The hiccups and potential catastrophes of Donald Trump’s Inauguration

Rows of chairs stretch across the lawn on the West side of the US Capitol with a view of the National Mall and the Washinghton Monument early on January 15, 2017 in Washington, DC five days ahead of the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump. (EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

Outside Washington, D.C.’s Union Station on Thursday morning, late commuters mingled with visitors to the nation’s capital as private vendors hawked unlicensed Trump merchandise to arriving inauguration attendees.

Business, at least at that hour, was not brisk: Many passersby—arriving off trains from the Northeast Corridor and likely in town for planned anti-Trump protests—stopped for photos with the lone Bernie Sanders supporter outside the station, holding a styrofoam board clustered with buttons from a bygone primary.

By Thursday afternoon, large sections of the station were blocked off and taxis were no longer allowed in, as confused revelers fended off pedicab drivers. Washington is used to coping with the excesses of an inauguration, but this time around there are clear cracks in the facade of organization: on some main streets, graffiti-covered signs directing tourists towards the National Mall and White House pointed in the wrong direction.

An inauguration is always a delicate dance between pleasing well-heeled donors that provided the incoming president the money to win, and the masses who actually provided the votes. Reports indicate that Trump’s inaugural committee may fail to really please either. And inauguration veterans are watching closely.

“It sets the tone for the type of presidency we can expect,” said Steve Kerrigan, the CEO for Barack Obama’s 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC). “And we’ll learn something about the president-elect from how it turns out.”

By all accounts, Trump’s team got off to a rough start. In early December, Tom Barrack, the Los Angeles billionaire Trump tapped to organize Friday’s ceremony, was forced to quell rumors that a number of A-list celebrities were refusing to attend. The team is “hard at work arranging world-class entertainment,” Barrack said. “Speculation otherwise is simply untrue.”   

Early this month, as Celine Dion and Garth Brooks bowed out, Barack had to backtrack. “Instead of trying to surround [Trump] with what people consider A-listers,” he said, “we are going to surround him with the soft sensuality of the place.” 

On Jan. 13, perhaps in an effort make good on that “sensual” affair promise, inauguration staffers descended upon Capitol Hill to cover-up the words “Don’s Jons” printed on hundreds of portable toilets intended for inauguration revelers, while leaving signs for other companies, like Gene’s Johns, untouched. The company protested. CEO Robert Weghorst told the DCist website that Don’s Jons had serviced three prior inaugurations—where the president-elect wasn’t named “Don”—without having to cover up its logo.

Don’s Jon’s portable toilets with the logos covered up outside of Union Station in Washington, D.C. on January 19, 2017. (Ese Olumhense/Tribune Media)

These kind of embarrassing hiccups suggests to some veteran inauguration planners that the Trump team may be overwhelmed.

“As ‘sensual’ as they say it’s going to be—if you’re not well organized, you’re going to be in deep trouble,” said Kerrigan. After Trump told reporters in early December he was entertaining a suggestion from The Apprentice producer Mark Burnett to become the first president to arrive at the inauguration in his own helicopter, Kerrigan started to worry in earnest. “It seems like the planners for the president-elect may not be as diligent as we were,” he said.

Greg Jenkins, the PIC CEO for George W. Bush’s second inaugural, heaped praise on the Trump team’s efforts, but conceded that reports of disputes between Trump and talent were “troubling…if they were true.”  

“I know the ability of the many people running the operation,” he added. “It’ll go off without a hitch.”

The path to every presidential inauguration—which are cobbled together in just two months—is always paved with missteps, predictions of doom, and scandals of varying proportion. Clinton’s 1997 inaugural was bedeviled by rumors of lackluster enthusiasm and low ticket sales. In 2009, the Obama team battled illegal online ticket sales.

And since presidential inaugurations are privately financed affairs, there’s always a healthy dose of pay-for-access accusations, as wealthy corporate donors pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the PIC. George W. Bush faced accusations of pay-for-play after he pushed bankruptcy reform legislation favored by one of his largest PIC donors. After Obama’s second inaugural, an investigation found that more than 30 big-ticket inauguration donors, including healthcare and Silicon Valley executives, landed private meetings with the president’s staff.

But Trump’s team got off to a particularly rough start. In December, after Trump aid Anthony Scaramucci announced Elton John would be singing at the inauguration to demonstrate the president-elect’s “commitment to gay rights,” the singer said he was not interested in the gig. Amid rumors that inauguration planners were struggling to book performers, Hollywood talent agents told The Wrap that members of Trump’s PIC tried to swap cash and “plush diplomatic posts” in exchange for talent. The Trump-team vociferously denied the allegations.

Meanwhile back in DC, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority was unable to reach the Trump team to procure an image of the president-elect to print on the city’s transit cards, a longtime tradition in the leadup to the inauguration. “Metro requested permission to use a photo, but received no response from the campaign,” the city said in a December 21 statement explaining why it printed a generic card, without the president-elect’s face.

And then there are the reports of lackluster enthusiasm among attendees: Trump rallied his supporters on Twitter to set an “all time record” for turnout, but just two days before the event, his camp began taking out ads on Facebook and Twitter urging people to attend. While tickets to the swearing in ceremony are distributed by members of Congress for free, the limited supply typically feeds a robust blackmarket for scalpers. Obama’s inauguration tickets at times fetched five figures online— but this year, scalpers are reportedly struggling to find buyers.

Meanwhile, massive anti-Trump protesters plan to swarm Washington the day of the inauguration. However, a pro-Trump motorcycle club has promised to form “wall of meat,” around the president-elect if things get out of hand. Trump seemed to welcome the potential clash: “Bikers for Trump are on their way,” the president-elect tweeted approvingly on January 17.

Donald J. Trump and first lady-elect of The United States Melania Trump arrive at the “Make America Great Again Welcome Celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial in January 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images)

Amid the swirl of potential missteps, the Trump team reached out for advice. In November, the CEO of Trump’s PIC Sarah Armstrong called Jenkins, who was CEO for George W. Bush’s second inaugural, to pick his brain. Jenkins told her that the lead-up to the inauguration will be heavily scrutinized. “I told them, worry about this: there’s nothing else the media will be talking about about,” he said. “People give a sh-t about the money and the talent — that’s it.”  

Putting on an inauguration is a logistical heavy-lift. A staff of between 400-600, hired literally overnight, must move in tandem with an alphabet soup of existing government entities. And there’s an 8,000 person parade through the heart of Washington to plan, celebrities to babysit, and escape routes to map out.

But for Jenkins, a seasoned advance man and event planner, it’s the financial side of the inauguration that poses the greatest challenges. When he was tapped to run W. Bush’s inaugural, he thought: “I’m suddenly the CEO of basically, a multi-million dollar corporation, with 600 staffers,” he said. “I have to make payroll, and pay health insurance—so the money, and the fundraising, has to be a top priority.”

In addition to cramming what planners say will be 800,000 attendees on the capitol grounds, Trump’s PIC officials also must coordinate small, delicate sit-downs between deep pocketed donors and administration officials. That’s proved challenging: Politico reported on Tuesday that planners double-booked a dinner with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and a separate dinner with incoming cabinet nominees.

One thing Team Trump has excelled at: bringing in the dollars. The PIC reportedly already raised $90 million, almost twice as much as Obama’s second PIC—even though Trump’s inauguration is being billed as a pared-down affair, with far fewer balls and public events than in years past. In 2009, Obama attended 10 separate balls. Trump is set to make an appearance at just three.

But transparency advocates have already dinged Trump’s team for failing to disclose who’s ponying up all the cash. Federal law requires the PIC to release a list of donors within 90 days of the of the swearing-in. Both the George W. Bush and Obama PIC’s released their fundraising data beforehand.

While it seems Trump will keep his donors a secret as long as legally allowed, the names of some big corporation funders have leaked: the fossil fuel giant Chevron donated $500,000, and the Pentagon contractor Boeing wrote a check for $1 million. Both companies could see their bottom line impacted by decisions made in the Trump White House—Boeing’s stock already took a dip in early December after Trump slammed the company on Twitter.

Back in 2005, Jenkins says, the Bush-team was obsessed with avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. They capped corporate contributions to the inauguration at $250,000—which the Obama team was unwilling to repeat in 2013, when $1 million donations were exchanged for close-up seats.

“Bush didn’t want it to look vulgar,” Jenkins said. “But [Trump] just doesn’t seem to be as encumbered by how things look.”