While thousands line the streets of Washington DC to see Trump sworn in outside Capitol Hill on January 20 (or 21 AEST), the most action goes down during a frantic residence changeover to scrub the White House of almost all signs it was the Obamas‘ home for the past eight years.
The process of moving the outgoing president to make way for the incoming one – called ‘flipping’ the White House – is infinitely more complicated than hiring Two Men And A Truck and hoping for the best. For starters, the entire presidential transition has to be completed in just five bloody hours.
No outside help is hired for move-in day for security reasons, which means mobilising a small army of 100 staffers – from butlers, cooks, maids, florists, doormen, carpenters and engineers – who spring into action as soon as the president and president-elect drive away from the White House for the swearing-in ceremony after coffee and a chat.
Moving trucks are driven onto the grounds, with those for Trump and Obama facing different directions so staff don’t get confused, and it’s all hands on deck to completely strip the 132-room mansion of the Obamas’ stuff, clean everything top-to-bottom, ‘de-pet’ the areas frequented by first dogs Bo and Sunny, replace any worn rugs and touch up any flaking paint, install new light fixtures and run internet and TV cables and hang artwork that Trump selects from the heavily-guarded White House warehouse in Maryland, where spare furniture, antiques, Xmas, Easter and Thanksgiving decorations are stored.
The Secret Service oversees the whole process, providing an escort for the moving vehicles and screening all items – from furniture to food – before they enter the grounds for security purposes. All this before the new first family’s belongings have even been unpacked.
So, will Trump gild the shit out of the Oval Office, as he did in at Trump Tower? Will Melania insist on her own glam room? That we don’t know. But we know that – when they walk into the White House after the inaugural parade wraps up – it’ll look like their home. Trump’s suits will be hanging in his closet, sheets of his preferred thread count will cover beds, family photos and artwork will hang on the walls and the pantry will be stocked with everything from his and FLOTUS’ preferred toothpaste to their favourite snacks (KFC tbh). Even room temperatures and humidity levels are set to Trump’s tastes.
If you find that level of detail impressive, consider this: outside the Cabinet Room wall, there’s a photo gallery that displays a rotating selection of images of the president, usually shaking hands with world leaders / kissing babies. It’s reported that – by the time Trump arrives at the White House as the new president – those photos will all be of him, including one from that day’s Inauguration Ceremony.
To make the transition as silky smooth as possible, White House aides start plotting the tastes of the potential new first family months in advance – even before there’s a clear frontrunner. That means tracking the tastes and preferences of all would-be POTUS’ in candidate dossiers that contain info on where they choose to eat throughout the campaign to the names of family members and pets.
“If an article comes out and says their close friends who they like to spend time with in the summer like to go out and hike the Appalachian Trail [with them], we keep track of those things… That can give you a sense of what they like,” Gary J. Walters, a veteran White House staffer, told Refinery29.
Once Trump was voted in as president-elect, White House aids compiled briefing books filled with photos and architectural plans of all its rooms, including the list of furniture and artwork he could choose from (there are pieces by Monet, Cezanne and Norman Rockwell in the official collection, so it ain’t slim pickings), so he could plot out where he wants stuff to go. It’s then up to the chief usher – who coordinates move-in day – to provide staff with all his preferences so no time is wasted by confusion on move-in day.
There’s been a lot of speculation about how much redecorating Trump will insist on but – luckily – there are limits to the horrors he can inflict on the most famous house in the world. While the first family’s living quarters (the top two floors) can be renovated pretty much to their tastes, which can include knocking down and building walls, significantly altering the appearance of historic guest suites like the Lincoln Bedroom or the Oval Office requires permission from the Committee for the Preservation of the White House, whose job it is to protect its historical importance.
When it comes to the White House grounds, restrictions on structural changes are a little more relaxed and renovations are fairly common. Obama converted the tennis court to a full-size basketball court. The Kennedys commissioned a swimming pool. Richard Nixon built a one-lane bowling alley. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels that Ronald Reagan later tore up. Of course, none of these large-scale changes go down during the insane 5-hour turnover ‘cos the staffers aren’t magicians.
The typical budget allocated to the residential handover is about $100K but the president-elect has to personally arrange and pay for the transport of all his belongings and furniture to the White House, either out of his own pocket or via campaign funding; only when Trump’s personal effects cross the threshold of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave is the government responsible for picking up the tab, which includes the cost of moving out the Obamas.
Not even the Leader of the Free World can shirk the costs of moving, but he can get away without lifting a finger.