said to Eugene Goodman, the Capitol Police officer who during the riot had distracted the pro-Trump mob away from the Senate chamber. On this day, Goodman would escort Harris to her seat.
Around 10:50 a.m., as George W. Bush made his entrance through the Capitol, Air Force One swooped low over Mar-a-Lago. Trump’s coastal exile was visible through the starboard windows. There was no crowd to greet him at the airport, but supporters gathered two or three deep along his route to Mar-a-Lago, just before the bridge to Palm Beach. Trump’s armored Suburban slowed, perhaps so he could inhale a final hit of adoration as president.
At the Capitol, the ceremony was ramping up. It was happening: America, blitzed by insurrection and impeachment, was capping two weeks (four years?) of chaos and ugliness with a graceful inauguration.
“So proud of you,” Barack Obama said to Kamala Harris as she took her seat at the front. “So proud of you.”
When Lady Gaga finished singing the anthem, she wished Biden and Harris “a wonderful inauguration” and then said to herself, overcome, clutching her red silk faille dress: “God bless this country.”
Back in Grand Blanc, Mich., Sandy Brown had dressed in pink, put on her own pearls and sat in her husband’s recliner. She watched a fellow Black woman swear her oath on Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Bible. She watched Biden swear his own on a family Bible bound in 1893, five inches thick, with a celtic cross on the cover — the same tome he touched in a Wilmington hospital as a new widower in 1973, at the bedsides of his injured young sons.
When Biden asked for a silent prayer for the 400,000 lives lost, Sandy Brown thought about how two of those lives had belonged to her men, her Freddie Jr. and Freddie III, and she wept. But she zeroed in on Biden’s invocation of Psalm 30.
Weeping may endure for a night, she echoed in prayer to herself, but joy cometh in the morning.
As Biden quoted Abraham Lincoln, saying “my whole soul is in it,” Pastor Jonathan Carl in Kentucky asked God to speak life and truth into that soul.
“The battle is perennial and victory is never assured,” Biden said at 11:59 a.m. “Through civil war, the Great Depression, world war, 9/11, through struggle, sacrifice and setbacks — ” here the clock struck noon — “our better angels have always prevailed.”
In her trailer in Virginia, Susan Bro saw a sign when Garth Brooks began to sing “Amazing Grace.” The song was performed a cappella at her daughter’s funeral after Charlottesville.
To hear it now — after years of pain, work, doubt and determination — felt like a seal of approval from Heather.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified a Bible passage as from the Gospel of Luke. It is from the Book of Isaiah.