“There were numerous lines,” Trump replied. “So well-written. So thoughtful. So thoughtful. And in the drawer, you know, put in the drawer, which is a custom, but I doubt too many of them were written in this manner. He really — in fact, I called him and thanked him for the thought that was put into that letter.”
At the time, we didn’t know what the note from Obama to Trump said. We’ve since learned that it was, in fact, gracious and encouraging. Even as Trump’s view of Obama soured and as Obama became more publicly critical of his successor, that marker of the transition remained as an artifact.
One could be excused for being skeptical that Trump will offer gracious words to President-elect Joe Biden once he departs from the White House on Wednesday. The tradition, such as it is, isn’t that old, having begun with the transition from Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush in 1989, a transition from a president to his vice president. There’s only been one occasion on which a president has written a letter of encouragement to the person who beat him, which Bush did when he addressed a letter in 1993 to Bill Clinton.
Trump’s obvious frustration at his loss and his decision to skip the inaugural ceremony makes it seem unlikely that he’ll leave a letter behind to express his support for Biden’s administration. Particularly given the nature of those letters in the past, which have offered broad advice and encouragement of a sort that isn’t typical for Trump, to put it mildly.
Out of my own sense of curiosity, I pulled the past examples of such letters. It’s hard to imagine the sentiments below coming from the Trump with whom we’ve all grown familiar.
Ronald Reagan to George H.W. Bush
Reagan began the tradition by apparently jotting a note on stationery which reportedly showed various turkeys climbing on an elephant with the joking caption, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.”
It was the 1980s, after all. The letter read:
Dear George, you’ll have moments when you’ll want to use this particular stationery. Well, go to it. George, I treasure the memories we share and wish you all the very best. You’ll be in my prayers. God bless you and Barbara. I’ll miss our Thursday lunches. Ron.
Bush to Bill Clinton
George H.W. Bush’s letter to Clinton has been the focus of repeated praise for its graciousness, and, in the past few years, served as a point of contrast with Trump’s rhetoric.
Dear Bill,When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you.Good luck—George
Clinton to George W. Bush
Clinton’s letter to George W. Bush, by contrast, was a bit more self-celebratory.
Clinton was handing over power to a president who’d narrowly bested his vice president, Al Gore, after a contested election, but Gore’s acquiescence (and his not-terribly-warm relationship with Clinton) likely made it easier for Clinton to extend his congratulations.
Dear George,Today you embark on the greatest venture, with the greatest honor, that can come to an American citizen.Like me, you are especially fortunate to lead our country in a time of profound and largely positive change, when old questions, not just about the role of government, but about the very nature of our nation, must be answered anew.You lead a proud, decent, good people. And from this day you are President of all of us. I salute you and wish you success and much happiness.The burdens you now shoulder are great but often exaggerated. The sheer joy of doing what you believe its right is inexpressible.My prayers are with you and your family. Godspeed.Sincerely,Bill
Bush to Barack Obama
When Barack Obama won in 2008, George W. Bush left a letter more like his father’s than his predecessor’s.
Dear Barack,Congratulations on becoming our President. You have just begun a fantastic chapter in your life.Very few have had the honor of knowing the responsibility you now feel. Very few know the excitement of the moment and the challenges you will face.There will be trying moments. The critics will rage. Your “friends” will disappoint you. But, you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me. No matter what comes, you will be inspired by the character and compassion of the people you now lead.God bless you.Sincerely,GW
Obama to Donald Trump
Then there was Obama’s letter to Trump. It was lengthy, as Muir noted when catching a glimpse through its envelope. It acknowledged their differences and highlighted Obama’s own view of the necessity that the United States engage in international leadership. It ended with Obama offering his help where possible.
Congratulations on a remarkable run. Millions have placed their hopes in you, and all of us, regardless of party, should hope for expanded prosperity and security during your tenure.This is a unique office, without a clear blueprint for success, so I don’t know that any advice from me will be particularly helpful. Still, let me offer a few reflections from the past 8 years.First, we’ve both been blessed, in different ways, with great good fortune. Not everyone is so lucky. It’s up to us to do everything we can [to] build more ladders of success for every child and family that’s willing to work hard.Second, American leadership in this world really is indispensable. It’s up to us, through action and example, to sustain the international order that’s expanded steadily since the end of the Cold War, and upon which our own wealth and safety depend.Third, we are just temporary occupants of this office. That makes us guardians of those democratic institutions and traditions — like rule of law, separation of powers, equal protection and civil liberties — that our forebears fought and bled for. Regardless of the push and pull of daily politics, it’s up to us to leave those instruments of our democracy at least as strong as we found them.And finally, take time, in the rush of events and responsibilities, for friends and family. They’ll get you through the inevitable rough patches.Michelle and I wish you and Melania the very best as you embark on this great adventure, and know that we stand ready to help in any ways which we can.Good luck and Godspeed,BO
Over the ensuing four years, it is safe to say, that willingness to aid Trump ebbed.