WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is hours away from being sworn in as the 45th President of the United States during a historic transfer of power that encapsulates American democracy even in politically divisive times.
The 70-year-old Republican will take the oath of office on the West Front of the Capitol just before noon, swearing to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution. That moment will mark the culmination of a stunning upset victory in last year’s bitter presidential election.
The real estate tycoon and former reality show star will become head of state, commander in chief and the top executive of the government, shouldering the burden of keeping Americans safe at home and protecting the country’s global power.
The traditions and symbolism of the day — from the President-elect’s participation in a morning worship service to his ride to the Capitol with the outgoing president and the First Couple’s dance at an inaugural ball — will be familiar. But the circumstances of this inauguration — the 58th in the nation’s history — could hardly be more unconventional.
When the presidential primary season began nearly a year ago, few thought Trump could survive the battle for the Republican nomination — much less beat Hillary Clinton to win the presidency. He will be the oldest president sworn in for a first term and the first president with no previous diplomatic, political or military executive experience.
But his populist campaign deeply resonated with Americans who were fed up with Washington’s political class and felt left behind in the globalizing economy. Trump offered a preview of his inaugural message during a celebratory concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial Thursday evening.
“I promise you that I will work so hard, we are going to get it turned around, we are going to bring our jobs back,” Trump said. “We are going to build up our great military, we are going to build it up. We are going to strengthen our borders. We are going to do things that haven’t been done for our country for many, many decades. It’s going to change. I promise you.”
Day of ceremony
Trump will begin a day of ceremony Friday morning by attending a traditional inauguration day service at Saint John’s Church, across Lafayette Square from the White House.
Then the President-elect, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and their families will go to the White House for coffee with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. The Obamas will leave the White House for the last time, accompanying the Trumps to Capitol Hill for the swearing-in ceremony.
Trump will take the oath of office, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, on two Bibles, one that he used as a child and the other used by Abraham Lincoln at his first inauguration.
In what is always a poignant moment, the former president and his family will then head to Andrews Air Force base for a farewell ceremony before taking one last flight on the presidential jet. The Obamas are heading to Palm Springs, California, for a vacation.
Trump will attend a joint congressional inaugural luncheon in the Capitol before heading back to the White House for the inaugural parade. In the evening, Trump and the new first lady, Melania Trump, will attend two inaugural balls, part of the stripped down inaugural festivities that aides say are meant to stress that the new president is eager to get to work.
Ripping up political norms
Trump’s supporters, who sent him to Washington to rip up political norms and thwart the establishment, are thrilled as he assumes power. But millions of Americans are also anxious, owing to the abrasive tone of Trump’s campaign and fears over the consequences of his strongman leadership style.
Trump has vowed to tear up US trade deals that he says disadvantage US workers, confront a rising China and improve estranged relations with Russia, despite allegations that Moscow interfered in the election.
He has set high expectations for his presidency by promising to return jobs to US shores and reviving the manufacturing industry. He has pledged to crush ISIS and introduce tough new vetting on immigrants from countries where there is terrorist activity, raising fears of discrimination against Muslims.
He is promising to build a wall on the southern border, to crack down on undocumented migrants and to gut the financial and environmental regulations that are at the center of the Obama administration’s legacy.
The world will be watching Trump’s inauguration closely because it will usher in a period of uncertainty and instability as he’s shown every sign he plans to be as disruptive to convention on the international stage as at home.
Still, the peaceful transfer of power from Obama to Trump, his longtime political nemesis, represents a moment of unity and stability in a wild political era.
New presidents typically use the inaugural address — viewed by a huge crowd fanned out on the National Mall and millions of television viewers — to issue a call for national unity and ease the wounds of divisive elections. They typically remind Americans of the values and the history that binds them and of the nation’s historic mission.
Trump, so far, has done little to reach out to his foes since November.
“He is still talking as if he is the insurgent candidate rather than the President-elect,” said Robert Rowland, an expert on presidential rhetoric at the University of Kansas. “Historically, presidents who are effective use inaugural addresses to heal the wounds of the campaign, to talk about what it means to be an American, to discuss shared values and lay out their political principles to come across as a strong not vain leader.”
He added: “The question with Trump is, if he did those things, would it go against the personality he has established for himself?”
The inauguration represents an important potential reset moment for Trump, who begins his presidency with the worst approval ratings of any modern president.
Aaron Kall, editor of a new book “I Do Solemnly Swear: Presidential Inaugural Addresses of the Last Forty Years,” said that it is “imperative” for Trump to build some political running room for himself with his address.
“He needs the support of the public and the speech is a great way to get that,” Kall said.
Paying tribute to rivals
After the most polarizing elections, new presidents often take the chance to pay tribute to their defeated rival. In 2001, George W. Bush thanked his vanquished foe Al Gore for a “contest conducted with spirit and ended with grace.” Trump will be closely watched to see if he offers a similar gesture of reconciliation to Clinton, who will be in attendance with her husband, the former president.
Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Thursday that Trump’s inaugural address, which is expected to last around 20 minutes, would come from the heart.
“It’s going to be a very personal and sincere statement about his vision for the country. He will discuss what it means to be an American,” Spicer said, adding that Trump would also address the challenges faced by the middle class. “He’ll talk about infrastructure and education, our manufacturing base. I think it’s going to be less of an agenda and more of a philosophical document. A vision of where he sees the country, the proper role of government, the role of citizens.”
Tom Barrack, Trump’s longtime friend and the chairman of his inaugural committee, said he has watched the incoming president come to terms with the vast responsibilities he is about to shoulder.
“He’s totally ready and he gets it,” Barrack told CNN’s Dana Bash and Jake Tapper. “What we have to do is give him a chance.”