Moving out day at the White House

WASHINGTON • Out with almonds, in with Doritos.

At the stroke of 12.01pm tomorrow, as soon as Mr Donald Trump is sworn in as president and Mr 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 - favourite snacks, clothes, toiletries, artwork and furniture - with those of his successor.

The process, months in the planning but mere hours in its military-like 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 Ms Betty Monkman, a White House curator for more than three decades who helped supervise the changeover in 2001, when Mr Bill Clinton was moving out and Mr 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."

Mr Obama and his wife Michelle, who plan to move to a house less than two miles 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 neighbourhood, 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, 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 Ms Anita McBride, who served as chief of staff to Mrs Laura Bush, including during the 2009 handover to the Obamas.

On the morning of the inauguration, before the departing president hosts his successor for a mid-morning 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," Ms McBride said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2017, with the headline 'Moving out day at the White House'. Print Edition | Subscribe