I’ll say more about the unprecedented violence incited by a sitting president this weekend on MSNBC’s American Voices with Alicia Menendez. I was on Fox with Evan Axelbank last night. Over at Town and Country, I wrote about the end of 233 years of peaceful transitions, which was essential to our founding and, until now, the stability of our democracy — not to mention our moral authority in the world. I also wrote about why the modern Republican Party is George Washington’s worst nightmare for The Washington Post.
Donald Trump won’t be the first one-term president to intentionally snub an inauguration. He’ll be the fifth. After a nasty election, John Adams left the White House at 4 a.m. on the day Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office. John Quincy Adams followed his father’s example when his successor, Andrew Jackson, was inaugurated. Andrew Johnson claimed he had to work while Ulysses S. Grant, who had aligned with his opponents, swore to uphold the Constitution.
Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama are now private citizens, but they attend inaugurations and unveilings and funerals. They sit together, along with their wives, projecting an image of comity to the country and the world. They are bonded by precedent; Obama invited Trump to the White House within days of the election, and Bush announced he had congratulated both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on November 8, 2020.
But it’s not all for show. When faced with a serious challenge, presidents rely on their predecessors for advice. During the Cuban missile crisis, John F. Kennedy sought counsel from every living president, but Trump hasn’t called any during the pandemic or any of the other disasters that have marked his presidency.
Laura Bush called the private traditions within the White House — at the very least, the staff gathers for a farewell — “a transfer of families,” and photos from her husband’s transition suggest that’s exactly what happened. She is pictured with her daughters, smiling as Malia and Sasha Obama slide down a ramp they have obviously just shown them. The Obamas similarly welcomed the Trumps, despite their insistence that the 44th president’s birth certificate was fraudulent. The Bidens are unlikely to receive a personalized tour, and that’s fine; they already know their way around the White House.
Some speculate that Trump will announce his bid for reelection at a competing event on January 20, which would be a first for an outgoing president. Grover Cleveland’s wife was right when, upon departing, she told the White House staff that “We are coming back just four years from today,” but she and her husband still attended the inauguration of Benjamin Harrison.
The point is, former presidents show up for the country, not for the newly elected president. But now that Trump’s broken a 233-year (I’m going to be saying a lot in the coming weeks…and for the rest of my career) precedent of a peaceful transfer of power, his attendance wouldn’t have provided meaningful evidence of a stable democracy.
It’s also not required. The Pentagon, anticipating Trump’s decision months ago, came up with a plan for the “nuclear football” — the briefcase, carried by a military aide, that contains everything a president needs to command U.S. nuclear forces. If tradition held, Trump’s military aide would have symbolically handed the briefcase off to Biden’s newly appointed military aide, but there will be no consequences if this doesn’t occur. Once Biden is sworn in, Trump’s codes expire, and Biden’s, which he will have received that morning, are activated.