February 26, 2021

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How the First Day of the Trump Presidency Foreshadowed the Four Years to Come

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Donald Trump’s presidency was always going to be … atypical. But few, if anyone, outside his orbit got as early a taste of what was to come as Brian Mosteller.
Donald Trump & Wife

Donald Trump’s presidency was always going to be … atypical. But few, if anyone, outside his orbit got as early a taste of what was to come as Brian Mosteller.

Described by colleagues as fastidious almost to the point of obsessiveness, Mosteller served as President Barack Obama’s special assistant and director of Oval Office operations. That meant that on the day of Trump’s inauguration in 2017, he was one of just a handful of aides left there to help with the transition.

On that Jan. 20 morning, Mosteller recalled Trump and Obama, along with a smattering of top political leaders, congregating in the Blue Room of the White House for the ceremonial tea. As the group began filtering out to get into their motorcade for the trip to the Capitol, the incoming and outgoing president lingered in the Grand Foyer. There, Obama quickly briefed Trump on a pending national security matter.

“Trump,” Mosteller recalled, “says, ‘Well what would you do in this situation?’”

To Mosteller it was unnerving; not just because Trump hadn’t given much thought to the issue, but also because “it was evident that he wasn’t really interested in the answer.” He exchanged a glance with Obama’s longtime photographer Pete Souza. “We had this realization that this was really bad,” Mosteller said. “If this is the question taking place discreetly behind closed doors on day one, the country is going to be in rough shape.”

A solitary vignette before a historic ceremony does not foreshadow an entire presidency. But as Trump’s tenure comes to a close this Wednesday, fewer days are as symbolic of his time in office as the first: the jubilation of the fans, the dread of the foes, the bellicosity of the rhetoric, the unorthodoxy of the approach, disruptiveness as a tactic, chaos as a byproduct, and the petty obsessions that colored it all.

“Jesus that day sucked,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s longtime adviser, who was with him that day.

For the Obama team, it was all somber. Many of those who were at the White House that day were finishing up eight-year stints. Some had slept on their office floors overnight for fear that the security clampdown in the city would make it impossible to get to work on time. Aides recall an intense exhaustion that mixed oddly with the depression they felt — the mind jolting the body to remind it that things had gone awry.

“I was worn out after doing that job for eight years and was looking forward to being done with the job,” Souza said. “At the same time, I was concerned for the country really, who we were turning the keys over to. It was just a weird set of dual emotions playing out that day.”

The day was not without its routines. When Obama came down from his residence to the Oval Office, he was handed his morning briefing book with a schedule memo for the day. It was thinner than usual. And all of his personal stuff was gone from the room save roughly 30 or so photos on the Resolute Desk.

At some point, Obama took a handwritten letter he’d composed for Trump out of the desk, put it in an envelope and placed it back in the drawer. He then went back up to the residence and had a ceremony in the State Dining Room with the ushers’ office. They presented him with the flag that had flown atop the White House that day.

“He was spiritually in the right space. He was ready to walk away,” said a former aide with him that day. “It was a rite of passage, he emphasized. That’s just how it goes.”

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