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Staffers told The New Yorker that the Bidens greeted them moments after entering the White House

By Virginia Chamlee
March 02, 2021 04:14 PM
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While the public gets a view of the pomp and circumstance of the inaugural ceremonies, only a handful of people in U.S. history have gotten a front-row seat to the moments after an incoming president walks into their new home at the White House.

According to current and former residence staffers who spoke with The New Yorker, the transition between a past and present president can be — like any typical move — frantic, albeit with the added pressure that one's job could hang in the balance.

Recounting the handoff between the Trump and Biden administrations to Susannah Jacob, a former Obama aide, for a recent New Yorker article, staffers said the two families were like "night and day" when it came to social distancing practices as workers spaced out in a line on Jan. 20 in anticipation of greeting new President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

Earlier that day, departing President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump offered a brief thank you to the staffers, all gathered in one room together, according to The New Yorker.

Joe Biden, Donald Trump
Joe Biden (left) and Donald Trump
| Credit: Alex Wong/Getty; SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty

Chief Usher Timothy Harleth "presented the couple with the flags that had flown over the White House during their time there, a long-standing tradition."

And then, around 8 a.m. that day, the Trumps walked to Marine One outside the White House and headed south to Florida.

Hours later, following the inauguration at the U.S. Capitol, "the Bidens came in and the first thing they did was make a loop of the State Floor and greet the staff," one White House residence worker told The New Yorker. "We were all very flattered. Usually we meet them in the first days or first weeks, but never in the first minutes."

Biden said "We're glad we're here, too," according to the magazine.

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Outgoing US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump speak to the media depart the White House
From left: Donald and Melania Trump leave the White House on Jan. 20
| Credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Ahead of the new administration, Harleth, the chief usher, had worked with a creative manager to make the White House's residential floors "Architectural Digest-ready," one staffer told The New Yorker. That included "new stationary" and bookcases filled with "decorative plates and candles."

And then, just before Trump's term expired, Harleth was dismissed as chief usher. A Biden official previously noted to CNN that Harleth was fired before Biden took office, though Harleth suggested to The New Yorker the decision was in order to replace him with someone chosen by the new president.

"Every family deserves to have the people they want there," he told the magazine.

Harleth had been hired in 2017 and came to the White House after serving as rooms manager at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. He replaced Angella Reid, the first female chief usher, who was let go by the Trumps after serving under the Obamas.

White House household employees told The New Yorker there were clear differences between various first families.

The Obamas, for example, had never before "had a staff of housekeepers and craved privacy." The Trumps, meanwhile, treated the staff like a "twenty-four-hour concierge desk," former calligrapher Jonathan Lee said.

Joe Biden and Jill Biden watching fireworks
From left: First Lady Dr. Jill Biden and President Joe Biden at the White House on inauguration night
| Credit: President Joe Biden walks down the West Wing Colonnade of the White House Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, en route to the Oval Office. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Speaking to the magazine, Harleth — who said he voted for Bernie Sanders — explained that many White House staffers who work behind the scenes don't view their allegiance to any particular party, but to the traditions of the role and in deference to the home itself.

Other members of the staff, Harleth said, taught him "the value and the meaning of service to the country — that's what they do every day, through their service to the Presidency."

While his dismissal surprised some of the residence staffers, according to The New Yorker, Harleth's absence on Jan. 20 was felt in one other way.

As Joe and Jill Biden entered the White House as president and first lady for the first time, they had what appeared, as journalists earlier noted, to be an awkward moment waiting for the doors to open for them.

According to The New Yorker, the moment "was a sign of a departed chief usher."

Days later, when they spoke with PEOPLE for their first White House interview, the Bidens were still settling in.

"It's surreal, but it's comfortable," the president said then. "[I] spent a lot of time here in the cabinet room and in the Oval with the President [Barack Obama], but upstairs is new. It didn't seem like that much was changing, including the inauguration, until we walked through the door with our grandkids. It was like — oh, I guess things have changed!"