What I Saw at the White House on Trump’s Last Day

The handover of power was a solemn affair. There was no mistaking the new administration for the old one.

Former President Donald Trump and the former first lady Melania Trump leave the White House for the final time.
Anna Moneymaker / New York Times / Redux

At dawn this morning, workers loaded couches and tables into a moving truck parked outside the West Wing. Men wearing white coveralls and carrying roller brushes and paint cans walked across the north driveway. Inside the White House, pictures of the 45th president had been removed from the walls. Only the hooks remained, ready for a new set of portraits of the 46th.

A lone Donald Trump press deputy, Judd Deere, sat in his small office, writing a note on a piece of stationery to whoever would be taking over his desk in a few hours. Deere was attempting to describe what it’s like to work in the building. When I looked in at noon, after the Trump presidency had officially ended, he was gone, his desk cleared. Even the magazine racks hanging on the wall had been emptied.

Trump also left a letter for his successor, perhaps the only traditional gesture he’d made in what has been an utterly graceless departure. Breaking one final norm, Trump refused to grant the simple courtesy of attending the inauguration ceremony and greeting the Bidens at the White House to show them their new home, as the Obamas had greeted him four years earlier. It’s not that Trump is merely a sore loser; Trump was even a sore winner, weaving conspiracy theories about how he was robbed of the popular vote in 2016.

Trump left the White House with his wife, Melania, at about 8:20 a.m., refusing to take questions from the press. He walked to Marine One with an ominous send-off: “I just want to say goodbye, but hopefully it’s not a long-term goodbye. We’ll see each other again.” Later, in a brief departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews before flying to Florida, he gave a familiar and repetitive summation of what he views as his accomplishments in office. He of course neglected to mention the incident that will come to overshadow everything else that happened over the past four years: a lethal insurrection carried out by his supporters after a rally in which he’d again falsely claimed that the election was stolen. Trump may have no interest in revisiting the riot at the Capitol on January 6 that delayed the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory and took five lives, but history won’t forget it.

“This is the only president in American history who incited an insurrection against Congress that could have resulted in assassinations and hostage-taking and, conceivably, the cancellation of a free presidential election and the fracturing of a democracy,” Michael Beschloss, the presidential historian, told me. “That’s a fact, and it won’t change in 50 years. It’s very hard to think of a scenario under which someone might imagine some wonderful thing that Donald Trump did that will outshine that. He did, literally, the worst thing that an American president could ever do.”

By early afternoon, the new Biden aides had arrived in the White House, fresh from the inaugural ceremony. There were predictable hiccups: The incoming deputy press secretary, Karine Jean-Pierre, came through the press room with a thick binder under her arm and discovered that the door to the West Wing staff section was locked. Jean-Pierre, it turns out, inherited the office that Deere had just vacated. I later asked her if she had gotten his note. She said she hadn’t read it yet, but appreciated that he wrote it.

Shortly after noon today, the main @POTUS, @WhiteHouse, and @VP Twitter accounts had changed hands. Twitter even created an account for Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Douglas Emhoff, called @SecondGentleman. Unlike Trump, Biden is not a Twitter obsessive. A Biden transition adviser told me that the new president would not use social media as an “abusive, psychotic mechanism to display insecurity and grievances.”

There was no mistaking the new administration for the old. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, sat behind the desk in her office wearing a mask. Others walked through the offices wearing masks as well. During my visits to the White House last year, I observed staff members walking through hallways and talking to one another without masks. The explanation they’d give was that they were routinely tested for COVID-19. Still, the coronavirus sickened a slew of White House officials from Trump on down.

The Biden White House will limit the number of journalists allowed on the grounds at any one time to reduce the risk of infection during the pandemic. Reporters are required to get tested for the virus before coming into the building. By comparison, visitors to the Trump White House might have looked around and concluded that the pandemic didn’t exist.

After Trump boarded Marine One for his departure from the White House, tree branches bent and swayed as the blades whipped the air. The helicopter rose slowly from the South Lawn and arced behind the Washington Monument. Had Trump looked out his passenger window, he might have seen the thousands of National Guard troops and razor-topped fences aimed at repelling his supporters should they attempt another insurrection. He might have glimpsed the lights placed near the Lincoln Memorial honoring those who have died from COVID-19, even as he made his empty assurances that the nation had “rounded the turn.”

A small group of reporters and TV camera people gathered outside the White House on the north driveway watched quietly. A voice behind me eventually piped up: “Good riddance.”