For decades it has been one of the continuous but silent rituals of the transfer of power from one president to another: the passing of football on Inauguration Day.
When the incoming president finishes his oath of office on Capitol Hill, the former president’s military aide, carrying a briefcase containing the country’s nuclear war plans, known as the « soccer ball, » hands it to a new uniformed aide, he takes position near the newly inaugurated commander-in-chief.
Unnoticed by most, the president’s power to wage war in an instant has changed hands.
But this year’s soccer handover will be long-distance for the first time, one of many crucial and cherished transition traditions that President Trump plans to change in his final hours in office.
By refusing to meet face-to-face with President-elect Joe Biden or attend the swearing-in Wednesday at the Capitol building that his supporters stormed on Jan.6, Trump is attempting one last slight to Biden after repeatedly failing to overturn. the November elections. results.
« The whole tenor of the transition is changing, which is supposed to be symbolic for the country and the world, » said Andrew Card, the former White House chief of staff who led the transition when President George HW Bush lost re-election to Bill. Clinton in 1992. « We will miss it. »
Trump’s refusal to formally admit his loss is taxing inauguration planners, White House staff, and career officials already tasked with orchestrating a challenging transition amid sky-high security fears and a pandemic that it has forced much of the usual pageantry to become virtual.
A manipulated jury inauguration has been planned without the outgoing president. Meanwhile, Trump has ordered his own ceremonies, in an attempt to outshine Biden and send a message that he won’t budge, at least not in person.
No other president has done more to obstruct a smooth transfer of power than Trump, said Timothy A. Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University. « We have had disgruntled outgoing presidents, » he said. “But we have never had a president who has actively sought to obstruct a transition. And that implied inciting an insurrection « .
Biden will be staying at the Blair House, the government guesthouse a few hundred yards from the White House.
He planned to start the day by attending church, inviting Republican leaders in Congress to join him in a symbolic demonstration of restoring unity.
But Trump hasn’t invited Biden to the mansion for the usual bittersweet greeting from the outgoing incumbent to the incoming president and the first lady on the steps of the White House. Nor will there be the usual morning coffee in the Blue Room. These events are usually short and awkward, and usually don’t last much longer than five minutes.
« I remember a lot of plastic smiles and small talk, and in some cases, it is very small, » said Robert F. Goodwin, who was an assistant to four presidents. As deputy chairman of the inaugural Bush-Cheney committee in 2001, he oversaw preparations after a long and controversial election.
The images from those welcoming rituals are important to show the peaceful transfer of power from the United States before the symbolic trip to the Capitol for the inauguration, he said. But Trump is not emotionally equipped to fulfill these particular presidential duties, Goodwin said.
He recalled being in the great hall of the White House when President Ford welcomed Jimmy Carter, when the first President Bush welcomed Clinton, and when, eight years later, President Clinton welcomed George W. Bush. .
« I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way the inaugurations were, » Goodwin said, recalling the morning of young Bush’s first inauguration. “I was on the west front of the Capitol at 5 am, and I could hear the drums, helicopters and people coming to the venue to celebrate. It was really special. I think it would be unfortunate not to be able to celebrate a new president like this again.
Trump is also reportedly considering whether to end the recent tradition of leaving the White House occupant leaving the White House a personal note for his successor in the Oval Office.
Elder Bush, still caring for his wounded pride after losing to Clinton, wrote one of the most memorable of these letters, addressing his replacement, “Dear Bill,” and saying, “Your success now is the success of our country. I’m supporting you a lot.
Obama left his own note for Trump, prophetically reminding him that they were both « only temporary occupants of this office » and should be « guardians » of the country’s « democratic institutions and traditions. »
On Wednesday, Biden will be sworn in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on the Capitol’s West Front around noon, then deliver his inaugural address and review military troops – all of the usual for a traditional inauguration. Yet instead of a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue with cheering spectators, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, along with their spouses, will have a heavily guarded military escort to the White House.
By then, Trump will have been out of the mansion for at least four hours.
At most openings, outgoing executives have been on the back burner on their final day. Once the swearing in is over, they typically board a helicopter on Capitol Hill with their family and a close aide or two, take a melancholic air trip over Washington, and head to Joint Base Andrews outside the capital for a departure. small, sometimes in tears.
When Obama took office in 2009, he stood on the steps of the Capitol with Biden and smiled and waved as Bush got into a Navy helicopter to head toward Andrews.
« I think Trump will regret not going to the Capitol, » Card said, noting that the helicopter ride over the city was always a moving moment for a former president to reflect on his time in the White House. « It was very emotional with George W. Bush. »
Trump is putting that tradition on his head, leaving the White House early Wednesday with first lady Melania Trump and heading to Andrews for what he hopes will resemble one of his campaign rallies, augmented with military pomp, according to a familiar official. with the plans. .
He will then fly to Mar-a-Lago in West Palm Beach, Florida, aboard Air Force One, the official designation for the presidential plane that Trump treasures, and which remains in his service until such time as Biden is sworn in.
Trump’s military aide is likely to accompany him to Florida, always nearby and carrying the ball in the unlikely event that Trump needs to order a nuclear strike in the final hours of his presidency.
Stephen Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said he knew of only one instance where a president still in office left the White House without the ball: When President Nixon resigned in 1974, his military aide did not he joined. him in the helicopter to Andrews, although Nixon would be officially president for almost two more hours.
Schwartz said he would be watching closely Wednesday to see if Trump’s military aide joins him on the trip to Florida.
If tradition continues, Biden will have been visited at Blair House on Tuesday by the Pentagon’s top uniformed leaders, who will brief him on the plan to deliver the ball the next day, procedures Biden has been familiar with from his time as vice president. Former officials who have heard the top-secret report on the procedures for ordering a nuclear strike describe it as one of the most chilling moments in the transfer of power.
« It’s very sobering, » Card said. « I remember they said, ‘If you give the go and say it should be done, you have to have full confidence that it will happen.’
The transfer will likely happen remotely, said an official familiar with the planning. Another military aide carrying a matching briefcase with new nuclear codes meant to work after the swearing-in will follow Biden as he heads to the Capitol. When Biden is officially president, the aide will step up and assure Biden that he will never be far away.
Trump’s aide in Florida will quickly walk away from him.
Shortly after the handover, a final ritual will take place that most hope will never become tradition: Within hours or days of Biden taking office, the Senate is likely to call an impeachment against his predecessor.