WASHINGTON – A modern presidential tradition is about to return to the White House – at least in part.
President Joe Biden is planning a ceremony at the White House this year to unveil the official portrait of former President Barack Obama, according to people familiar with the discussions. And former President Donald Trump has already begun to join the usual process so that his official portrait can eventually hang next to his predecessors, according to an advisor and others familiar with the discussions.
It is unlikely that Trump would follow the tradition of having his portrait unveiled at an East Room event hosted by his successor, given his false claims that Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election, people familiar with the matter said. However, the White House is expected to hold a formal event – likely in the fall – with Obama and his wife Michelle after coronavirus restrictions were lifted to allow for such a large gathering, these people said.
“You’re practically done,” said a person familiar with the process of the Obamas portraits.
A few hundred guests usually attend the unveiling of presidential portraits in the East Room. The White House is not currently holding events of this magnitude, and the person familiar with the process said it was better to wait at this point because âit would be a shame to do it and only six or seven people to have there â.
A White House official said, “As the Covid restrictions continue to lift and we slowly reopen the White House to social activities, we will continue to address these types of issues.”
A spokesman for Obama declined to comment.
A portrait unveiling event for the Obamas is not on her or Biden’s schedule, people familiar with the process said. And while the White House could be hosting larger events this summer, there should be a date on the calendar when Biden and Obama, as well as their wives and close associates, should gather for the unveiling before the fall.
The moment would come after Obama and Trump broke the decade-long, bipartisan tradition of a first-term president to host an East Room ceremony to unveil his immediate predecessor’s official portrait.
Given the bitter tensions between Obama and Trump, both had no interest in appearing together at an otherwise harmonious event.
Trump also broke a long-standing tradition in January by refusing to attend Biden’s inauguration and instead flying to Florida before his successor was sworn in.
So while Trump goes through the usual process of having his portrait painted, it is not necessarily expected to encompass all aspects of the ritual.
Trump and his wife Melania recently started conversations with the White House Historical Association, which commissioned the portraits of the presidents, about their pictures. This process can take up to four years. The Trumps have also been in talks with the National Portrait Gallery since the November election to sit for portraits that will be part of the museum’s America’s Presidents exhibit.
“We work with both the National Portrait Gallery and the White House Historical Association, and our progress is in line with historical precedents,” said an advisor to the former president.
The next step in the process for both series of portraits is for the Trumps to select the artists who will paint them.
The White House Historical Association secures a contract with the artist, which will remain anonymous until it is revealed, and pays the artist a fee.
Presidential portraits for the National Portrait Gallery are also funded by the museum. They’re usually revealed by a president and first lady at an event at the museum less than two years after leaving the White House. President George W. Bush was out of office for less than a year when he and his wife Laura attended theirs, while the Obamas attended a ceremony at the museum for their portraits 13 months after leaving the White House.
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Meanwhile, a newly acquired portrait of Trump was on display at the Portrait Gallery last month when the museum reopened after closing last year due to the pandemic.
In the White House, the portraits of the two youngest former presidents usually hang on the State Floor near the Grand Foyer, where they are most visible to visitors. Trump’s White House has moved portraits of Bush and Bill Clinton to a less visible location. The Biden White House recently returned them to their traditional place.
Once Obama’s portrait is revealed, it is expected to be hung in this prime location next to Bush’s, while Clinton’s one will be relocated.
Last year, after NBC News reported that portraits of the Obamas would not be revealed while Trump was in office, Biden joked that Obama was another reason to vote for such an event at the White House. And shortly after Biden took office, White House press secretary Jen Psaki suggested that Biden could send the usual invitation not only to Obama but also to Trump.
“I was not given any indication that we were breaking tradition on this,” said Psaki.