President-elect Joe Biden’s team is confronting a logistical headache as it prepares for his formal inauguration on January 20, 2021: How can you hold a mass-attended event in the midst of a pandemic while also preventing it from becoming a Trumpist counterprotest?
At issue is a potentially combustible mix of complications owing to the likelihood that both COVID-19 and President Donald Trump’s hurt feelings will persist into the time when Biden is scheduled to be sworn into office.
Officials who have been involved in talks around inauguration planning said public safety would be top of mind. Over the course of the campaign, Biden consistently downscaled events or went entirely virtual to ensure no risk of COVID spread on his behalf. The expectation is that mindset won’t change for his inauguration.
“Inaugurals always require intricate planning. This one will be a really delicate dance to have that element of accessibility without risk,” said Steve Kerrigan, who served as the CEO of the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC). “I cannot see a President-elect Biden, like Trump, putting narcissism or ego ahead of the safety of people.”
But the questions being confronted by inauguration planners are now twofold. How do you actually keep attendees away? And if wannabe revelers decide not to show up, will you be left with a mass gathering of Trump supporters in their place?
“What do you do if our people don’t show up and his do?” asked one official involved in inaugural preparations. “They probably will and the last thing you want is a MAGA rally on the Mall when Joe Biden is sworn in as president…. I think [Trump] would want to make it as much of a shitshow as possible.”
Planning an inaugural is an arduous affair. The event involves massive crowds (including virtually all prominent political dignitaries) and requires large budgets and painstaking organizing. There are several stakeholders involved. But the general breakdown is that Congress handles the traditional ceremony that takes place on the west side of the Capitol building—where recent presidents have been sworn in—as well as the luncheon afterward and the helicopter departure of the outgoing president. The PIC, meanwhile, handles the customary church attendance, and White House tea between the presidents that takes place before the inauguration as well as the parade back to the White House and the balls that take place after.
Congress hands out an estimated 200,000 to 250,000 tickets for seating around and in front of the Capitol. In 2009, an estimated 800,000 people were on site to watch the parade while 40,000 people attended the 13 planned balls. Trump’s 2017 affair was more sparsely attended and, thematically, a bit different than most. After his speech, George W. Bush reportedly commented: “Well, that was some weird shit.”
One senior adviser who helped organize a recent inaugural said the bipartisan, bicameral congressional committee is not obligated to follow the incoming president’s lead, but that it customarily does so. But there is added confusion about what might happen this year as Trump continues to contest the election results. The current chairman of the congressional committee, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), said Sunday that they were “anticipating an outside, full-scale inauguration that’s easier to scale back than to scale up.”
As of now, virtually no one believes that planners won’t end up scaling back. One major fundraiser who has attended—and donated to—multiple Democratic inaugurations suggested that there “won’t be grace-and-favor seats in prominent places behind the president-elect” this go around, with the crowded dais instead filled with socially distant Cabinet officials and family members only. Another Democratic fundraiser predicted that the Biden team would push for a “save and celebrate” plan, in which you “save lives and do a mostly virtual event.”
Stephanie Cutter, the veteran Democratic operative who has worked on past inaugurations, noted that there is no provision requiring Biden to even go to the Capitol to be sworn in.
“It is all ceremonial. You can do it in the [Capitol] rotunda if you want,” she said. “You just have to be sworn in by a Supreme Court justice.”
Officials familiar with past planning said the Secret Service and the National Park Service could, if asked, seal off the entirety of the Mall and surrounding streets to make sure that crowds are kept far away. Kerrigan noted that in 2009 Obama’s team eventually tried to keep the crowds away—out of fear that they’d overwhelm D.C. infrastructure—by encouraging them to hold neighborhood inaugurals instead.
The Biden campaign-turned-transition has told high-roller donors—who, along with corporate sponsors, typically fund the inauguration festivities—that while plans are still highly fluid, there is a full understanding that any inauguration needs to put the safety of the public before any sense of tradition.
“There are a lot of conversations going on about that, and there certainly will be an inauguration in some form—we’re just trying to think about how best to do that in the context of COVID,” Cathy Russell, a member of the advisory council for the Biden-Harris transition team and former chief of staff to Jill Biden, told donors on a finance call on Tuesday evening. “It’s always this balance, right? Where he wants to do things responsibly and make sure that he’s not putting anybody in harm’s way… we’re definitely turning our attention to that and giving that a lot of thought right now.”
But even with those provisions (fluid though they may be) in place, officials on Team Biden still worry that people will come to celebrate—thereby creating the type of mass gathering that public-health experts have discouraged during the pandemic. One official noted that crowds gathered in D.C. and elsewhere organically on Saturday after news networks and services called the election for Biden.
“I think it’s going to be almost impossible to keep people away from the Mall,” the official said. “If Saturday is any indication of how people want to participate, it is going to be hard. Part of the point of it is to allow people to participate and the cathartic nature of it being the end of Trump. People are going to want to go.”
They also will likely show up to heckle. In 2001, President George Bush was greeted with jeers, signs accusing him of thievery, and an egg thrown at his motorcade after the controversial recount in Florida put him in the White House.
But Trumpism presents an entirely different dimension of potential disruptions. Already, Trump-supportive groups have signaled that they intend to organize in D.C. to protest Biden’s win. This weekend, a rally is scheduled in D.C. to include pro-Trump women’s group Women for America First, members of the far-right Proud Boys, and some white supremacists who marched in the 2017 Charlottesville rally. Another entity called the Stop the Steal Caravan, led by a host from conspiracy-theory hub Infowars, is driving from Austin and plans to arrive in Washington on Friday.
The senior adviser who helped organize a recent inaugural said that it would be a personal surprise if Trump didn’t encourage something similar for when Biden’s inauguration was scheduled. It would be similarly surprising if Trump himself even participated.
“I could see no church, no invitation to tea. He’d bounce from the South Lawn, and then go hold a rally to entertain the masses,” the adviser said.