What does a US president do on the last day in office?

Donald Trump may ignore a number of inauguration day traditions

The White House is seen from a riser on Lafayette Park on January 18, 2021 in Washington, DC, two days before the 59th presidential inauguration in US history. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be sworn into office January 20, 2021. / AFP / Eric BARADAT
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The final day of a president's time in office is almost always spent with their successor, a tradition epitomising the peaceful transfer of power between US administrations.

It is customary for the departing president to host the president-elect at the White House, welcoming the next first family. Then come the inauguration ceremony and other public events.

But that will not be the case on Wednesday.

Donald Trump will break with tradition and fly out on Air Force One after a military send-off at Joint Base Andrews in nearby Maryland early on inauguration day.

He will leave Washington as president, something that has not happened since John Quincy Adams’s presidency in 1829.

Both John Quincy Adams and his father, John Adams, who followed George Washington as the second US president, left Washington before their successors’ inaugurations.

President Trump will soon join them as the third president not to be present in the capital at the time of the transition of power.

“What we think of as a traditional last day in office is actually more recent than many realise,” said Thomas Balcerski, a presidential historian at Eastern Connecticut State University.

"What's been really significant about transitions and traditions in the last several administrations has been the consistency, the commitment to uphold a peaceful transfer of power, a smooth transition between the certified and ascertained winner of an election and an outgoing president, and to ensure, really, our national security."

A meeting of the families

The day often starts with a meet and greet between the two families.

"They will receive the incoming president and first lady. What had been typical was actually to have tea at around 10 in the morning, which would last about an hour. They would then take the ride together [out of the White House], incoming and outcoming presidents and first ladies respectively, in two different vehicles to the Capitol. They would then gather inside the Capitol," said Mr Balcerski.

This is the build up to the public inauguration that now takes place on the west side of the Capitol building, a tradition started by former president Ronald Reagan.

Pardons until the very end

Perhaps the most interesting final act of a president is the issuing of pardons. Mr Trump is expected to pardon more than 100 people. This is a tradition that put some former presidents in hot water.

"Bill Clinton really set a new standard by signing more than 140 pardons on his last day, so in a sense, there's continuity between what President Trump is doing and what president Clinton and others did," said Mr Balcerski.

Mr Clinton famously pardoned his brother and international fugitive Marc Rich. “Before this [president’s last day], we looked at Clinton's last day as the most infamous of recent memory,” said Mr Balcerski.

John Adams used his last night in office to appoint judges. It was a much debated move that led to the establishment of judicial review, the power of US federal courts to declare legislative and executive acts unconstitutional.

Dear Mr President…

There is also the tradition of leaving the successor a letter. In the early days of his presidency, Mr Trump often showed off the letter former president Barack Obama had left him. Mr Trump may well choose to spurn yet another tradition and not write Mr Biden a letter.
It would be one last deviation from an administration full of them.


Gallery: The US during the Trump presidency