Dec 9, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden may start with 'skeleton staff'

Illustration of the White House with a single lit window.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President-elect Joe Biden will likely start with a "skeleton staff" in the West Wing to keep him healthy after the Trump administration's cavalier approach to the coronavirus, a White House support staffer familiar with the transition plans told Axios.

Why it matters: The incoming president, at 78, is in a high-risk group and already careful to mask up. President Trump and numerous staffers have flouted safety protocols and caught COVID-19, meaning there will have to be some sort of deep cleaning for the White House residence and offices before the new team moves in.

The support staffer said the White House is expected to be a “ghost town” immediately after Biden’s inauguration next month. Many staffers will work remotely or next door in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

  • If tradition holds, Biden would spend at least the night before inauguration at Blair House, the presidential guest house just across Pennsylvania Avenue.
  • Harry Truman lived and worked there from 1948 to 1952 while the White House was being renovated.
  • Biden spokespeople declined to comment, but aides have noted that they worked remotely throughout the campaign and during the transition.

Biden allies know coronavirus numbers are going to be much worse come January.

  • The president-elect has already said he will try to fight back by asking Americans to wear masks for his first 100 days in office and ordering masks be worn in federal buildings, airplanes and buses.
  • When he presented his medical team on Tuesday, Biden also announced his goal to vaccinate 100 million Americans during the same three-month period.

Between the lines: While details are still being formalized, the way the Biden-Harris team has operated thus far offers clues as to what to expect next year.

  • When Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris are together for briefings and events, they remain socially distanced, wear masks, and meet with outside experts and officials virtually.
  • Most transition staffers are not working in-person at their D.C. offices, instead conducting business and meetings remotely.
  • And early inauguration plans suggest the team is organizing a pared-down event. Sources involved in the planning tell Axios Biden plans to forgo the traditional inaugural balls and parades because of the coronavirus, and instead intends to celebrate with close family and advisers.

Flashback: The coronavirus pandemic fundamentally changed the election campaign, forcing Biden to skip many traditional retail events and both candidates to sharply curtail their nominating conventions.

  • Trump defiantly held large events, with his supporters defying mask requirements as a form of political protest.
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