WASHINGTON — The time has finally come for President Donald Trump to find a space at Mar-a-Lago for his $50,000 room-size golf simulator, not to mention the 60-inch television he proudly displayed above the dining room table, his collection of Brioni suits and the first lady’s matching Louis Vuitton luggage she has hauled around the globe.
By Wednesday at 12:01 p.m., hours after Trump himself plans to leave Washington, all the first family’s stuff will have followed him out the White House door, en route to his new home in Palm Beach, Florida. And by the end of the day Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, will arrive to a deep-cleaned living quarters where their bags will be unpacked, their furniture arranged and their favorite foods stocked in the fridge.
It’s the awkward pas de deux performed every four or eight years when one family moves in and another moves out, an undertaking carried out by the 90-person White House residence staff in about five hours. A complicated, highly choreographed process is done on a tight schedule that often requires boxing up whatever has been left unpacked — some outgoing presidents are more prepared to leave the Executive Mansion than others.
This year, people involved in the process said, moving day also involves additional cleaning and safety precautions because of the coronavirus.
“The staff is sleeping on cots, in stairwells,” said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush, including during the 2009 handoff to the Obamas. No matter how prepared they are, she said, “it’s always chaotic.”
The Biden moving vans are not allowed to begin unloading until the new president has been sworn in, even though some of the family’s belongings have been sitting in a storage facility in Maryland since the weekend. Then the residence is supposed to be transformed into something resembling their home by the time they arrive later in the afternoon.
It’s all part of a White House ritual that Trump hasn’t completely disrupted. But as with everything else in politics and in life, this year will be more difficult than most.
The Bidens were never invited to meet the residence staff, or canvass the second floor of the White House, which has 16 rooms and six bathrooms and will now be their home. Michelle Obama, by contrast, had been through the White House twice at the invitation of Laura Bush before her husband’s 2009 inauguration.
“Mrs. Trump should have invited Dr. Biden in for the traditional coffee,” said Capricia Marshall, who served as White House social secretary in the Clinton administration and oversaw that president’s departure in 2001, referring to Melania Trump, the first lady. “Typically, she would come prepared with questions, she’ll meet and talk to the chef, the full-time residence staff and have an opportunity for them to break the ice. It’s a courtesy, but logistically it’s incredibly helpful. That didn’t happen.”
Melania Trump, according to CNN, has been packing for weeks, eager to move out of the White House with her 14-year-old son, Barron, and on with their lives. She has had no communication with Jill Biden.
The Biden transition team has, however, been in contact with Timothy Harleth, the chief usher who was hired by Melania Trump in 2017 from his post as director of rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, to coordinate the move.
Harleth’s appointment was highly unusual: The chief usher has typically been a nonpolitical public servant, often with a military background, who does not turn over with administrations. Because of Harleth’s connection to the Trump Organization, some had speculated that he would leave with the outgoing president.
At this point there are more pressing concerns. Biden advisers have been so worried about the complex being deep-cleaned to protect its new inhabitants from the coronavirus that some have even advised the president-elect not to move in on Jan. 20, and to remain at Blair House, the nearby guesthouse where he and his family are scheduled to stay Tuesday night, instead.
While he has not discussed his future with Jill Biden, Harleth is expected to stay for now, according to administration officials, handling personnel issues, planning family dinner menus and managing the budget for the residence. He has made it clear that he is very eager to stay on permanently, and does not want to be viewed as a Trump loyalist though he has also hired other staff members from Trump properties. (He has told people, for instance, that he never met the Trumps until his interview to work at the White House.)
“All first family spaces are cleaned and sanitized at all times, including on Jan. 20,” said Judd Deere, a White House spokesman, who declined to provide more detail, citing security and privacy concerns.
The Bidens do plan to move into the White House on Jan. 20, but they will move in with the bare minimum: There are no plans to immediately bring in an interior decorator or begin personalizing the space.
“It’s a mad dash,” said Betty Monkman, a White House curator for more than three decades who helped supervise the 2001 changeover from Bill Clinton to George W. Bush. “Sometimes beds have to be brought in, sitting rooms are converted into bedrooms.” Curators with the White House Historical Association will have compiled briefing books and photographs of items from its collection that can be borrowed, as well as blueprints showing the room layouts for the Bidens to review, Monkman said. The Carters, for instance, moved into the White House with very little of their own furniture, relying mostly on pieces from the permanent collection.
The task for the residence staff may be made even more difficult because the Inauguration Day festivities themselves will be pared down and, possibly, shorter.
Typically, the frenetic day of work begins around 10:30 a.m., after the departing president and first lady leave for the Capitol to participate in the inauguration events. This year, there is no parade and no luncheon at the Capitol, meaning the time to prepare the residence may also be cut short.
The move-out is always more stressful if a president is leaving the White House after one term. “The benefit that the Clintons had was that they knew leading up to inauguration that they were leaving,” Marshall said. “There was never any question. They really took that last year to plan, to walk through what and how they were going to move out.”
For Donald Trump, who spent the transition contesting the election results, getting ready to leave the White House has not been a major concern.
The departure of the outgoing president is generally a tradition that includes bittersweet moments between presidents and the staff that served them. As he cleaned out his closet during some of his final hours in the White House, Clinton sat with his personal butlers and valets and helped them pick out which presidential ties they might want to keep. Pete Souza, the former White House photographer, on Monday shared a photograph of President Barack Obama embracing the woman who delivered his mail to him each day, as he said his farewells.
It’s not clear if or when Trump plans to say any goodbyes to a staff he was never particularly close with, since he plans to leave for Palm Beach early Wednesday morning.
His early departure, however, may be a gift to his staff, who will have a little more time to begin the hectic preparations.
“The good news is there’s a process, there’s a checklist,” McBride said. “The staff knows what they need to do. And the Bidens know the building, they know the people. They’ve been there plenty.”