A Short History of Awkward Presidential Transitions

Donald Trump questioned where Barack Obama was born. The president called the man who’s succeeding him “unfit.” But there's ample precedent for their mutual antipathy.

Onlookers hoping to get a view of President-elect Donald Trump stand outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 10.
Onlookers hoping to get a view of President-elect Donald Trump stand outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 10 (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Donald Trump questioned whether President Obama was born in the U.S. Obama called Trump a “classic reality-TV entertainer” who is “unfit” for the presidency. On Thursday, Trump, who elected the 45th U.S. president this week, heads to the White House to meet with the man he’ll succeed in the first public step toward a transition. It won’t be the first awkward meeting between a president and his successor who haven’t hidden their mutual distaste.

Awkward presidential transitions are almost as old as the United States itself. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Founding Fathers who were once friends, found themselves on the opposite sides of the Federalist-Republican divide. After the testy 1800 election, in which Jefferson defeated his rival, the men fell out almost completely. During the campaign, Jefferson’s supporters described Adams’s character as “hideous [and] hermaphroditical,” while those who backed Adams referred to Jefferson as “mean-spirited and low-lived.” Relations had reached such lows that Adams wasn’t present on the day of Jefferson’s inauguration. It took more than a decade for them to resume their friendship.

The presidential election of 1828 was a rematch between John Quincy Adams, the incubment, and Andrew Jackson, who’d been deprived of the presidency in 1824 by the “corrupt bargain.” The campaign was nasty, even by today’s standards. Jackson’s marriage came under intense scrutiny, as did his ownership of slaves. When the election results were announced, Jackson had won, his supporters stormed the White House, and Adams had to escape through the back.

The 1860 election led to what was perhaps the most significant presidential inauguration in American history: Seven Southern states states seceded between the 1860 election and Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in March of the following year. James Buchanan, the man who Lincon succeed, believed that while states didn’t have the right to break away, the Constitution did not empower the president to prevent them.

Nine years later, more drama: Andrew Johnson, the highly unpopular outgoing president, did not attend the inauguration because his successor, Ulysses S. Grant, had refused to sit next to him in the carriage. Johnson remained in the White House during the ceremony.

In the 1932 election, President Hoover called his challenger, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a “chameleon on plaid.” Roosevelt described the man he’d succeed as a “fat, timid capon.” Their first meeting at the White House was awkward, as was the period running up the inauguration by which time the U.S. economy was in such shambles that Hoover had become a reviled figure.

Twenty years later, Harry S. Truman prepared to hand over the reins of the presidency to Dwight Eisenhower. The two men had once been allies, working together in the last days of World War II, but had fallen out over what Truman regarded as Eisenhower’s silence on Senator Joe McCarthy. “He has betrayed almost everything I thought he stood for,” Truman said. The transition itself didn’t go well, either. “Ike and his advisers are afraid of some kind of trick,” Truman wrote in his diary. “There are no tricks.”

In 1969, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who’d decided not to run for a second term of his own, gave way to Richard Nixon, the former vice president. In the dying days of the presidential campaign, Nixon nixed any prospect of LBJ reaching a peace in Vietnam, where the war had been waging for years. Nixon, LBJ had said, had “blood on his hands.” But he still cooperated with President-elect Nixon, believing the threat from the Soviet Union made a smooth transition necessary.

President Carter met with Ronald Reagan after the 1980 election that swept Reagan to the White House. A news article from the time describes Carter saying: “We have a very good working relationship.” Personal relations between the two men were cool, however. Carter acknowledged as much in an interview two years later. In his book The Unfinished Presidency: Jimmy Carter’s Journey Beyond the White House, Douglas Brinkley, the historian, describes the sniping between the Carter and Reagan camps during the transition, as well as an alleged slight directed at Rosalynn Carter by Nancy Reagan. About the meeting between the two men, he wrote: “Reagan left the meeting impressed by Carter's ‘graciousness’ and ‘mastery of detail.’ … After the briefing, Reagan … reviewed the essence of what Carter had said in a private, forty-five-minute meeting.” Here’s more:

Reagan recalled verbatim everything Carter had told us," [Ed] Meese remembered, defending his old boss against accusations from the Carter camp that the president-elect had been inattentive. "He didn't take notes because he didn't need to." Meese believed that Reagan had felt sorry for Carter at the White House that day—that the Gipper was just not a good hater. "Though he profoundly disagreed with Carter on policy issues, Reagan harbored no mean-spiritedness toward Carter," Meese insisted. "It's usually the loser that is full of sour grapes."

Thursday’s meeting at the White House may be awkward, but it’d be an awkwardness that aligns with history.