Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the U.S. presidential election and COVID-19 ensure an uneasy transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden.


U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden as he arrives for his inauguration on 20 January 2017 in Washington, D.C. (Pat Benic/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

Twelve years ago, I was on an airplane with U.S. President-elect Barack Obama as he traveled from his home in Chicago to Washington, D.C., where he would soon become the 44th president of the United States.

On the plane, Obama told the small group of reporters who were traveling with him that he got “choked up a bit” leaving home as he headed to Washington just days before the inauguration. Although he was about to make history as the first Black president, and was taking office amid an economic crisis, two wars and bubbling tension in the Middle East, Obama was mostly emotional about memories with his family as he set off for his new life at the White House.

That flight aboard a U.S. Air Force jet with all the trappings of the president’s plane, Air Force One, was one in a series of traditional events that take place during the long transfer of power period between presidents in the United States.

Fast forward 12 years, and the transition period is anything but traditional.

Despite objections from Trump, Biden will be inaugurated on January 20.

The current U.S. president, Donald Trump, has not yet conceded the election to Joe Biden, who won 306 votes in the Electoral College versus 232 for Trump. Despite that, Trump is trying to alter the outcome just two weeks before he is due to be replaced.

Typically, hordes of people fill the streets of Washington every fourth January for the inauguration ceremony, parties and a parade. This year, the city is bracing for crowds of Trump supporters who have pledged to protest the election results.

Despite any protests, Biden is set to be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, as outlined under the 20th amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Although the period between the election in early November and January 20 may seem long in the digital age, it used to be even longer. Before the 20th amendment was ratified in 1933, the president was not inaugurated until March 4.

Traditionally, the weeks between the election and inauguration offer the incoming president and vice president time to decide who they will appoint to their cabinet and other top administration positions. They work with officials in the outgoing administration to get up to speed on important issues before they take office. Each government department prepares transition documents to explain key initiatives and processes to the next administration.

COVID-19 means many events will be virtual.

The long transition gives Washington time to get ready for the inauguration – building massive platforms in front of the Capitol, erecting viewing stands in front of the White House and setting up temporary fencing along the parade route and viewing areas for the ceremony and inaugural festivities.

But this year, because of the coronavirus pandemic, instead of adding bunting and final touches, viewing stands are being dismantled in the early days of January as Biden prepares for a mostly virtual inauguration.

While he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will take the oath of office in front of the Capitol, it will be a pared-down affair. The usual parade from the Capitol to the White House will be mostly a virtual event, with the inauguration committee urging supporters to stay home to watch online instead of showing up in person.

Like so many traditions that have been scrambled in the past year, the concerts, speeches and balls that punctuate the inauguration will be attended mostly online. Whether the new president will have a first dance with the new first lady remains to be seen.

Three questions to consider:

  1. When does a newly elected U.S. president get inaugurated?
  2. Why is there such a long period between the election and inauguration?
  3. Do you think democracy in the United States has been permanently weakened by political events in the past few years?
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Deborah Charles was a Reuters correspondent for 24 years. She worked on four continents on issues ranging from the White House to Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi and was the White House correspondent during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies. She covered four U.S. presidential campaigns and six Olympics, and worked in bureaus in Madrid, Bangkok, Montreal, Toronto, New York and Buenos Aires. She is former Senior Managing Editor at Devex, a news organization focused on global development, and is currently consulting for the World Bank. 

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PoliticsTrump, COVID-19 ensure troubled U.S. handover to Biden