What to Expect When You're Expecting a Peaceful Transition of Power
An extremely comprehensive guide to the ceremonies—and the festivities—of the United States’s 58th presidential inauguration
When George Washington was inaugurated, in late April of 1789, his aides had to scramble, right before his swearing-in ceremony began, to find a Bible on which he could take the oath of office. It hadn’t occurred to any of them, as they’d been planning the event, that they’d need one. Washington and his fellow founders were winging it. They knew, though—or, at least, they hoped—that they were, in imagining the installation of a man who would be the nation’s chief executive rather than its king, establishing a ceremony that would be repeated many, many times again.
Their hope was realized. The inauguration of a new American president is now a matter of ritual, honed by centuries of trial and error, its details—pomp, circumstance, just a smidge more pomp for good measure—planned down to the second. Each inaugural exercise is attuned to the man who is stepping into office; each one, though, even more importantly—even more symbolically—is the stuff of shared ceremony, a ritualized version of what George Washington would learn after he took his oath (on a Bible that was borrowed, finally, from a Masonic lodge): When you become the American president, your life is no longer, fully, your own. People may serve at your pleasure; you serve, however, at the pleasure of the people. So while the inauguration is a celebration of the new president, it is also a step-by-step ceremony of conversion: It is a man, and his family, shedding the life they have known for the one they have chosen.
Here, then, is what you can expect from that ceremony. Here’s a guide to the days-long festivities—the closest thing America’s stubborn non-monarchy will ever come to a coronation—that will culminate, this weekend, in Donald John Trump becoming the 45th president of these United States.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 19
10:35 a.m.: “Voices of the People,” a day-long public concert, will begin at the Lincoln Memorial. The concert will feature performances from, according to the official inauguration website, the King’s Academy Honor Choir, the Republican Hindu Coalition, the Montgomery Area High School Marching Band, Marlana Van Hoose, the Maury NJROTC Color Guard, the Pride of Madawaska, Webelos Troop 177, the Northern Middle School Honors Choir, the American Tap Company, the Everett High School Viking Marching Band, the TwirlTasTix Baton Twirling group, and not one—not two—but three different bagpipe groups.
3:30 p.m.: Trump and Vice President-Elect Mike Pence will participate in a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The ritual, a long-standing element of the inaugural exercises, is a gesture meant to honor the nation’s veterans.
4 p.m.: Trump will arrive at the Voices of the People concert during a segment of the festivities dubbed the “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration.” The event, which will be headlined by country stars Toby Keith (whose 2008 song “Beer for My Horses” has spurred controversy for its lyrics’ apparent allusion to lynching) and Lee Greenwood, the singer of “God Bless the U.S.A.” The concert will also feature The Piano Guys, 3 Doors Down, the DJ known as Ravi Drums, and the Frontmen of Country. It will also feature, in a late addition to the roster, the soul singer Sam Moore. Jon Voight will be there, too.
One performer who won’t be present for the concert? The Broadway star Jennifer Holliday. She had been previously scheduled to perform at this event, but later, in a note to The Wrap, declared that the decision to appear had been “a lapse of judgment.” Apologizing to the LGBT community for having considered participating, she reiterated that she “will not perform for the welcome concert or for any of the inauguration festivities!”
The “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” will be broadcast live, nationally (check your local listings, etc.). It will feature brief remarks from Trump himself, and will conclude with a fireworks finale orchestrated by Grucci—holders, according to the company’s website, of the Guinness World Record for “the ‘Largest Fireworks Display’ ever recorded.”
8 p.m.: The All American [sic] Inaugural Ball, emceed by Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe—and also featuring, according to The Comic’s Comic, performances from DJ Freedom and the comedian and the senior Intel engineer Dan Nainan, and “an appearance by astronaut Buzz Aldrin, Lt. Col. Oliver North from the Iran-Contra scandal, singer Beau Davidson, cover bands The Reagan Years and The MIXX”—will begin now. If you’d like to participate in the festivities but won’t be in town (or if you’d prefer not to pay the ball’s $300 ticket price), its performances will also be webcast, the ball’s site reports, through its eNaugural Webcast Studio.
Evening: Donald and Melania Trump will, as is customary, spend Thursday night at Blair House, the presidential guest residence located just across the street from the White House.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 20
6 a.m.: Gates open on the Mall for the members of the public who will be attending the Inauguration in person to claim their seats and/or their standing room. (Trump has encouraged his supporters to help him set an “all time record” for attendance; event planners, however, are currently expecting around 800,000 people—a number far below the crowd that came out for President Obama’s first inaugural.)
Early-ish morning: Since the first inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, it’s been customary for soon-to-be-inaugurated presidents-elect to begin their day of pomp and ceremony with reflection, via a church service. Trump and Pence, along with their families, will accordingly attend services at St. John’s Episcopal Church, just across Lafayette Square from the White House.
Later-ish morning: Trump, Pence, and their wives will be escorted to the White House by members of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. The Trumps will then join President and Mrs. Obama for coffee (or perhaps tea? or green juice? anyway, it’s presidents, there’s probably a decent beverage selection) at the White House. Once talk about the couples’ children has been exhausted, the conversation will move to Barack telling Donald that you have to sort of jiggle the handle of the toilet in the guest bathroom in the Residence to get a full flush. Old plumbing, and all.
After their coffee/tea/kalejuice, the presidential couples—furthering a tradition established in 1837, when Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson rode together in a carriage made of the wood of the former U.S.S. Constitution—will ride as a group (in a car this time) to the Capitol from the White House. The couples’ previous topics for pleasant conversation having been used up during the beverage portion of the morning, they will spend the 1.5-mile ride scrolling through, respectively, Twitter, ESPN, and very different customizations of Pinterest, and otherwise studiously avoiding eye contact with each other.
Had you heard that Elton John would be performing? Fake news: The singer’s representatives denied those claims. You may have also heard that Rebecca Ferguson, who was a runner-up on the UK’s X-Factor, had been offered a performance slot. The singer responded to that offer, however, by announcing that she would sing at the inauguration only if the song in question could be “Strange Fruit”—which, she said, “speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden people in the United States.” Ferguson, in short, will likely not be performing.
Trump himself professes to be content about the relative lack of star power at his inaugural exercises, especially compared to the Aretha/Beyoncé/James Taylor/Kelly Clarkson/Yo-Yo Ma performances at the installments of his predecessor. As he recently wrote, “The so-called ‘A’ list celebrities are all wanting tixs to the inauguration, but look what they did for Hillary, NOTHING. I want the PEOPLE!”
Or, as Tom Barrack, the chair of Trump’s inaugural committee, put it to reporters—in a phrase that, warning, cannot be unread—the committee wants the new president’s inauguration to have, instead of glitz, a “soft sensuality.”
11 a.m.: The arrivals will commence. Inaugural attendees will include members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, diplomats, and other high-level government functionaries. Former presidents Jimmy Carter (the first former president to commit to attending the event), George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton will be there, too, as will Hillary Clinton. Former president George H.W. Bush, who has recently been hospitalized with pneumonia, will not be present.
Oh, and if you care about such things: Melania will be wearing, apparently, Karl Lagerfeld and Ralph Lauren.
11:30 a.m.: The ceremony (taking place on the west front of the Capitol) will commence. Things will begin with a call to order from Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri. They will continue with benedictions from a Catholic cardinal, a rabbi, a pastor, and other faith leaders.
11:42 a.m.: Joe Biden will chuckle to himself, lean over to Jill, and whisper, “So a priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar...”
11:43 a.m.: Jill will shush him.
11:43:13 a.m.: Jill will make a mental note to have Joe tell her the joke once they’re away from the cameras.
11:50 a.m.: Mike Pence will be sworn in as vice president by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The oath he takes will read (as will Trump’s, for the most part): “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office of Vice President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
12:00 p.m.: Trump will take his own oath, as administered by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. For this, Trump will use two Bibles: one, the same book used by Abraham Lincoln for his own inauguration; the second, the Bible that Trump’s mother gave him on the occasion of his Sunday school graduation in 1955.
12:05 p.m.: The new president will deliver his inaugural address. It will begin, Trump told Fox & Friends on Wednesday, “by thanking everybody, all of the presidents, including, by the way, President Obama and Michelle, who have been absolutely nice.” And it will likely be, in length, somewhere between 135 words (the current record for the shortest inaugural address, held by George Washington) and 8,445—the length of the address delivered by William Henry Harrison in March of 1841. (Harrison died one month later, of pneumonia that was brought about in part by the length of time his speech demanded that he be out in the cold.)
12:22 p.m.: Another benediction.
12:25 p.m.: Jackie Evancho, the 16-year-old runner-up of America’s Got Talent, will perform the national anthem. (Evancho is another artist who has faced criticism about her decision to perform because her sister, Juliet, 18, is transgender. Evancho has deflected that criticism, saying on Good Morning America, “All of my true fans have been there for me and supportive and that’s really all I need, so I’m sticking to it.”)
12:30 p.m.: The ceremony will conclude. Barack and Michelle Obama will then make their official departure from the White House, taking a final ride first in the former Marine One and then the former Air Force One to an undisclosed location. If their exit is anything like the one featured on the “Tomorrow” episode of The West Wing, their feelings during this time will be Mournful, but also Hopeful. Mostly Mournful.
While the Obamas are making their exit, Trump and Pence, in another inaugural tradition, will attend the Congressional Lunch in the Capitol. The first such luncheon, in 1953, found President Eisenhower dining on creamed chicken, baked ham, and potato puffs in the Capitol’s Old Senate Chamber. President Trump’s, held in Statuary Hall, will be slightly more modern—and selected, as is also now tradition, with the meal’s states of origin in mind. Friday’s lunch will include Maine lobster, Gulf shrimp, and Seven Hills Angus beef, each course paired with a California wine. The dessert, however, will nod to the ’50s: chocolate soufflé and cherry vanilla ice cream.
3 p.m.: The inaugural parade will begin. Trump, Pence, and their families will walk the 1.5 miles along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House down Constitution Avenue—past the Newseum, the National Archives Building, and the FBI headquarters. The procession will also pass the Old Post Office building, current home to the Trump International Hotel.
The new president and vice president will be followed in their procession by some 8,000 parade participants—including high school and university marching bands, equestrian corps, first responders, veteran groups, and members of each military branch. There will also be a tractor brigade.
In a change from past inaugurations, no university or high school marching bands from the Washington, D.C., area will be represented in the parade. Also missing, this time around: the parade’s longtime announcer, Charlie Brotman, who has voiced every inaugural parade since President Eisenhower’s second term. The 89-year-old was replaced by Trump’s inaugural committee. Announcing Trump’s parade will be, according to The Washington Post, Steve Ray, a D.C.-based freelance announcer and audio engineer.
One group that will be there, though, is the Talladega Marching Tornadoes. The marching band of Talladega College, a historically black college in Alabama, debated whether its members should participate in these particular inaugural festivities. Ultimately, they decided to go: “It’s about the students to have an opportunity to participate in this national stage, in this inaugural ceremony,” the college’s president, Billy Hawkins, told Bill O’Reilly. To get to Washington, though, the group needed some $75,000 for travel expenses. They set up a GoFundMe campaign to help raise that money—and ended up receiving $420,000.
7 p.m.: Following a tradition established by Dolly Madison, via the gala she hosted at Long’s Hotel on Capitol Hill in 1809, Trump, Pence, and their wives will make appearances at three official inaugural balls. They will be serenaded by, among others, the swing jazz ensemble Tim Rushlow & His Big Band, BuzzFeed reports. And the song Trump has selected for his first dance as commander-in-chief? According to The Washington Examiner: It’s Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
7 p.m.: The unofficial balls—including, but not limited to, the Gays for Trump Inaugural Ball; Dardanella: The Great Gatsby Presidential Inaugural Ball; The Inaugural Ball for the Arts; the Native Nations Inaugural Ball; the 2017 Inaugural Heartland Ball; PETA’s Inaugural Ball; the Bluegrass Ball; the Black Tie and Boots Inaugural Ball; and the Deplorables Inaugural Ball—will begin, as well.
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SATURDAY, JANUARY 21
10 a.m.: Trump and Pence will attend the interfaith National Prayer Service, held at the Washington National Cathedral. The invitation-only event, according to a statement from the cathedral, will allow Trump “to pause and contemplate the incredible responsibility he has been entrusted with and to listen as the faith community offers prayers for the office of the president.”
10:38 a.m.: In the Café Car of the Amtrak Regional, Jill Biden will finally get Joe to tell her that priest/rabbi/minister joke. It’s not his best, but it’s pretty good—and as they hurtle off into the distance, Jill can’t help but laugh.