Estimating crowd sizes on Inauguration Days can be tricky. It’s thought that Barack Obama’s 2009 ceremony drew a record 1.8 million supporters. In Donald Trump’s first full day in office in 2017, he railed against what he said were media underestimates of his pulling power.
This year, no such concerns will arise. Washington DC mayor Muriel Bowser is telling people to stay home. Airbnb is cancelling reservations to stop people coming to the capital for the event on Wednesday (Thursday morning, AEDT). Downtown roads and metro stations will be closed.
Washington is fortified, with rings of security around the Capitol, White House and National Mall and thousands of armed soldiers (vetted by the FBI) guarding against another attack by Americans who refuse to accept Trump’s defeat.
There is also the matter of COVID-19. As RMIT Research Fellow Dr Emma Shortis notes, “3000 to 4000 people will die [in the US] during the day of the event itself.
“Inaugurations are usually joyous events that draw a line between one era and another,” says Shortis.
“This inauguration will be like absolutely no other. It has two shadows cast over it: coronavirus and the storming of the Capitol building on January 6.”
So, what can we expect on Inauguration Day? How does the transfer of power work? When do the nuclear codes change hands? And where will Trump be on the big day?
What happens at an inauguration?
When a new prime minister wins office in Australia, he or she is sworn by the Governor-General in a simple ceremony.
A US presidential inauguration ceremony is an all-day affair.
First, there’s usually a procession as the President-elect and Vice-President travel to the Capitol, followed by a mix of prayers, speeches, oaths, music, pageantry and poetry. For this inauguration, for example, the Pledge of Allegiance will be led by a firefighter from Georgia, Andrea Hall; there will be a poetry reading from the first national youth poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, and the benediction will be given by a home-town friend of the Bidens, Reverend Silvester Beaman of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware.
At 11.30am, Vice-President elect Kamala Harris will take the oath of office: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”
Harris has chosen Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor to swear her in, a history-making event in which the first black, South Asian and female vice-president will take her oath of office from the first Latina justice. Sotomayor swore in President-elect Joe Biden as vice-president in 2013.
The US Marine Band will play “ruffles and flourishes” ceremonial music followed by the song Hail, Columbia, which was composed for George Washington’s inauguration in 1789 and which was a quasi-national anthem until The Star-Spangled Banner became the official anthem in 1931.
At noon, power will transfer from the outgoing President Donald Trump to the incoming one, Joe Biden, and the new president will take the oath of office, administered by the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts.
Biden will then deliver his inaugural address, which is expected to be sober but optimistic.
Biden and Harris then inspect the troops, a ritual that symbolises the peaceful transfer of power to a new commander-in-chief. And later in the day, Biden, first lady Jill Biden, Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff are expected to visit Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They will be joined by former presidents and first ladies Barack and Michelle Obama, George W and Laura Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Hang on, what exactly is the president’s oath?
The wording of the oath is different to the VP’s, and shorter. It’s set out in Article II, Section One, Clause 8, of the US Constitution: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Most presidents add, “So help me God”.
The constitution stipulates that no religious test is needed to qualify as a public official. Theodore Roosevelt was hastily sworn in without laying his hand on any document after the death of William McKinley in 1901. Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on a Catholic liturgical book aboard the Air Force One plane after the killing of John F Kennedy in Texas in 1963.
While a range of books have been used for swearing-ins in Congress – for example, the Koran was used by the first Muslim congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar – presidents so far have tended to use Bibles.
The first president, George Washington, for example, used a St John’s Masonic Lodge Bible which, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, was opened at random “due to haste” on Genesis 49:13. Donald Trump used both Abraham Lincoln’s Bible and one his mother gave him when he graduated from Sunday school.
Biden (who, incidentally, will be only the second Catholic president, after JFK) will use a family Bible from 1893. “Every important date is in there,” he told TV interviewer Stephen Colbert, “every time I’ve been sworn in for everything, the date is inscribed on the Bible, when our son [the late Beau Biden] was sworn in as attorney-general … It’s just been a family heirloom.”
Harris will use two Bibles, including one that belonged to one of her “greatest heroes”, the first black Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall.
What about showbiz?
Music is part of the inauguration ceremony. Obama’s big day in 2009, for example, included Aretha Franklin singing My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. This year, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga will perform.
But the usual balls and other gala events that follow the inauguration will be replaced by virtual events. (Imagine time-travelling back to the shindig Frank Sinatra organised for Kennedy in 1961, featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Leonard Bernstein, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte and Sinatra among others …)
On the night of this inauguration, for example, actor Tom Hanks will host a TV show, Celebrating America, with appearances from Biden and Harris as well as musicians Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato, the Foo Fighters, Jon Bon Jovi and Bruce Springsteen.
How else will this inauguration be different?
“What’s new is Trump’s not going to be there,” says Dr Thomas J Adams, an expert in US politics and history at the University of Sydney. “That means there’s not the traditional handover, there’s not the shaking of the hands, there’s none of that stuff.”
Further, the FBI has warned that extremists, fringe groups and conspiracy theorists have called for armed demonstrations on the day. Michigan, California, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida have called out their National Guards while Pennsylvania and Texas say their capitols will be closed around the time of the inauguration.
University of Sydney Associate Professor Brendon O’Connor says a frightening concern will be “whether there is violence or not”.
“One of the most interesting questions is, how will Biden give a speech that attempts to heal the deep divisions in the US at the moment but that also doesn’t let Trump off the hook?
“One of the aspects of the alternative information environment we live in is that there are many people who believe Biden didn’t win.
“There are clearly people who believe this stuff and take it seriously. If you believe the most important election in four years was stolen, you might not just sit and accept that,” he says. “I worry about that as well.”
Some 25,000 National Guard troops, double the usual amount, have been called up to ensure order in Washington and will be vetted by the FBI amid fears an insider threat could disrupt the transfer of power.
When does a president hand over the ‘nuclear football’?
On Inauguration Day, Trump, Biden, Harris and Vice-President Mike Pence will all be trailed individually by teams carrying the Presidents’ Emergency Satchels, or “nuclear footballs”, with the communications tools needed to launch a nuclear strike. Each leader is issued with the launch codes on a special card called the “biscuit”, which they must carry with them at all times.
When Harris is sworn in, she replaces Pence in the chain of command. When Biden is sworn in, the Pentagon will recognise him as President – with the exclusive authority to launch a nuclear strike.
By day’s end, the aide carrying the codes following Trump will leave Trump’s side in Florida and return to Washington, according to US National Security expert Marc Ambinder, who has written extensively about nuclear weapons chain-of-command issues.
Although Trump has caused mayhem within the government, Ambinder doesn’t anticipate any issue around the nuclear command.
“I’m very confident that the Joint Chiefs, the White House Military Office and United States Strategic Command have this well in hand,” he says.
“To put it simply, at noon, the Pentagon will recognise Biden and won’t recognise Trump. There’s no button to push.”
What will Trump be doing during all of this?
Trump is due to take off from the South Lawn of the White House early in the morning for an air base from which he will fly home to Florida. A handful of former administration officials and backers are expected to see him off.
By noon, the Trump family’s chattels, including his $US50,000 ($64,000) “room-size golf simulator”, will have followed him out the White House door, The New York Times reports, en route to his home in Palm Beach; once Biden is inaugurated, his family’s moving vans can start unloading. “By the end of the day Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, will arrive to a deep-cleaned living quarters where their bags will be unpacked, their furniture arranged and their favourite foods stocked in the fridge.”
An informal custom of the outgoing president leaving a well-wishing missive for the incoming successor dates back to the 1980s but experts forecast Trump will give it a miss.
What will Biden be doing for the rest of his day?
Biden’s first afternoon in the Oval Office, between the ceremony and the prime-time celebration of his inauguration, will be action-packed.
On the day he becomes president, Biden will rejoin the Paris climate accord; make masks compulsory on federal property and during interstate travel; and end Trump’s ban on immigration from some Muslim nations.
In a memo to the new administration, incoming chief-of-staff Ron Klain says these are among a dozen items on the agenda for January 20.
Others include extending the pause on student loan repayments and possibly cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline project, a controversial project piping oil from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska. Trump made building the pipeline a central promise after Obama scrapped it in 2015 as part of his administration’s climate change efforts.
This is just the start of a 10-day blitz to, in Klain’s words, “reverse the gravest dangers of the Trump administration – but also to start moving our country forward”.
– with AP, Bloomberg
Felicity is the National Explainer Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, WA Today and The Brisbane Times.
Chris is Digital Foreign Editor.