In an apparent act of remorse for the video he released promising a “smooth, orderly” transition of power on January 20, Donald Trump announced earlier this month that he would not be attending Joe Biden’s inauguration. And indeed, on Inauguration Day, he boarded Marine One shortly after 8 a.m. to depart for Mar-a-Lago and begin his new, post-presidential life.
It’s unclear whether Trump will go back to claiming regularly that Biden stole an election the incumbent says he won “by a landslide.” And he didn’t explain why exactly he was satisfied to become the first president since 1869 to refuse to confirm the “smooth, orderly” transition of power by attending his successor’s swearing-in. But after the horrible things Trump has said about Biden (regularly calling him stupid and senile) — not to mention the “monster” and “communist” who will be sworn in as vice-president on January 20 — it’s hard to imagine the two men would be able to exchange pleasantries at the ceremony or during the ceremonial ride together from the White House to the Capitol that most precisely marks the passing of the torch. Biden certainly doesn’t regret Trump’s decision, as The Hill reported:
“It’s a good thing, him not showing up,” Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Del. The remarks represented a reversal for Biden, who last month said that it was important for the country that Trump attend the inauguration.
“He has exceeded even my worst notions about him. He has been an embarrassment to the country, embarrassed us around the world. Not worthy, not worthy to hold that office,” Biden continued.
It’s appropriate that Trump’s decision breaks a precedent dating back to the last impeached single-term president: Andrew Johnson, who, after dithering for a good while, refused to come out of the White House to accompany Ulysses S. Grant to the Capitol for his inauguration. As Ronald Shafer observed in a Washington Post column, a compromise had been worked out where the two men, who loathed each other, would ride to the Capitol in separate carriages:
About a half-hour before the noon ceremony, Grant arrived in his open carriage at the White House where an empty carriage was waiting for Johnson. A crowd had gathered as soldiers of Dupont’s light artillery battery stood at attention in front of the mansion.
One soldier was “waiting to fire the gun which was to be the signal to the whole city that President Johnson had entered his carriage,” the New York Herald reported.
“A few minutes passed in silence, while all eyes were turned toward the lofty portal of the White House, eager to behold the appearance of the outgoing president. But they looked in vain,” the Herald reported.
Johnson’s Navy secretary, Gideon Welles, may have swayed the fiery Tennessean by reminding him that both John and John Quincy Adams had left Washington in a huff before their despised vanquishers (respectively Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson) were inaugurated. But since 1869, outgoing presidents have swallowed any unhappiness they felt and maintained the transition ritual. In 1921, Woodrow Wilson, paralyzed by a stroke, did not go outside for the public swearing-in ceremony but did ride with Warren Harding to the Capitol. In 1933, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt probably disliked each other as much as did Johnson and Grant, but they discharged their responsibilities, as White House historian Edward G. Lengel recorded:
Roosevelt waited in his car as President Hoover joined him. Eleanor Roosevelt and First Lady Lou Hoover sat in the car behind as both vehicles, tops down, joined the procession to the Capitol.
It was not a comfortable ride. The outgoing president and the president-elect — the former exhausted and the latter no doubt mulling the challenges before him — shared a blanket to ward off the cold, but found little to say to each other. Newsreel cameras recorded their departure and two-mile trip down Pennsylvania Avenue, capturing the tension between the two presidents.
We don’t know if Trump is taking a pass to avoid unpleasantness or because he wants to go back to a posture of never acknowledging Biden’s legitimacy. But either way, it will be a warmer, sunnier event for his absence.