At noon on Jan. 20, 2021, Donald J. Trump’s presidential term expires. Whether he plans to attend Joe Biden’s inauguration is the subject of much speculation, even amusement, but important consequences hang in the balance. We’re left to wonder: Will the great American “smooth transition of power” exhibit rough edges?
On Sunday morning, during a “Fox & Friends” airing of an interview with President Trump conducted a day earlier, host Brian Kilmeade dared to broach the touchy subject of inaugural attendance. The president bluntly responded, “I don’t want to talk about that.” (Note: Even having to put that question to an outgoing U.S. president is far outside the norm since attendance is assumed.)
If Trump takes a pass, he would be only the fourth U.S. president to snub his successor’s swearing-in ceremony. The prior three were John Adams in 1801, John Quincy Adams in 1829, and Andrew Johnson in 1869. Similarly to Trump, Johnson was impeached by the House of Representatives and acquitted by the Senate. Unlike Trump, Johnson did not win the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 1868.
Thus, 151 years later, when the president says, “I don’t want to talk about it,” that likely translates as “no-show.”
Trump’s empty inaugural seat would add just another non-traditional post-election presidential action to his growing list. Others include refusing to concede, insisting that he “won big,” and encouraging numerous (many say frivolous) state and local lawsuits culminating with a clear Supreme Court rejection. Trump fired a government cyber agency official who was responsible for ensuring a “safe and secure” election. Then he called and tried to bully state officials to overturn election results.
Before the end of Trump’s term, we can expect more unpresidential actions, questionable pardons, high-level firings, and head-turning statements. Among the most glaring so far are two zingers from the Kilmeade interview: “I worry about the country having an illegitimate president.” And, even more outrageous, “What happened to this country is we were like a third world country.” (Something he ought to say while looking in the mirror?)
Still, there is a chance that Trump will be persuaded to attend the traditional Inauguration Day events, details of which are in pandemic-era flux. Typically, the president and the first lady would welcome the Bidens to the White House for tea. Donald would leave Joe an encouraging personal note in the drawer of the Resolute Desk. Together they would ride to the Capitol, and Trump would quietly watch Biden take the oath of office. Afterward, the former president would depart Washington for the adoring crowds awaiting him in the Sunshine State.
If all that happened, it would make headline news around the globe for its normalcy. Such mature, traditional, non-Trumpian behavior would demonstrate, in the end, that the 45th U.S. president is an American patriot. It would speak to his upholding of democratic ideals while loving the nation more than personal power.
Perhaps close to Jan. 20, he will recognize that his presence at the swearing-in could help change the hearts — if not necessarily the minds — of 68% of Republican voters and the 36% of all voters (according to a Fox News poll) who believe that the election was “stolen.” Moreover, it would show that Trump was a big, strong, and tough man who accepted the election outcome, but is still personally a “winner.”
Best of all, imagine this scene: During President Biden’s inaugural address, he calls out Trump and gives him credit for pushing through the COVID vaccine — by that time injected into millions of American arms. Trump stands and basks in the applause. If he attends, that could happen. It’s a scene that would be Biden’s generous and gentlemanly response to Trump’s Nov. 26 statement that “the vaccines — and, by the way, don’t let Joe Biden take credit for the vaccines … because the vaccines were me, and I pushed people harder than they’ve ever been pushed before.”
Think about it. With Trump present and Biden applauding his “medical miracle,” a powerful message could be sent to the nation and world:
Despite bumps in the road, American democracy abides. This is how we do it — we fight like hell and then move ahead. We are on the path to unity. Don’t mess with the USA! We are strong, will continue to lead the world, and in four years, do it all again!
Besides the national symbolism encompassing our vaunted “smooth transition of power,” Trump could personally benefit if he attends the ceremony. There, he will be in the company of the four living former U.S. presidents, who could welcome him into their ultra-prestigious “club.”
After all, we know how much Trump loves exclusive clubs. Then, at their gatherings, he could always brag that he is still the “greatest winner” since he received more votes than any of them.