Opinion | White House

Will Trump be an Inauguration Day no-show?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

President Trump may be planning to draw attention away from President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration on January 20 by holding a made-for-television event of his own. Reports indicate that he might board Air Force One that morning, fly to Florida, then hold a MAGA-type rally to announce his plan to run for president again in 2024. Yes, even on the day of someone else's inauguration, Trump may want that day to be about himself.

This is not the way America operates. By tradition, on Inauguration Day, the outgoing president greets the president-elect at the White House. They pose for pictures with their spouses, then have some private time together while enjoying juice, coffee and pastries. After about an hour, they ride together to the Capitol for the inauguration ceremony. The new president is sworn in at noon, and then delivers the inaugural address, with his or her predecessor sitting nearby. It is this peaceful transfer of power that sets our country apart from many others around the world.

But now, in the aftermath of a bitter 2020 election, we are in the position of wondering whether President Trump will interact at all with his successor on Inauguration Day. Will those longstanding traditions be followed? Will they have coffee together that morning? Because of the pandemic, perhaps not. Will they ride together to the Capitol? Same issue. So, clearly, the more important question is this: Will Trump even show up at the ceremony? To even ask such a question is almost historically unthinkable. 

Trump's presidency has been unorthodox and unpredictable. He even defied normalcy during his 2017 inaugural address. Whereas previous presidents had always used that speech as a vehicle for unity, attempting to bring the country together after a difficult and contentious election, Trump made no such effort in 2017. He chose instead to speak mostly to his base, a pattern he continued throughout his presidency. He has yet to concede the 2020 election, and he continues to falsely claim that Biden won the election through fraudulent means. It is thus highly plausible, if not likely, that Trump and his base believe that he should refuse to be a willing participant in this transition. 

There have been only a few times that an Inauguration Day transition between presidents was not totally smooth. In 1933, President Herbert Hoover almost completely ignored President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt during their procession to the Capitol.   

Twenty years later, in 1953, President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower had a big argument with President Harry Truman on inauguration morning.

But a lack of congeniality during a car ride pales in comparison to the three 19th century presidents who didn't bother to attend the inaugurations of their successors.

That list of sore losers includes John Adams, in 1801, and his son John Quincy Adams, in 1829. John Adams was bitter about his election defeat and considered President-elect Thomas Jefferson to be a radical. Adams felt that appearing at Jefferson's ceremony was as absurd a thought as the idea of King George III attending the first inauguration of George Washington in 1789. Similarly, John Quincy Adams, as well as many in the Washington establishment, considered President-elect Andrew Jackson and his followers to be lowlifes. 

Then, in 1869, President Andrew Johnson stayed at the White House during Ulysses S. Grant's ceremony, choosing instead to quietly sign a few bills for the final time as president. That is the last time an outgoing president did not participate at all in the inauguration of his successor. So, if Trump refuses to adhere to Inauguration Day traditions next month, his decision would not be as unique as he and his supporters might think. If he fails to make an appearance at Biden's inauguration, Trump would merely be following the sad example set by another impeached president more than 150 years ago.  

Such a petty decision would mark a return to a past that is not worth repeating. 

Inauguration Day is a time to celebrate America. If Trump chooses to do anything other than sit on the platform while his successor is sworn in, he will make clear that his "America first" boasting is the real fraud of the 2020 election cycle. On the one day that American democracy is on display for the world to see, he will have chosen to put America last.

Jim Bendat is the author of "Democracy's Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President, 1789-2013." He has been a guest correspondent at the last five inaugurations for numerous networks, most recently for CNN in 2017.