'Sometimes they're poignant moments': inauguration day transfers between presidents

Before he takes the oath of office Friday, Donald Trump will sit down with President Barack Obama for a traditional tea-or-coffee meeting and share a carpool ride to the Capitol — quaint rituals for two men with such a long, public rivalry.

Incoming and outgoing presidents traditionally share a limo to Capitol before presidential handover

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump, left, and president Barack Obama will spend their last private moments before the inauguration together at a tea-or-coffee service at the White House. As per tradition, they will then ride together in the same limo towards the U.S. Capitol. (Reuters)

Before he takes the oath of office Friday, Donald Trump will sit down with President Barack Obama for a traditional tea-or-coffee meeting and share a carpool ride to the Capitol — quaint rituals for two men with such a long, public rivalry.

But first, Obama will get up early for his last White House security briefing as chief executive of the United States. He may also issue last-minute pardons or declare sites as national monuments before stepping down.

If tradition holds, Trump will wake up in luxury Léron bed linens across the street in the principal suite of Blair House, the White House's official guest mansion for every president-elect since Jimmy Carter. Trump can use any of the historic property's 119 rooms to fine-tune his inauguration speech or huddle with advisers.

Blair House records indicate "inauguration day morning has always been strictly a family affair," the U.S. Office of the Chief of Protocol said in an email. "The president-elect and family are preoccupied with preparing for the momentous event about to change their lives forever; it is a very personal, private time."

Departing U.S. President Barack Obama hugs outgoing first lady Michelle Obama in the White House Red Room in 2009. The Red Room is one of the parlour rooms where the Obamas are expected to host the Trumps for tea and coffee on Friday morning before the inauguration. (Pete Souza/The White House/Handout)

Trump will be presented with the same Blair House guest book that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau signed during last year's state visit.

If the president-elect is hungry before leaving for the pre-inauguration morning church service, he might request the estate's chef prepare his favourite breakfast of bacon and eggs — "bacon medium and the eggs over-well."

He'll likely forgo a morning coffee. He eschews the brew. And besides, he has his meeting with Obama, who will be waiting just 160 metres down Pennsylvania Avenue with the outgoing first lady.

A 'cheery' social call

It will be the Obamas' last time inviting guests to their home of the past eight years. Around 10 a.m., a presidential limo is expected to drop off the Trumps in front of the White House. The Obamas will be waiting to greet them at the entrance hall.

Take a look inside Blair House, the President's guest house:

"It's cheery, friendly handshakes," says White House Historical Association writer William Seale, author of The President's House. "It's 'How are you?' It's 'How are you feeling about this?'"

The tea-and-coffee summit, which is typically held in the Green Room or the Red Room, may include the incoming and departing vice-presidents as well as their spouses.

Seale says the Obamas and the family of George W. Bush became close friends after their morning meeting before Obama's inauguration in 2009.

Eisenhower's coffee-talk snub

Outgoing presidents have hosted their successors on inauguration day since the 19th century.

"It's a show of civility," says presidential historian Mark Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. "Even if you're from a different party, or maybe they campaigned against each other, as with Obama, you still receive them warmly. They're still about to become [the first family] of the United States."

Snubs do happen. A tea ceremony was not observed on Jan. 20, 1953, when President Harry S. Truman and his wife Bess waited in the Red Room for Dwight David (Ike) Eisenhower and his wife Mamie to show.

Eisenhower and Truman clashed over foreign policy and how to handle the Korean War. When president-elect Eisenhower's limo pulled up, he refused to go into the White House for a cup of coffee.

A file photo from 1953 shows President Harry Truman, left, and his successor, President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower, leaving the White House in a shared car towards the inauguration ceremony. Historians say Eisenhower refused to enter the White House on inauguration morning to have a tea with Truman. (Associated Press)

"Truman eventually joined Ike in the ride up to the Capitol, but the story goes that he never forgave Ike and thought it was a personal slight to Mrs. Truman," says John Burke, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and an expert on presidential transitions. 

So what do presidents and presidents-elect say to each other during that historic ride?

In the case of Herbert Hoover, who was handing over power to Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, not much. The drive was downright frosty as Hoover refused to speak with or make eye contact with Roosevelt, forcing the new leader to remark to himself about how impressive the steel girders looked for new construction along the inauguration route.

Sharing a limo to the Capitol

Trump and Obama will ride in the same limo towards the swearing-in ceremony. Their wives will be paired up in a separate car, with the incoming and outgoing vice-presidents in a third car, says Henry Graff, a presidential historian at Columbia University.

Outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama and his successor, Donald Trump, will observe a presidential tradition on Friday when Obama invites Trump to the White House for a pre-inauguration tea-or-coffee service. The leaders will the ride together to the U.S. Capitol. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

"[Presidents] always ride together to the Capitol. The first time, it was horse and carriage. Then it was an automobile in the Harding administration in 1921."

Trump and Obama will likely be chauffeured in the presidential armoured limo known as The Beast, though car blogs have speculated a new version, Beast 2.0, could debut.

Either way, Georgia State University political science professor Daniel Franklin expects a breezy Obama-Trump dynamic.

"Obama seems to be a pretty well-centred person, even as he rides towards political oblivion," says Franklin, who studies lame-duck presidents. "He's got a pretty measured and equitable demeanour, and I think he'll act with grace until the end."

This March 4, 1933, shows president-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, right, going to his inauguration with the outgoing president Herbert Hoover as they share a tense ride to the Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/Associated Press)

With the first family en route to the Capitol, White House staffers will perform the logistical ballet of moving the Trumps' belongings in and the Obamas' possessions out. The new president's clothes will be tucked into drawers and items hung in closets by the time Trump returns in the late afternoon from his inauguration luncheon at the Capitol's National Statuary Hall.

The one-on-one time in the motorcade to the Capitol will allow Trump and Obama to let their emotional guards down and express some mutual respect, says Seale of the White House Historical Association.

During their ride together in 1861, Abraham Lincoln thanked James Buchanan for his efforts to avert a Civil War, which Seale describes as "a very gratifying moment" for the outgoing president.

"Sometimes there's a certain equality there between two men that might not have ever existed before," he says. "Sometimes they're poignant moments in American history."

A wax model of incoming U.S. president Donald Trump is displayed during a media event at Madame Tussauds in London. (Neil Hall/Reuters)


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong