Washington - out with the almonds, in with Doritos. At the stroke of 12.01pm (5pm Irish time) on Friday, as soon as Donald Trump is sworn in as US president and Barack Obama relinquishes the office, dozens of federal workers will swing into action at the White House to replace one commander in chief's creature comforts - favorite snacks, clothes, toiletries, artwork and furniture - with those of his successor.
The process, months in the planning but mere hours in its militarylike execution, unfolds mostly away from public view as Americans and the world focus on the pageantry of Inauguration Day: the presidential oath and address at the Capitol, a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the black-tie balls.
For the roughly 100 people who work in the White House and the employees on hand to help them with perhaps the world’s highest-stakes moving day, the official events double as useful distractions that keep the exiting president and his family and the incoming occupants off-site during the work.
"It's very busy - you are on your feet constantly, making sure things are going in the right place and in the right way, and there is very little time to spare," said Betty Monkman, a White House curator for more than three decades who helped supervise the changeover in 2001, when Bill Clinton was moving out and George W Bush was coming in. "The housekeeper and maids are all getting the clothes in the closet and cosmetics and toiletries in the bathrooms, the kitchen staff is preparing the food. There is a lot going on."
Obama and his wife, Michelle, who plan to move to a house on about three kilometers from the White House so they can remain in Washington while their younger daughter, Sasha, completes high school, have already begun moving personal items to their new home. Moving trucks, including one from a company specialising in storing and moving fine art, have been parked outside the house in the District’s upscale Kalorama neighborhood, and workers have been photographed carrying large cartons inside.
But much of the work at the White House cannot take place until the transfer of power occurs just after noon Washington time, when two moving trucks pull into the driveway that circles the South Lawn - one to deliver the new president’s possessions and the other one to cart off those belonging to the departing chief executive.
Nostalgia mixes in with the frenzy. "It's an emotional time," said Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to Laura Bush, including during the 2009 handoff to the Obamas. On the morning of the inauguration, before the departing president hosts his successor for a midmorning tea, members of the White House residence staff - butlers, maids, cooks, groundskeepers and others - typically gather in the East Room to say goodbye to the couple they have served, often for the better part of a decade.
“It can be teary,” McBride said. The changes range from the mundane to the significant. Obama, whose family’s obsession with healthy eating has been well documented, keeps a large bowl of apples on a table in the Oval Office and a supply of almonds for his late-night nibbling over briefing books. Trump, a fast-food aficionado, is known to prefer not only Doritos but also Lays crisps. The chief usher is in charge of briefing the kitchen staff of any such requests in advance so the pantry on the ground floor of the White House can be appropriately stocked.
Trump’s team declined to comment on what requests he has made for stocking the kitchen or redecorating the house for his first days there, and it is not clear how much time the incoming president - who is most comfortable in the familiar confines of his lavish penthouse apartment at Trump Tower, with its gold-encrusted accents - plans to spend there.
His wife, Melania, who met on January 3rd at the White House with the usher and curator, plans to live in New York for the first months of Trump's presidency so the couple's elementary school-age son, Barron, can finish the year at his private school in Manhattan.
The White House empties of all but a skeleton crew of political appointees during the inauguration on Capitol Hill. Amy Zantzinger, a social secretary for Laura Bush, recalls walking out the White House gate just before noon on that day in 2009 as Michael Smith, the Obamas' decorator, was coming in.
"Mrs Obama's priority that day was getting the girls' rooms settled in time for bedtime that night," Zantzinger said about the first daughters, then 7 and 10. A transition official close to Melania Trump, speaking on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorised to talk about the move-in process, said she was working closely with an interior designer to redo parts of the White House residence. The official also would not address reports that Trump, a former model, would install a well-lit "glam room" for makeup and hair preparations. She has enlisted Jessica Boulanger, a senior vice president of communications at the Business Roundtable who has an interest in fashion design, on a volunteer basis to help her establish an East Wing team.
Donald Trump is planning to swap the curtains in the Oval Office - currently a deep shade of red - for those used by a previous president, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
At the White House, aides have been plotting the move for weeks. They compiled briefing books for the incoming first family with color photographs and architectural drawings of all the rooms in the residence, including what furniture and artwork are available. Curators, who keep computerised inventories of artifacts that are in the permanent collection of the White House and those that have been brought in as gifts or personal items, police the process to ensure that exiting presidents do not leave with anything that does not belong to them.
It does not always go seamlessly. Bill and Hillary Clinton had to return nearly $50,000 worth of gifts they took with them when they left the White House in 2001. These were eventually determined to be the property of the National Park Service, which oversees the White House.
"The Clintons were partying up until 3am the night before, so it was much more of a frantic turnaround for the residence staff to move in the Bushes' stuff," McBride said. When it came time for Laura Bush, a librarian, to transition out of the White House, she added, she made sure the process was orderly, starting in the summer of 2008 when she began gradually moving belongings to the family's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The newly sworn-in president and first lady typically return to the White House after a lunch at the Capitol and are greeted by the chief usher, who makes sure they are comfortable for a few moments before they head out again to a viewing stand on Pennsylvania Avenue to watch the inaugural parade.
“They’ll come and go quickly, which is just as well,” Monkman said, “because there is still so much to do.”
- New York Times