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White House moving day: Behind the transition between the Trumps and Bidens

On a typical Inauguration Day, the White House staff has about five hours to prepare the executive mansion for a new first family. This year will be different than most.
/ Source: TODAY

It's time to swap out the White House welcome mat.

The White House may have served as home to the Trump family for the last four years, but it belongs to President-elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, as of Wednesday at noon.

The sprint to turn over the executive mansion begins the moment President Trump leaves Washington for his new home at Mar-a-Lago, Trump's private club in Palm Beach, Florida.

That's when the clock starts at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. for staff members who traditionally have had about five hours to flip the White House for its new residents.

Furniture gets swapped, walls repainted and artwork replaced, all in accordance with the wishes of the incoming first family.

This year, though, things are different. For one, the Trump family plans to leave the White House early Wednesday morning, hours before the inauguration. (Trump announced earlier this month he wouldn't attend Biden's ceremony. He's the first president since Andrew Johnson in 1869 to not attend the inauguration of his successor.)

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Traditionally, after the noon swearing in, there is an inaugural luncheon at the Capitol and a parade on Pennsylvania Avenue. Those events were canceled. Instead, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will head to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Depending on timing, they could arrive at the White House sooner than in the past.

"They could be there in an hour or two hours, cutting in half the amount of time that the staff typically has to prepare," Stewart McLaurin, president of The White House Historical Association, told TODAY. “But these are professionals. The staff knows when the Bidens are arriving, and they are taking everything into account to make their arrival comfortable.”

President-elect Joe Biden is set to be sworn into the White House at noon on Wednesday.Alex Wong / Getty Images

There is an added wrinkle: The White House served as a COVID-19 hot spot in the final months of Trump's administration. The president, first lady Melania Trump, their son, and several staff and advisers were infected with the coronavirus.

“This year, the most important aspect of the move is cleaning it out, doing the deep clean,” said Martha Kumar, the director of the White House Transition Project and author of the book “Before the Oath: How George W. Bush and Barack Obama Managed a Transfer of Power.”

“It’s more than just the residence ... you’ve had all the parties where the virus has spread, and you’ve had (the virus) in the West Wing, and you’ve had it in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. They have rooms with ceilings 25 feet high. Cleaning that place is tough.”

Before the Bidens move in, the White House will have received a top-to-bottom cleaning totaling nearly half a million dollars, NBC News reported. That's on top of the normal changeover costs that come when a new administration takes over.

The new tab included a $44,000 charge for carpet cleaning, $29,000 for curtain cleaning in both the White House and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and a $115,000 charge for new carpets in the East Wing, West Wing and EEOB, NBC News reported.

Around 95 people work for the White House residence staff — butlers, chefs, ushers, housekeepers and florists, many of whom stay on for decades.

McLaurin said those staffers have been anticipating the Bidens' arrival and tweaking their roles according to the new family's preferences.

"It’s a very personalization relationship," McLaurin said. "The chefs will find out what are the preferred foods of the new family, so they can begin working in a way that fits their family. The florist does the same thing."

Stephen Rochon, a retired rear admiral and former White House chief usher, oversaw the transition between President George W. Bush and President Obama in January 2009.

Rochon said each family makes their wishes known. Obama, for instance, had only one special request.

“He wanted a nice showerhead,” Rochon recalled with a chuckle. “And so we had to make sure that that was in place."

During each administration, the Oval Office and the residence get touch-ups, with the first family adjusting the spaces to suit their tastes.

Presidents can bring in their own furniture or choose pieces from a collection of White House furnishings dating back to the Kennedy administration, McLaurin said. Those pieces are housed in a warehouse in suburban Maryland.

Anything bought with the president's own money can go with them when they leave.

In 2017, the Oval Office underwent a $3 million dollar overhaul that included new air conditioning and heating, fresh paint, new carpets and furniture upgrades, The New York Times reported.

Several dozen historic doors in the residence and the State Floor also were refurbished, and the walls of the famed Red Room also received a freshening, both courtesy of Melania Trump, McLaurin said.

Other additions were less staid. In 2019, President Trump installed a giant, room-size golf simulator in in the White House. The $50,000 system was an upgrade of a smaller system Obama added, and Trump paid for it himself, according to The Washington Post, which first reported the news.

Even at the White House, though, moving day mix-ups can happen.

Nancy Mitchell, the White House's first female usher, remembered the day the Clinton family arrived — and the first lady’s inaugural shoes disappeared.

"We started tearing out items in the closet and looking for things. And finally they found them in Chelsea's room, covered up in some other items,” she said. “I never felt so happy in my life."

More difficult than the physical move, however, are the farewells between the staff and the families they faithfully served.

Former White House usher Skip Allen recalled a surprise response he received when saying goodbye to one first lady.

"When the Reagans left, I said, ‘Mrs. Reagan, I'm going to give you a hug.’ And she said, ‘Well, why in the world did it take so long for you to do that?’” he said.

In Biden's case, the former vice president's settling in period will likely be smoother than some of his successors'.

"The’ve spent a quite a bit of time there," McLaurin said. "They are familiar with the layout, they know many of the staff there ... they will come in with a comfort level probably similar to what (President George W. Bush’s) family came in with."