Exclusive: Inside the S--tshow That Was the Trump-Biden Transition

New revelations about how one Trump staffer helped preserve the transfer of power—from the forthcoming book on the Biden White House, The Fight of His Life.
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Biden: By Jim Bourg-Pool/Getty Images; Trump: by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images.

The 2020 presidential transition was the most bitterly contested and dangerous since the Civil War. But while Donald Trump’s campaign to overthrow Joe Biden’s election was conducted in plain sight, another remarkable drama was playing out behind the scenes. It’s a story that hasn’t been fully reported before.

Contrary to popular belief, transitions don’t begin upon the election of a new president; they start almost a year before. That is when the incumbent and the opposing party’s frontrunner begin preparing for the handoff. One morning in April 2020, candidate Biden called up Ted Kaufman, his neighbor in Wilmington, Delaware. “Want to go for a walk?” he asked.

Kaufman, 81, is Biden’s best friend and alter ego—and has been his confidant during every key moment of his personal and professional life. Lanky and slightly disheveled, with a twinkle in his eye, Kaufman resembles an older version of John Lithgow. And that morning, as the two walked around a nearby schoolyard, the Trump-Biden transition officially began when the would-be Democratic nominee asked his neighbor to lead his transition team.

Presidential transitions are herculean exercises. More than 200 members of the incoming White House staff needed to be picked and readied to govern; 1,200 officials chosen and prepped for confirmation by the Senate; an additional 1,100 supporting players vetted and hired; executive orders written; tabletop crisis exercises conducted. This would have been a daunting prospect in the best of times. For Biden and transition chairman Kaufman, these were the most difficult times imaginable, given the deadly pandemic, a cratered economy, and protests across the country over police killings of unarmed Black Americans. Not to mention a politically polarized nation.

Donald Trump, however, wanted no part of a presidential transition. In 2015, running against Hillary Clinton, when asked if he’d respect the results of the election, Trump had said he’d keep people “in suspense.” By 2020, there was no suspense; Trump would acknowledge only his own victory.

How could a transition commence when the outgoing president was unwilling to give up his office? The task would fall to a little-known White House staffer who worked steps away from the Oval. His success would depend on keeping everything a secret from Donald Trump.

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Chris Liddell was one of several assistants to the president—first in the so-called Office of American Innovation, then as deputy chief of staff for policy coordination. A New Zealander, age 61, he’d been CFO of Microsoft and vice chairman of General Motors. He spoke with a Kiwi accent, called everyone “mate,” and drove a bright red 1960 Corvette convertible that stood out like a Christmas ornament among the limos and SUVs in the West Wing parking lot. But unlike other wealthy members of Trump’s team—Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, and Steve Mnuchin among them—Liddell kept an expressly low profile. His passion was for process: organizing, managing, hitting targets. In 2012, he’d run Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s transition so competently that it became known as “the most beautiful ark that never sailed.” In a West Wing full of acolytes and conspiracy theorists, Liddell was a rarity for a top aide: a rational human being.

Why was he working for Trump? Liddell was a fiscally conservative but socially moderate Republican. He didn’t like Trump’s incendiary rhetoric but thought the presidency would change him. Unfortunately, events showed that to be a fantasy. Liddell was in denial. But, oddly, his blinders allowed him to remain more focused on his task at hand.

The 2020 transition became a sub rosa operation. The president, publicly and privately, raged about a rigged election and threw up roadblocks, but the wheels of the transition kept turning. Ted Kaufman was amazed. “I thought they'd never cooperate with us on anything,” he told me. But Liddell, an obscure staffer who’d only recently become an American citizen, helped make the transfer of power possible, becoming an unlikely leader of a plot to save democracy.

One morning in January 2020, a full year before Biden’s inauguration, Liddell had invited two D.C. insiders to breakfast in the White House Mess: Joshua Bolten, George W. Bush’s former White House chief of staff, and David Marchick, director for the Center for Presidential Transition at the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit devoted to effective transitions.

Liddell told his guests he was planning for a second Trump term. Bolten then asked, “Okay. Now what are your plans if he loses?" Liddell stared at his empty plate. "Well, I guess we've got to figure that out," he replied. Liddell was depressed by the prospect of a defeated but defiant Trump. During 2020, Liddell had considered resigning at several points after the president railed, irrationally, about a “rigged election.” Each time, Bolten and Marchick would talk him off the ledge. They thought of themselves as support therapists—and air traffic controllers. “He would call us and we’d say, ‘Hey, you need to land this plane. You can't quit,’" said Marchick.

By late spring of 2020, Biden and Kaufman were anxious to get started. “We had a plan—a very, very complicated plan, and we had excellent people executing it,” Kaufman said. His first hire was Jeffrey Zients, a managerial wizard who—when Barack Obama’s healthcare website crashed upon its debut in 2013—reconfigured the site and got it up and running. For that, he was known as “Biden’s BFD,” or “Big Fucking Deal”—after the VP’s famous off-mic remark at the signing of the Affordable Care Act. Other key players: Ron Klain, who would become Biden’s chief of staff; Anita Dunn, overall strategist for public relations; Yohannes Abraham, an Obama national security staffer; Cedric Richmond, soon to be director of the White House Office of Public Engagement; and New Mexico governor Lujan Grisham.

The fate of Biden’s agenda would depend on the preparations they made then and there. The war in Afghanistan was but one example. Trump had pledged to withdraw U.S. forces by May 1, 2021. Biden’s incoming national security team would have to prepare a range of options, all problematic, for resolving America’s 20-year quagmire. The most urgent challenge of all was COVID. That April, cases exceeded one million. By July, more than a thousand Americans were dying every day. Biden’s crew needed to help concoct a plan for inoculating a nation, even before vaccines had been invented—and even as Trump was publicly downplaying the severity of the crisis.

Chris Liddell became a lifeline for the Biden team, their secret weapon. Except when he had to be there, Liddell began to avoid the Oval Office—fearing Trump would ask him what he was doing. “It was kind of like the eye of Sauron,” said a senior adviser. “As long as you stayed out of it, you were okay.” The West Wing was now home to a Star Wars bar ensemble that included Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s increasingly erratic and irrational personal lawyer; Sidney Powell, the peddler of an election fraud theory involving software created by a dead Venezuelan dictator; and Mike Lindell, the unhinged MyPillow CEO. Ironically, for Liddell, Trump’s obsession with the fiction of a stolen election was a useful distraction—"because then I could just get on with doing my job.”

A presidential transition is a leap of faith, depending, ultimately, on the good will of people on both sides. “It was incredibly complicated, and it could have stopped on a dime if Trump had just said, ‘Stop,’” recalled Kaufman. “The fact that nobody, not even the sycophants who were around Trump, went to him and told him, ‘Oh, wait, see what they're doing?’ was truly amazing. Incredible.”

Mark Meadows, Trump’s fourth and final chief of staff, functioned less as a gatekeeper than as a glad-handing maître d’. There were few presidential commands, no matter how outlandish, that he wouldn’t carry out. With Biden’s team, the former North Carolina congressman was as genial as a game show host. His phone calls with his successor, Ron Klain, according to Biden insiders, followed a pattern: “Ron! I heard that you guys were having problems with A, B, C,” he’d say. “You know, Mark,” Klain would reply, “we're having problems with A, B, C, D, E, F. I'll tell you what, if you just got ‘A’ done, I’d be super happy.” To which Meadows would say, “Absolutely, positively, no problem.” And then nothing would happen.

Meadows, it would turn out, was among the principal enablers of Trump’s conspiracy to overturn the election. And yet, inexplicably, Meadows gave a wink and a nod to Liddell’s stealth transition. Meadows and his deputy told Trump as little as possible about it. Liddell explained later, “I said to Mark, ‘Let's make sure that we play this by the book, that we make it sound as boring and procedural as possible.’ And Mark said, ‘Okay, you do what you need to do.’”

Discreetly, Liddell reached out to the energetic and conscientious Mary Gibert, the Federal Transition Coordinator of the General Services Administration (GSA). A 40-year veteran, she was responsible for ensuring that the law was followed, whether Trump liked it or not. Together Gibert and Liddell would orchestrate the transfer of power. “Liddell was our conduit to keep everything moving,” she told me, “very quietly, under the radar.”

Liddell couldn’t risk speaking directly to Biden’s camp; word might get back to Trump. “Chris would have been shot,” said Marchick, only half joking. So Liddell communicated through Marchick. Inside the White House, Liddell confided in just a few trusted colleagues: Robert O’Brien, the national security adviser; Matt Pottinger, his deputy; and Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel. Unlike the cultists in Trump’s inner circle, these were people Liddell felt he could talk to, who seemed to care more about doing their jobs professionally than about keeping Trump in power at any cost. Marchick called them “the responsibility caucus.” (All three would later agree to give testimony to the January 6 committee.)

Biden’s team anticipated obstruction, delays in getting personnel in place, and a concerted effort to impede the handover. And much worse. They prepared for “unconventional challenges,” of which there were too many to count. “Just so we didn’t get totally discouraged, we stopped at 70,” said Kaufman. To show how varied those scenarios were, he displayed a few of the headings on the voluminous document they produced:

  • Recession turns into a Depression.
  • Election returns uncertain or delayed. Covid-19 gains traction and limits voting.
  • Increased hardening of political divides, tribalism, hyperpartisanship.
  • Trump blocks Biden transition claiming he won and utilizing a well-funded highly orchestrated campaign against us.
  • Increase in the level and intensity of social protesting and government response.

This last item was the euphemism of the year; “government response” was code for Trump sending troops into the streets, perhaps declaring martial law. Essentially, a coup d’etat. “Is it something we were concerned about and thought about, had plans about?” said Kaufman. “Absolutely…. We had a bunch of smart people sitting around a table night and day, saying, ‘What are the plans?’ One of the key questions was, What's going to happen with Trump and the military?”

In July, when Trump was asked if he’d accept the results of the election, he replied, “I’ll have to see,” then added, “I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election.” A few months later, from the podium in the East Room, Trump declared, “There won't be a transfer; frankly, there'll be a continuation.” Still, Liddell kept the train on the tracks.

By law, the sitting White House chief of staff, Meadows, and the transition chairman, Kaufman, were required to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding.” Fat chance, thought Kaufman. But he sent a draft to the West Wing anyway. “I figured that's never going to happen,” he said. “This is totally against Trump’s interests. He'd kill people if he found out it happened.”

And yet, on September 30, Kaufman’s fax machine suddenly clanked to life and back came the memorandum---signed by Meadows. Trump’s chief of staff almost certainly never told his boss. “I have it here as one of my prized possessions,” Kaufman, who saved the memo, told me. “I never in a million years thought Meadows would sign it.”

November 3, 2020, Election Day, seemed remarkable for its lack of drama. Despite the pandemic—and predictions of outside meddling, chaos at the polls, and confusion over mail-in ballots—voting had been a model of fairness and efficiency. Though the final results weren’t immediately clear, Biden would win decisively: 306 to 232 in the Electoral College, and by a margin of seven million in the popular vote. But Trump, defying his closest advisers, declared himself the winner, and the victim of a grand conspiracy. The real drama was yet to come.

Traditionally, the day after a presidential election, the GSA anoints the apparent winner. The act, known as ascertainment, not only formally acknowledges the victor; it also makes available to the incoming administration office space, funding, access to federal agencies, intelligence briefings, and other vital governing infrastructure. But in a startling break with precedent, the GSA administrator, Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee, refused to ascertain Biden’s victory.

This was no idle act. “Ascertainment is not a ceremonial process,” explained Mary Gibert. “It has potential life and death implications.” The Biden team was furious. Between the election and inauguration, they had just 78 days to ramp up their administration. They’d recruited 500 volunteers to visit every federal agency and report back on who was doing what. Now they were sitting on their hands.

Biden’s contingent had prepared for almost any eventuality. “We had 600 lawyers working long, long hours, producing thousands of pages of memos for all sorts of stuff,” said Bob Bauer, the campaign senior legal adviser. “This was a genuine national security issue: The fact that the president-elect of the United States would be denied access to the tools and the resources for an effective transition was literally, directly, every day, harmful to the country—and in the middle of a public health crisis.” Bauer and his team were prepared to sue Murphy and the GSA. But after a spirited debate, the campaign decided to stand down.

A few days later, Liddell called his confidants Marchick and Bolten. "Remember that dinner we had where we talked about ‘the nightmare scenario’?” Liddell asked. “That's what we have." The nightmare scenario was Trump losing the election, but not by enough to convince him that he’d lost. Marchick explained: “Clearly, Liddell was in meetings in the White House where Trump said, ‘We're going to fight this and we're going to overturn it.’” Marchick feared Liddell was near the end of his rope. “He thought about quitting many times---and we’d say, ‘Hey, you can't quit.’”

Kaufman, Klain, and company were, in effect, designing an airplane in mid-flight. Barred by Trump from access to the agencies, they set up a “shadow agency” process, compiling lists of former officials—and tapped their expertise. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to call the Senate back in session—so they interviewed, vetted, and hired officials who didn’t require confirmation. “This was the Biden transition's innovation,” explained Marchick. “They lined up thousands to go into the government in these non-confirmed positions so they could staff the government on Day One. They did 8,000 interviews in order to place 1,100.”

Finally, on November 23, GSA administrator Murphy declared Biden the winner. But the foot-dragging had been costly. Every day Biden’s team couldn’t access information about Trump’s vaccination program meant delays in getting shots into people’s arms. Every day Biden’s team was denied intelligence briefings meant less time to prepare for potential foreign crises. On January 20 at noon, all CIA covert operations ordered by Trump would immediately belong to Biden. During previous transitions, the major party nominees would receive the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) after their party conventions. Biden and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, didn’t get their first intelligence briefing until November 30.

Meanwhile, Trump, to many observers, appeared intent on staging a coup. He’d replaced the secretary of defense and reportedly installed apparatchiks in high places at the CIA. Some worried that he might start a war with Iran as a pretext to stay in power. In response, Liz Cheney, the Wyoming congresswoman, corralled every living former defense secretary, including her father, Dick Cheney, into signing a letter exhorting the military to follow the Constitution. And General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was preparing emergency contingencies. He suspected Trump might stage a domestic crisis to seize power—a favorite ploy of autocrats who want to stay in office by exploiting voters’ fears. In the event of an illegal presidential order, Milley and other top Pentagon officials reportedly made a secret pact to resign, one after another.

To avoid the appearance of a power grab, Biden’s camp didn’t speak directly with Milley. Instead, they communicated through an intermediary, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I asked Ted Kaufman if the speaker kept the president-elect informed of Milley’s contingency planning. “Oh, sure,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Outwardly, the Biden team projected equanimity. As Klain explained, “Our whole thing was basically a legal strategy to shut this down in the courts—and a political strategy based on the idea that we won, so we were going to act like we won. We played this out a step at a time: to first get the vote confirmed by the media, to build a sense of inevitability around that, to finally get the GSA to certify us.” An adviser to the Biden transition put it this way: “We don't need to send up fighter jets to force Air Force One down. Let's just let Trump throw his fit, pursue his legal theories. It'll all fail and he'll run short of fuel and come down for a landing.”

As far as Chris Liddell knew, January 6, 2021, promised to be a quiet day. Biden’s victory was to be certified by Vice President Mike Pence in a routine count of electoral votes at the U.S. Capitol. Liddell, who was doing his best to stay inconspicuous, could hardly wait. “I woke up in the morning in a good mood, thinking: Finally, we're going to get some resolution,” he said. “The vote's going to happen.” Liddell looked at the president’s schedule and noticed a rally on the Washington Ellipse at noon. But he thought little of it. His focus was on the 14 days between then and the inauguration.

Biden legal adviser Bob Bauer was on edge. The truth was that democracy hung by a thread. Bauer’s team had spent months preparing for this day—and for all the things that could go wrong. Legal scholars agreed that Pence’s role in the certification procedure was purely ceremonial. But that didn’t mean that the vice president couldn’t plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

One option was for Pence to delay the certification. That was the goal of Trump’s lawyer John Eastman, Giuliani, and their co-conspirators. A delayed certification could give states an opportunity to try to replace slates of Biden electors with new ones pledged to Trump. Another option was to declare some Biden slates invalid, thereby denying him the required minimum: 270 votes. This would throw the whole process into the House or Representatives. Under the law, in the House’s election of a president, each state delegation would have one vote. And since Republicans in the 2021 House were the majority party in 26 states, Trump would have almost certainly prevailed.

If Pence tried to do Trump’s extra-legal bidding, Bauer and his team were poised to file for an injunction. The issue would probably wind up in the Supreme Court, now stacked with three Trump-appointed justices. Yet Bauer believed Biden had the upper hand. “If Pence had gone completely rogue, I think we had a very good chance of stopping it,” he told me. “I thought Trump and his legal team, such as it was, would be crazy to imagine that the court would somehow save him in these circumstances.”

Bauer had thought of everything. Except what happened shortly after Trump began addressing his followers at the Ellipse.

Joe Biden was in the library of his house in Wilmington; he and Bruce Reed, his incoming deputy chief of staff, were polishing a speech on small business initiatives scheduled for that afternoon. The television was on, with the sound muted, when they noticed commotion at the Capitol. The MAGA insurrection had begun. Biden looked on as the mob pushed forward, storming the ramparts of the Capitol. “We were watching the riot build,” Reed recalled later, “and it soon became clear that he was going to need to give a different speech.”

Trump, who’d returned to the White House after inciting the crowd at his rally, was conspicuously silent. For Biden, the assault was especially personal and visceral. “To watch an attack on the place he loved and where he spent most of his career was difficult,” said Reed.

Ron Klain was conducting a virtual meeting in his hotel room a few blocks away. He and Biden spoke by phone. First, they postponed Biden’s scheduled event, then canceled it, then told the networks to expect remarks from the president-elect. A call was organized with Mike Donilon, who would become a White House senior adviser, and Jon Meacham, the presidential historian who had pitched in on Biden’s speech at the Democratic National Convention. “We were really sick at heart,” said Klain, “and thinking, what could the president-elect say to the country to try to address this moment?”

The television was on in Chris Liddell’s West Wing office. “And the next thing I knew, I was watching the insurrection,” he said. Liddell was horrified, incredulous: “Oh my God,’ I thought, these images are being beamed around the world.’ And then, ‘My job—which I thought was going to finally get easier—just became ten times harder.’” Heading downstairs, Liddell ran into his colleague Matt Pottinger, who was equally stunned. They looked at each other. “It was like, ‘Holy hell, how are we going to deal with this? What does this mean? Do we stay or do we go?’”

At 2:24 p.m., Trump threw fuel on the fire, sending out a tweet:

Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done, to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify. USA demands the truth!

Reading the tweet, Pottinger decided to resign.

At 4:05 p.m. Joe Biden appeared on television from The Queen, an historic Wilmington theater that had been converted into his campaign media center. The president-elect was calm, measured. “At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented assault, unlike anything we’ve seen in modern times,” he said. “What we’re seeing are a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. This is not dissent. It’s disorder. It’s chaos. It borders on sedition. And it must end now.”

Biden continued, “The words of a president matter, no matter how good or bad that president is. At their best the words of a president can inspire. At their worst, they can incite. Therefore, I call on President Trump to go on national television now to fulfill his oath and defend the Constitution and demand an end to this siege.”

Watching the insurrection unfold on television, Bauer was afraid of what might happen next: What if the mob captured Pence? What if Congress didn’t return that night to complete the certification? It would be the opportunity Trump and his plotters had sought. Anything could happen.

Twelve minutes after Biden’s appearance, Trump finally appeared on television in a minute-long, recorded video from the White House. He looked angry, as though speaking under duress, as he addressed his followers. "I know your pain,” he said. “I know your hurt. We had an election that was stolen from us. It was a landslide election and everyone knows it… But you have to go home now… We love you, you’re very special... I know how you feel. But go home and go home in peace.”

That night, Liddell’s phone lit up. Friends and family were calling from around the world, urging him to resign. Trump had incited a violent insurrection, and Liddell wanted no part of it. He already owned it because he was there, he told himself—but he would doubly own it if he stayed on. Mary Gibert, the GSA Transition Coordinator, was in a state of near panic. “My biggest fear was that Chris Liddell was going to resign,” she said. “I called Dave Marchick and said, ‘Chris is not going to resign, is he? If he goes, everything will come to a screeching halt.’"

Bolten and Marchick got through to Liddell by phone. He was weeping. “And he's not a weepy kind of guy,” Bolten observed. “But he was so outraged and despairing about what had happened.” They appealed to Liddell’s love of his adopted country. “We said, ‘Look, if you leave, there is no sane person there to throw a flag. And so it's really important that you stick it out.’" If Liddell left, who would ensure that command and control were transferred from Trump to Biden at noon on January 20?

At 9:58 pm, Bolten sent Liddell a text message:

I have enormous sympathy for your situation. I still think you should stay if at all possible, mainly because of your important role… How about going to Meadows, perhaps in some combo with O'Brien, Pottinger et al., with these talking points, on which you write a mem-con [memorandum of conversation) for the file.

Bolten suggested that he tell Meadows:

I have disagreed with many things the president has done, above all his behavior since the election to propagate the fiction of a fraudulent election. Even after today's horrifying events, I intend to stay at my station, because I think the work of ensuring a smooth transition is essential to national security. I'm telling you this to reassure you about adequate White House staffing during transition, but also so there's no misimpression that I condone the president's behavior. I continue to urge you to do what you can to persuade the president to accept a peaceful transition of power…

Liddell read Bolten’s message but was unconvinced. He started batting out a letter of resignation.

Early the next morning, in the West Wing, Liddell met with O’Brien and Cipollone. If they had been thinking about resigning the day before, they were all having second thoughts now. As Liddell remembered it, “The group of us basically said, ‘Look, it's even more critical that we stay than it was before. This is going to be tough. Our reputations are at risk if something worse happens. But it's even more important that we stay—and if we go, who the hell will replace us?’”

At 8:18 am Liddell texted Bolten:

I'm going to do what you suggest above. I'm also getting together with Robert O'Brien to try and have a united front...

Liddell relayed his message to Meadows in person. (He decided against writing a mem-con, fearing it would come back to bite him.) He no longer had any illusions about Trump, or the grave threat he represented. “Until that time I thought there would be a lot of noise, but that eventually it would play itself out and we'd just get on with things,” he said. “January 6 changed the world for everyone.” But Liddell would stay and carry out the transition.

On January 8, General Milley spoke with Speaker Pelosi by phone. Once again, Pelosi was acting as liaison to Team Biden. “Milley communicated quite regularly with her,” a senior Biden adviser told me, “and we communicated quite regularly with Speaker Pelosi. She would convey to him that she expected he would only obey lawful orders, and he conveyed to her that he would only obey lawful orders.” The Speaker minced no words about Trump. “Who knows what he might do?” she told the general. “He’s crazy. You know he’s crazy. He’s been crazy for a long time.” Milley assured Pelosi that there were safeguards against a president launching nuclear missiles in a deranged fit of pique; but what those safeguards were was unclear. Later that day, Gen. Milley called together his principal deputies to review the procedures for activating the nuclear arsenal.

Despite their anxieties—and the fears of a nation—Inauguration Day came without further incident.

Looking back, Bob Bauer thought that two random, unforeseen events had helped avert disaster. On December 14, Mitch McConnell had acknowledged that Biden had won the election; that declaration had thrown a wrench into the slow-moving coup attempt. Then, in a phone call in late December, Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s vice president, told Pence that he had no choice but to certify Biden’s election. “For years political pundits have made fun of Dan Quayle,” he said. “But Quayle may have played a significant role in averting a constitutional calamity by helping to dissuade his fellow Hoosier from giving in to Trump.” Pence, in fact, had also received wise counsel from legal advisers who were crystal clear in stating that impeding the certification could violate the 1887 Electoral Count Act.

On the morning of the inauguration, after an awkward farewell ceremony on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews, Air Force One lifted off with Donald Trump aboard, bound for his Florida exile. But Trump’s shadow remained. His presidency had changed everything.

Both the White House and the Capitol were cocooned in a ring of steel. Cement barriers topped with concertina wire surrounded walkways; National Guard troops toting weapons lined Pennsylvania Avenue; the Inaugural parade had been canceled. Biden’s staff parked their cars at staging areas and were ferried to the West Wing under armed guard. With the White House still Ground Zero for COVID infection, many incoming administration members worked from home. Below the Oval Office, in the Situation Room, however, it was all-hands-on-deck, as Biden’s key national security staff were at their posts, alert to the possibility of an armed attack.

Twelve years earlier, at Barack Obama’s Inauguration, intelligence reports had warned of a possible bombing on the Washington mall. That threat had come from Somali terrorists. This one had come from Americans, fanatical followers of a man who’d lost a free and fair presidential election.

At 12:01, Biden’s team would take control of the “football” with the nuclear codes and have authority over the military and National Guard. It was the moment Liddell and Kaufman and their teams had been working to bring about for the previous nine months.

Trump’s presidency was about to end the way it had begun. Four years earlier, at noon on January 20, 2017, Barack Obama’s outgoing White House chief, Denis McDonough, had been at his desk, awaiting the arrival of Trump’s incoming chief Reince Priebus and his staff. An hour went by but no one showed. McDonough finally turned out the lights and left. It was a metaphor for the Trump administration. No one was home.

Now, a similar scene was playing out in reverse. Meadows had invited Klain, Biden’s White House chief of staff, to meet him at his office at 10:00 o’clock. Right on time, Klain came through the West Wing reception room and arrived at the corner office. He tried the door but it was locked. The West Wing was empty, the lights out. Klain heard someone calling his name and went downstairs to the Situation Room. Meadows was on the phone for him, saying he was running late.

A half hour later, Trump’s outgoing chief rushed in, out of breath. But he couldn’t stay; he had to deliver a last-minute commutation to the Department of Justice. By the way, asked Meadows, had Klain been briefed on classified operations? Klain told Meadows yes, he’d been briefed. With that, Trump’s chief departed.

Up at the Capitol, under a blue sky, Ted Kaufman had a prime seat as he watched his best friend take the oath of office as the 46th president of the United States. Kaufman was proud. Against all odds, his team had hit its marks: 12 of 15 cabinet secretaries announced; 1,100 staffers hired; 206 White House staffers in place; a presidential agenda prepared.

David Marchick watched the inauguration on his television from home. He felt relief. Later, he reflected: “There were just all kinds of efforts going on to usurp the will of the American people. It was bad—and in hindsight it was worse than even we knew.”

Mary Gibert was grateful and vindicated: She’d done her job and the transition had succeeded. She knew the ending could have been very different. “It's hard to imagine it could get much nastier or worse than it did,” she insisted. “The country had never faced a situation like this. We could have had the incumbent president being forcibly removed from the White House. Thankfully that didn’t happen.”

Josh Bolten believed the country had come perilously close to disaster. And not just on January 6. The hours before noon on Inauguration Day had been a time of maximum vulnerability. “The entire White House staff turns over,” he said. “So if something happens, even if somebody recognizes they're in charge, they don't know how to pull the levers to do anything. We wouldn’t have survived an episode on January 20 or 21 if Liddell hadn’t stuck around—if he’d not been there to make sure that all the proper stuff, the decision-making apparatus, was turned over.”

At 11:59 am, in the West Wing parking lot, Chris Liddell climbed into his red Corvette convertible. For the first time in months, he was at peace: “We all went through our own version of hell between January 6 and January 20. But I had an unbelievable sense of fulfillment that it was worth it to have stayed. Because we landed the plane safely and nothing bad happened on January 20.”

Liddell pulled up to the Southwest Gate of the White House. He said goodbye to the Secret Service agents. Then he tipped his fedora and roared off down Constitution Avenue.

Ron Klain, now ensconced in his West Wing office, looked around and noticed something odd. Since the days of Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, a big wooden desk had sat just to the left of the entrance. Now it was gone. The office looked like a rec room, not a place where any work could possibly get done.

On his mental to-do list, Klain made a note: Find a desk.

Adapted from The Fight of His Life: Inside Joe Biden’s White House. Copyright © 2023 by Chris Whipple. To be published by Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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